In their home opener, the Orioles received a solid start from a veteran right-hander, only to watch the lead he left with vanish in the middle innings, while the relievers who followed only added to the deficit.
If that sequence of events sounds familiar, it’s because it happened not only in Thursday’s 7-3 loss to the Boston Red Sox, but also their 2019 home opener. Two years ago, Alex Cobb pitched into the sixth inning with a lead, and the frame ended with the Orioles behind. Matt Harvey went through the same experience Thursday.
The Orioles, like every other team, are facing an unprecedented season, one almost triple the length of the previous one after 2020 was shortened to 60 games because of the coronavirus pandemic. It’s possible that their pitching staff takes a step forward, as it seemed to in Wednesday night’s extra-inning victory against the New York Yankees, but it could also regress to its 2019 form, one in which the Orioles set a major league record for home runs allowed.
Often, that team carried a lead, or at least a small deficit, into the middle of games, but an inexperienced bullpen only occasionally managed to keep such games tight. Thursday, the first four relievers who pitched behind Harvey — Paul Fry, Dillon Tate, Shawn Armstrong and Tyler Wells — either allowed an inherited runner to score or had a run come across on their own accord, as the Orioles went from leading by one to trailing by four.
The first three of those relievers were working for the second straight day after pitching Wednesday, a game in which Baltimore’s bullpen allowed one earned over 6 ⅓ innings. In 2019, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde used relievers on consecutive days the third fewest times of any manager. He described calling on Fry, Tate and Armstrong to go back-to-back as “a tough assignment,” with the team getting into Baltimore late before Thursday’s day game after its long game the night before.
Hyde acknowledged that some of the Orioles’ relievers weren’t available Thursday, a group that likely included key backend pieces Tanner Scott and César Valdez, though it’s likely neither would’ve been the pitcher called upon in the sixth inning.
“I’m asking these guys to get outs against a really good lineup, middle part of the order,” Hyde said. “It was unlucky today. But I believe in those guys.
“It just didn’t happen there for us in the middle innings, but they’ve done a nice job for us up until today.”
To this point, games like Thursday’s have been an aberration; the Orioles entered Thursday with a bullpen ERA of 3.00 in their first six games. But unless others step up, the Orioles are going to have to rely on the same pitchers to cling to leads throughout 2021.
“We still don’t have a ton of experience down there,” Hyde acknowledged after Wednesday’s game.
Harvey, meanwhile, placed the blame on himself for putting two runners on to open what proved to be the decisive inning.
“It’s my job as a starter to keep runners off base, and [I] let them kind of creep back into it, and that’s pretty frustrating,” Harvey said. “That sixth inning, I’ve just got to keep runners off base, and I’m kicking myself for that.”
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In 2019, the Orioles got the eighth fewest innings out of their starting rotation of any team, with some of the teams in front of them frequently using openers. The 2021 team has been improved in the sense, but the backend of their rotation is also a young one that could leave several innings for relievers to cover on a given night.
“It’s baseball,” Harvey said. “Throughout a long season, you’re going to have your ups and downs, starting, relieving, hitting. That’s how things go. Everybody’s working as hard they can to obviously get guys out and put ourselves in a position to win. Sometimes, it goes our way, sometimes it doesn’t. That’s why you play 162 games, and you try and figure it out. They’ve been great all along. It’s our job as starters to go as deep into a game as we can and so those guys can do what they can do and not get worn out.”
Thursday could’ve been the first showing of such wear. It came with 155 games to go.
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