Coming off the best performance of his promising big league career — and the most dominating outing by an Orioles starting pitcher this season — right-hander Dylan Bundy battled through uncharacteristic struggles with his command Monday afternoon in a 7-4 loss in the opener of a key three-game series against the New York Yankees at Camden Yards.
And while the Orioles' methodology with Bundy as he pitches through his first full season as a big league starter focuses on giving him additional rest and keeping his innings count around 180, he's also been unquestionably the team's top starter in the second half of the season, and he will have to remain effective if the Orioles are to emerge from a crowded playoff picture to earn a postseason berth.
Bundy's outing Wednesday, when he struck out 12 in one-hitting the Seattle Mariners, was spectacular; his performance Monday against another playoff contender was not. He lasted just four innings, pulled two batters into the fifth after Starlin Castro's two-run homer. Bundy allowed five runs on five hits and four walks.
The importance of these late-season head-to-head matchups with fellow contenders is without question. The loss dropped the Orioles (70-68) to 4 1/2 games behind the Yankees (74-63) for the top American League wild-card spot with 25 games remaining in the regular season. The O's trail the Twins by 1½ games for the second wild-card spot after Minnesota lost, 11-4, Monday night at Tampa Bay.
Roster expansion has allowed teams to stock their bullpens — Yankees left-hander Jordan Montgomery went just 4 2/3 innings before three relievers covered the remaining 4 1/3 frames — but the Orioles' relief crew still seemed outmanned. All 10 Orioles relievers have pitched over the past two games, and Bundy's short outing put the bullpen on its heels. The Yankees have 12 relief options.
"You never feel like you need to [go deep]," Bundy said. "You just expect to. It's your goal as a starter to go at least six, seven innings and give your team a chance to win and just keep your team involved in the game."
Bundy went into Monday's midafternoon Labor Day game coming off an August in which he had a 2.00 ERA in five starts, holding opponents to a .177 batting average while compiling a 7.5 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He had gone six or more innings in six of his past seven starts since the All-Star break.
The 24-year-old, whose second-half success has been dictated by effective command and sequencing of his five-pitch mix, struggled with his command throughout.
"I think we all know the ability's there," said Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, whose two-run homer was one of three homers that accounted for all of the team's scoring. "We've all seen it for most of the year and recently with the exception of today. You have to keep in mind that he's still very young and doesn't have a ton of innings under his belt and not a lot as a starter, either. Everybody runs into tough outings, but I know he'll bounce back."
Early on, Bundy overcame his command problems — he was hurt by several close breaking pitches that were called balls by home plate umpire Will Little — but ran up a high pitch count.
"I felt the first couple innings I was getting away with stuff and missing my spots and they were hitting the ball right to people," Bundy said. "That's the type of lineup over there [that] they don't swing at too many pitches that are borderline pitches and they fouled off the good ones. Tough team."
Bundy especially struggled locating his slider and curveball Monday. Just nine of Bundy's 20 sliders (45 percent) and four of his nine curveballs (44.4 percent) were strikes. Without the ability to throw those breaking pitches for strikes, the Yankees could sit on his fastball, as they did in the fifth, when both hits — Chase Headley's single and Castro's homer — came off fastballs before Bundy was chased from the game.
He was staked to a 3-0 lead early on, but he barely survived a 37-pitch fourth inning during which he lost his command suddenly after allowing a two-run homer to Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius to open the inning.
Bundy then walked Aaron Judge on four pitches and then two batters later issued an eight-pitch walk to Todd Frazier after getting ahead 1-2. Bundy fell behind center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury 3-1 before he allowed an RBI single when Ellsbury bounced a full-count changeup through the right side of the infield to drive in the tying run.
That runner was put on base when Bundy walked Judge, one of his four walks and the team's 10 on the day. In five August starts, Bundy walked just six over 36 innings.
"His stuff was crisp," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said when asked whether he believed Bundy was fatigued after his previous start. "He had good stuff. … We're all looking for reasons. He's had some issues like all pitchers do, but he wasn't the only one today. We had trouble commanding the baseball, period."
Bundy was pitching on an extra day of rest — just four of his past 10 starts since July 1 have come on regular rest — and he had done extremely well in two previous second-half starts on five days' rest, compiling a 1.13 ERA with 22 strikeouts and two walks in those two outings.
That included his previous outing, in which Bundy threw a career-high 116 pitches as Showalter allowed him to finish the first complete game of his career.
"I didn't feel fatigued or anything," Bundy said. "I felt like stuff-wise [I] was good. Ball was coming out all right, body felt great. Stuff-wise was fine. It was just really command and location of my pitches today."