While right-handed reliever Mychal Givens has converted save opportunities in each of the Orioles’ past three wins — including an eight-pitch ninth inning in Tuesday night’s 6-3 victory over the New York Mets — Givens, suddenly the club’s most experienced reliever, is still in the process of earning the trust of manager Buck Showalter.
The departures of late-inning arms Zach Britton, Brad Brach and Darren O’Day at last month’s nonwaiver trade deadline — and the influx of newly acquired young arms that followed — leaves virtually every bullpen role up for grabs.
Even in the past few weeks, roles have evolved. Givens has pitched everywhere from the seventh inning to the ninth. Right-hander Mike Wright Jr. has earned more high-leverage relief opportunities. Left-hander Paul Fry is beginning to pitch late in games, taking some late-inning opportunities from rookie left-hander Tanner Scott. All in all, the bullpen is still very much in flux.
Givens has long been perceived as the team’s closer in waiting, and his mid-90s fastball along with a mid-80s slider and changeup give him the arsenal to be effective in the role.
Late-inning leads — and the save opportunities that come with them — have been few and far between all season. With the Orioles struggling, Givens’ year has been inconsistent. He’s allowed more runners, as indicated by a career-high 1.407 WHIP, and that’s led to a 4.73 ERA. But a lower hard-contact rate (29.4 percent in 2018 versus 32.0 last year) and a 2.87 Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) indicates he’s also been unlucky converting batted balls into outs.
In Tuesday’s win, Givens took control in what became a chaotic ninth inning. Right-hander Miguel Castro allowed a leadoff triple by Brandon Nimmo and an RBI infield single by Todd Frazier, who landed on second after Castro’s throwing error. Givens entered the game and aggressively pounded the strike zone, striking out Austin Jackson on three pitches, getting a weak popout from José Bautista and inducing a groundout to shortstop to end the inning.
“I wasn’t even thinking of it like it was a closing situation,” Givens said. “Obviously, I knew, but I wasn’t thinking of it with the mindset of it being a closer situation. It’s just the mindset I’ve been doing from the get-go when you get called up to the big leagues. It’s like what Darren said, it doesn’t matter what kind of season you have, but being a bullpen guy is about taking care of limiting damage and being able to take care of inherited runners. So I just went out there knowing that Castro got in trouble, and I was just trying to have that shut-down mentality.”
But those are the kind of ninth-inning outings, when a reliever brings calm to a game, that Showalter wants to see from Givens as he auditions for more closing opportunities.
“That’s part of the equation,” Showalter said. “I also try to keep in mind that he’s sitting there with the right-handed hitters in the bottom of the order. You try to keep everything into play, but what do you want him to do, not do well? I think Mike’s concentration level came in. That job, you can’t assume anything. You can’t coast, not that Mike does. It’s just that that’s a role you have to have a lot of trust in.”
Showalter wants to see consistency. Givens’ outing Tuesday was a sharp contrast to his previous one, when he entered in the eighth inning with a two-run deficit against the Boston Red Sox and retired the side on 15 pitches before running into trouble in the ninth. Givens allowed a leadoff single to Eduardo Núñez on a ground ball up the middle, Núñez stole second base and Givens yielded back-to-back two-out run-scoring hits. Givens has allowed a .407 on-base percentage to the first batter of the inning this season.
“It’s been a rough year for everybody,” Givens said. “It [stinks] because when I look at it, it’s a little seeing-eye single that’s a base hit. You can’t do anything about a bloop single. We haven’t had the best luck this season, and with the trades we’ve had, I think in the second half we’ve actually played really good baseball. I know that we had a rough weekend against the Red Sox, but we gave them a pretty good fight knowing that this is the group of guys we have going forward. There’s a bright future of a lot of guys.”
Those were two very different situations — being counted on for a multiple-inning outing while trailing compared with sealing a three-run lead in the ninth — and while Givens is used to being used in different situations since he joined the Orioles bullpen in 2015, he said it can be a challenge.
“It’s tough when you don’t know what to expect,” Givens said. “When you’re first coming up, you obviously don’t know, but at the same time, there is a benefit of knowing because you can get prepared a little better and get in the right mindset. At the same time, you still are trying to go out there with the mindset of trying to get back in the dugout. I think that’s the most important thing, not letting your offense stand around in the field. Get them back into the dugout, allow them to relax and let them swing the bat.”
But if there’s one thing Givens learned from veterans such as O’Day, Brach and Britton, who each pitched in different roles before finding more defined responsibilities, it’s that getting outs in the ninth inning isn’t more important than in the fifth or sixth.
“Just go out there and keep a mindset, like Darren, Brad, [former Oriole and current Cleveland Indian] Andrew Miller, it doesn’t matter whether you’re a closer of a fifth-inning guy,” Givens said. “You go out there and try to get three outs and then get back into the dugout. You try to limit the damage or try to get ahead of a guy to make him uncomfortable and make him feel like he’s on defense and make pitches.”
Keeping that mentality will help Givens make that adjustment, treating save opportunities calmly and effectively.
“Actually, in a lot of ways, other than the finality and the pressure of it, it’s actually easier to pitch than the innings Mike has been pitching because he knows when he might pitch, if that role continues,” Showalter said. “So there are some good things about it, too. It also pays a little better I think. I don’t think Mike looks at it like that. He doesn’t. I’ve talked to him.
“[Bullpen coach] Alan [Mills] knows him about as well as anybody. He doesn’t march that drummer. He’s like, ‘Whenever you need me to pitch, that’s fine.’ I don’t think he gets too involved in the trappings of the game. But I’ve been impressed with his concentration and the first-pitch intensity that you need in that role.”