Orioles bullpen finally getting much-needed reinforcements after surviving stressful August

Friday's roster expansion offered some much-needed relief to an Orioles bullpen that's been outmanned and overtaxed throughout August as the club carried six starting pitchers and two weeks ago added seldom-used Rule 5 draft pick Anthony Santander.

While the two relievers the Orioles added Friday — right-handers Jimmy Yacabonis and Richard Rodriguez — bring just 6 2/3 innings of major league experience, they will help provide length until further reinforcements can join the active roster over the next week.


Still, if the way Orioles manager Buck Showalter maneuvered his bullpen in Friday night's 13-inning 1-0 win over the Toronto Blue Jays is an indication, having additional arms might only reduce the strain on the top relievers only so much until more bullpen options arrive when they become eligible to be recalled in the coming days. Against the Jays on Friday, Brad Brach, Zach Britton and Miguel Castro all were pressed into multiple-inning outings in a scoreless game before Yacabonis pitched the 13th.

Showalter outwardly takes pride in keeping his relievers successful and healthy, but even he said that being limited to a six-man bullpen for a chunk of August was a challenge.


"It may be uncomfortable for the fans or whoever; we're sitting there trying to get [through it] because we're short in the 'pen," Showalter said. "And the same guys can't pitch every day three or four days in a row. It just can't happen. I'm very proud we don't have a league leader in appearances, but it's because we've been able to pass the load around. We're trying to keep Anthony, which we want to do, so going into last night, we knew we were going to add one. But by the time the game was over, he had to add two.

"We do a history or how many times they've been up, and there's a way to keep guys healthy and if you get away from it, you're going to pay the price. But having these two guys here [will help]. We'll probably take two or three more [soon]."

While Showalter boasts about keeping his relievers away from the appearance leaders, his bullpen took on a bigger load last month after the trade for Jeremy Hellickson gave the Orioles six starting pitchers.

"The six-man bullpen is tough," right-hander Darren O'Day said. "It's tough on the guys that are down there. It's just you're kind of walking a tightrope when you have a six-man bullpen. The way the rules are set up, we get some reinforcements that will help us pick up some innings and get some experience and do some learning. It should be a good month."

Though no Orioles reliever entered Friday in the American League's top 10 in appearances, right-hander Mychal Givens was tied for fourth in innings with 67. And after Friday's game, Givens was one of five Orioles relievers to have thrown more than 50 innings this year. The other four are Brad Brach (57 1/3), Castro (53), Richard Bleier (52) and O'Day (51 1/3).

No reliever in the majors logged more innings (36 2/3) from the All-Star break to the end of August than Castro, who has filled a valuable role as a multiple-inning bridge. In August, his 24 innings were most in the majors among relievers, 5 1/3 more than the second-highest total.

Givens and O'Day also pitched more innings in August. They both pitched 14 2/3 innings last month, which was in the top 15 in the AL. O'Day went into Friday having pitched in eight of 13 games, including four appearances in a five-day span from Aug. 18-22. Givens appeared in six of 12 games before Friday, and entered in the sixth inning in each of the last three of those appearances. Five of his last nine outings of August were multiple innings. Neither was available Friday.

"I don't think [call-ups are] going to really affect how certain guys are used, but hopefully in certain situations rather than having to go to a guy like [Givens], who's been extended a lot lately, or Castro, it should ease the burden on those guys," said closer Zach Britton, who said he's been the most protected arm of the bullpen. "They've had to eat some innings for us and they've done a hell of a job, but we've kind of put them in harm's way to an extent. I feel like they can use a breather. Castro, Givey, Darren — four out of six days for Darren. I think those guys especially can use the breather."


Despite the added load, the Orioles bullpen's ERA in August was 2.80, the fifth best in the majors. The Orioles' 3.00 relief ERA since the break entering Friday was the best in the AL and only trailed the juggernaut Los Angeles Dodgers entering Friday.

But how strained was the Orioles bullpen heading into Sept. 1? Right-hander Chris Tillman was asked to skip his between-starts work day Thursday to be available in relief. He was warming late in Thursday's game against the Toronto Blue Jays, but once the Orioles closed to within three runs of the Blue Jays, O'Day pitched the ninth. The previous day, left-hander Wade Miley was available in the Orioles bullpen, but didn't pitch.

"It'd be nice to have somebody to pick up if you have a short start," O'Day said. "It'll be nice to have eight guys in the bullpen and always have somebody who's at our disposal to do that. But the guys in charge think our team is better with a six-man rotation and a four-man bench, so we've had to pitch when we're asked to. There's been some speed bumps, but I think the guys have represented well when the call is made."

Yacabonis and Rodriguez will add other relief options, but they're more likely to eat innings in the middle of games in low-leverage situations, or like Friday, be used in close games when all other options are exhausted. Of course, over time, they could work their way into more close-game situations, and even in a longer role they figure to assume initially, their presence allow the Orioles to get back to the late-inning rotation that made the bullpen successful while also having the option of adding Castro to the high-leverage late-inning mix.

"I think more so than anything, it's for those games with four- or five-run leads; one way or another, it's not necessarily that someone has to throw out there," right-hander Brad Brach said. "It's maybe a new opportunity for somebody else. I'd say the close games probably won't change too much, but it's definitely a bigger relief when you look at the scoreboard and see you have three innings to cover and you're down four or up four or five, somebody else has an opportunity to go out and show what they're going to do."

More help will likely come over the next few days when other relievers fulfill the mandatory 10 days in the minors they must serve before being recalled. Right-hander Alec Asher is available to return Saturday. His last start came Wednesday for Triple-A Norfolk, and it was a short one as he allowed seven runs — including three homers — over 1 2/3 innings.


The Orioles can also recall right-hander Mike Wright on Thursday and left-hander Donnie Hart on Friday. Those three additions would add much more experience and dependability to the bullpen stable. In the past, players optioned to the minors could return when their minor league seasons end, and Norfolk's season ends Monday. But now they must serve 10 days regardless, an adjustment Showalter has coined "The Orioles rule."

"Yeah it's been tough, real tough, especially if you get some short starts," Britton said. "It's a lot to cover, especially when — myself included — you go through a series where you're trying to get back into a groove. And it's not easy to do, especially with games on the line, like we have been in some tight ballgames, which is good. But those are some stressful innings for some guys. I think when we get Donnie and Mike Wright back, it will be good because those guys have experience. You can keep Givens and Castro for late innings in close ballgames against the heart of the lineup."