Back in April, at the Orioles’ final workout before heading north to New York for Opening Day, manager Brandon Hyde announced his team’s season-opening rotation as Nate Karns as an opener sandwiched between starters Andrew Cashner and Dylan Bundy.
The term “opener," lexicon spread throughout baseball thanks to the Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland Athletics’ practice of using a reliever for a game’s first one or two innings before a pitcher more often used as a starter handles the bulk of a game, had yet to apply to the Orioles’ methods this season. Although Karns was coined an opener, he was instead the first of a series of short-usage pitchers in a tried-and-true bullpen game, a trend that has occasionally repeated throughout the Orioles’ 2019 season.
Before Friday’s series opener with the Seattle Mariners, only once in the five months since that workout had an Orioles “reliever” followed a one-inning pitcher with an outing of at least five innings in a non-blowout. But Baltimore’s 5-3 victory at Camden Yards saw opener Richard Bleier and bulk man Aaron Brooks combine to cover all nine innings, with Brooks following Bleier with seven one-hit frames.
“That was the best we’ve seen Brooksy all year,” Hyde said. “It was three pitches for strikes, really in control the entire time, gave up one hit, one walk in seven innings. Pitched ahead in the count. Got some big strikeouts. Just had a lot of composure tonight.”
The Orioles (50-104) removed Brooks from the rotation after he posted a 7.11 ERA in his 12 starts since they claimed him on waivers from Oakland, but he had yet to make a relief appearance before entering in the third inning Friday and pitching the final seven innings. He retired the last 13 batters he faced and 21 of 24 overall.
Hyde chuckled three times while saying “I don’t know” as he described how Friday’s pitching plan came together and what changed to make Brooks so effective. Bleier getting a start has been discussed “a couple times here the last month or so,” the left-handed reliever said, but the Orioles’ bullpen usage or opponent prevented it from coming together.
That was almost the case with Brooks’ availability, as he warmed in the ninth inning of Wednesday’s game but didn’t pitch. Had he, Hyde admitted Friday’s contest would’ve featured reliever after reliever coming out of the Orioles’ bullpen. Instead, Baltimore was able to test an opener while seeing how Brooks responded to avoiding the first inning.
“This was just something we tried,” Hyde said. “... We just kind of took a flier.
"It worked out really well.”
Making his first major league start after 159 career relief appearances, Bleier got two quick outs in the top of the first before Kyle Seager grounded a single up the middle. Kyle Lewis followed with a two-run home run, making him the fourth major leaguer in history with six home runs in his first 10 career games.
But the Orioles answered immediately against Mariners starter Félix Hernández. Jonathan Villar singled off the right-field wall, and after Trey Mancini walked, Anthony Santander delivered a three-run shot for his 20th home run. Rio Ruiz then doubled to left, advanced to third on a wild pitch and scored on an Austin Hays groundout.
“It really was a great team game,” Bleier said. “I spotted them two before we even hit, and then our guys answered right back.”
After a scoreless second, Bleier gave way to Brooks, who had a 14.25 first-inning ERA since joining Baltimore in July. Although the Mariners (65-89) still struck twice in the opening frame, not pitching in the first led to Brooks’ best performance with Baltimore.
In seven innings, he allowed one run, coming on a fourth-inning groundout that second baseman Hanser Alberto dived to his right to snag before getting the out at first as Lewis came home from third. Alberto got the run back with a solo shot off Hernández in the inning’s bottom half, then started the top of the fifth with a sliding catch on a popup.
A night after robbing a home run, Hays continued his defensive showcase in center field with a diving play for the second out of the ninth. The play kept the tying run out of the batter’s box and allowed Brooks to finish the game on 83 pitches.
“Just coming out of the ’pen a little bit, not knowing when you’re going to go in keeps you on your toes,” Brooks said. “It kind of helped me ease my mind a little bit. I’ve just got to find that happy medium of being able to do that in the rotation, as well.”
With the Orioles eight games from the end of their season and an offseason expected to be full of roster decisions, the 29-year-old Brooks offered a statement in his first outing out of the Orioles’ bullpen.
“I think you see it’s in there," Hyde said. "It’s in there. The way he was able to repeat his delivery, the way he was able to make pitches, the way he was able to throw three pitches for strikes, the way he was still sitting 93 [mph] ... It was great to see.”