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Orioles seemingly find a gem in reinvented right-hander Alec Asher

When the Orioles acquired Alec Asher from the Philadelphia Phillies on March 28, he joined the stockpile of optionable pitchers the team could shuttle between Baltimore and Triple-A Norfolk for spot starts and emergency bullpen depth.

Even though he still has spent less than two months in the organization, he has mostly avoided the back and forth, settling into the team's bullpen as a multifaceted reliever who can start when needed.

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Considering that his late arrival made him a relative unknown, Asher has been one of the team's most pleasant surprises in the season's first two months, especially with the Orioles bullpen being patched together in closer Zach Britton's absence.

The 25-year-old hasn't been a reliever since his first days as a professional five years ago in Short-A ball as a member of the Texas Rangers organization. But Asher knew during spring training that if he was going to make the Phillies' Opening Day roster, it would likely be as a reliever, so he carried that mentality over once he arrived in Sarasota, Fla.

"This is really my first time in the bullpen, so I'm trying to learn how that stuff goes," Asher said. "But it's exciting. I've come to like it a lot more than I thought I would. … It's different. It's a change. Change is always exciting. But you know, the starters always joke with bullpen guys about, you know, being a reliever, being a starter. I just always pictured myself as a starter. It's a little different, but I like it. It's a different adrenaline rush. When that phone rings, and they say, 'Get up and get going,' it's different, just really different."

Asher has adjusted quickly. He enters Friday's series opener at the Houston Astros with a 1.62 ERA in 162/3 relief innings, and he has put up those numbers while pitching in a variety of roles. He has gone from throwing multiple innings in the middle frames to pitching the eighth inning in a tied game to giving the team length in extra innings.

"The thing I like about him is that he's got a little twinkle in his eye, so to speak," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He likes to compete. He ain't scared, and he'll do what it takes to compete most of the time. He works fast, holds runners, fields his position. … He's pretty reliable arm-wise. … He's a guy who bounces back quick. He wants to pitch every day. He's got one of the best deliveries on our team, so he can locate. And he's got some weapons to get right-handed and left-handed hitters out."

Asher has also provided quality starts in each of his two spot starts. Even though his most recent start was May 2, Showalter said Asher is still an option if the team needs to fill a rotation hole. Making that even more interesting is that the club hasn't been concrete about whether struggling right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez will start Sunday against the Astros. Even though Asher threw two scoreless innings Wednesday in relief against the Minnesota Twins, he only threw 24 pitches, so he could be an option for Sunday if the Orioles don't go with Jimenez.

Showalter has made it clear that he's hesitant to move Asher from the bullpen because the righty has worked so well in relief. That isn't a problem for Asher.

"I love starting," Asher said. "I think I'll always love starting. It's what I've done my whole career, my whole life, so yeah, but it happens all the time. John Smoltz went from being a starter to a closer and had a lot of success, so I'm not going to say I don't want to be in the bullpen, because I'm hoping for anything. I just want to help this team win ballgames."

When Asher was first called up after just one start at Norfolk to make a start at the Toronto Blue Jays on April 15, he expected to be sent back down to the minors afterward. And every indication was that he would be, even after holding the Blue Jays to one run on three hits over 61/3 innings. But the club kept Asher, he moved into the bullpen and earned another start 21/2 weeks later in Boston, holding the Red Sox to three runs over six innings.

"They decided to stick with me, which gave me the extra confidence to say, 'OK, I deserve to be here. I can pitch here,'" Asher said. "And since then, I've kind of been taking every outing and trying to build on it. Just the little bit of success you have, you try to keep adding to it and once you start getting a big chunk of success, you start feeling good and good things start to happen. That's hopefully where I'm heading. I know it's a short sample size, but I'm just hoping to continue to have success."

Since his initial call-up in mid-April, Asher has been on the major league roster for all but two days. He was optioned to Norfolk briefly on May 4 to make room for bullpen reinforcements, but returned two days later when Britton was placed on the disabled list.

"It's great," Asher said. "That's ultimately what you want, for your team to believe in you and your manager to believe in you and just give you opportunities and just be able to go out and do your job. I think if that happens, you're set up for success. I'll do whatever they want me to do. I just want to play baseball."

But how does a pitcher who was acquired for nearly nothing — the Orioles agreed to send a player to be named or cash to the Phillies in exchange for him — start to become such a success?

It began last year, when after Asher was beaten up in seven starts with the Phillies in 2015 — to the tune of a 9.31 ERA — he realized he wasn't going to see much success attempting to overpower major league hitters. He took a step back and decided to reinvent himself as a sinkerball pitcher with his focus being to induce weak contact. In five September starts with the Phillies in 2016, he posted a 2.28 ERA and didn't allow more than three earned runs in any of his starts.

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Asher wanted to go into this season with another weapon, so while pitching in Dominican winter ball with Gigantes del Cibao this past offseason, he started throwing a cutter. When Asher relied on his four-seam fastball, his fastballs down and away would have a slight cut to it, so honing the cutter wasn't difficult. Even though Asher said he didn't have a good feel for the pitching during spring training with the Phillies, he found it again after being traded to the Orioles.

Now, adding the cutter to Asher's repertoire allows him to pitch near the zone and work both sides of the plate.

"Just being able to attack guys' weaknesses makes pitching a lot more easier," Asher said. "So when having two pitches that go different ways that look the same, it makes a world of difference. … When you go in and you look at the video and you pull up the scouting reports on guys, and you want to attack them up and in or down and in wherever, it's a lot easier to attack those zones with a fastball that moves, rather than a fastball that's straight. Because if you have that fastball that's straight, it's not any good. It's just having the peace of mind to know you don't have to be perfect with your fastball that moves, just confidence-wise you feel a lot better throwing the pitch."

This season, Asher has relied mostly on the sinker and cutter, throwing each pitch about 30 percent of the time, and with that, he has almost entirely eliminated the slider from his arsenal. It also allowed Asher to get more swings and misses when he takes some velocity off with a changeup or curveball, which has helped him post a career-high 18.6 percent strikeout rate.

The combination isn't eliciting a typical ground-ball rate (31.7 percent) for a pitcher with his pitch breakdown, and he's drawing more hard contact (32.1 percent) than soft contact (20.2 percent). But ultimately Asher is holding hitters to a .231 batting average.

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"You get somebody like the way we acquired him and you keep saying, 'OK, what are we missing here?'" Showalter said. "We've had him [less than two months]. He's been moved around a lot and a lot of times organizations don't get them long enough to get a feel for them. We'll see. He's not 30. He's like 25."

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