NEW YORK — A lot can change in a year, both with one ballclub such as the Orioles and in the game itself.
So, when Alex Cobb wasn’t ready to start early in the 2018 season, before the "opener" craze became smart baseball strategy, Mike Wright took a spot start and nearly imploded on the mound at Yankee Stadium.
A year later, with the Orioles forced to adjust their rotation on account of Cobb yet again, they instead deployed the opener strategy and pitched themselves into a position where Wright was required to clean up a ninth-inning mess.
Wright came through for a two-out save Saturday to secure a 5-3 Orioles win over the New York Yankees, giving manager Brandon Hyde his first big league victory.
As the Orioles wrestle with their new place as a progressive baseball team focused on the future, with ideas like the opener thrust upon their unproven major league roster, it’s fitting that Hyde’s first win came amid all that.
"Nice and easy," Hyde said, shortly after a group of players and coaches tossed the brawny former catcher into a laundry cart, rolled him into the shower of the visiting clubhouse at Yankee Stadium and soaked him in beer to celebrate his first win.
It was a win born of circumstances of the Orioles' making, made more complicated than it to be because they went with an opener instead of a traditional starter as they would have done even a year ago.
But it was a win solidified by Hyde's belief that the only way for players to get better is to get a chance in difficult situations. Wright, who could have started the game if the Orioles wanted to go that way, got his first career save by thriving with two strikeouts in the ninth inning.
Hyde got covered in maple syrup by Wright as a reward. It was sweeter for how that moment arrived.
Call it what you want: an old-fashioned bullpen game, or an unqualified emergency the way it was in September for the 2018 Orioles, or what Hyde referred to as the "catchphrase" of the “opener” that's sweeping the game.
The Orioles, as Cobb noted before Saturday’s game, are "in a position to experiment with" a practice that's being adopted for a reason in recent years, by teams with a data-driven bent. But there's some irony in the team's low expectations and unspoken hope for high draft picks being used as a cover for employing a strategy meant to increase the chances of winning.
There are countless strategic reasons, beginning with the simple fact that it's hard to turn over a major league lineup multiple times in the modern game. Deploying this method of covering 27 outs can put pitchers in positions to succeed that a traditional role might not. Against left-handed lineups, starting a right-hander and following with a left-handed pitcher who has starter length can also create matchup advantages.
Yet as the Tampa Bay Rays and the Oakland Athletics rode the strategy to 90-win seasons last year, it took away the chance for their young pitchers to develop as true starters and build up innings in the majors. The Orioles decided to keep all of their young starters in the minors when they needed to adjust the rotation on short notice, and had a bullpen game in their second game of the season.
The Orioles planned to use Karns as a starter when they signed him, but instead used him in short stints during spring training after he didn't recover from his first start as well as he'd hoped. That they were in the position to use Karns the way they did Saturday was nominally because Cobb strained his groin and couldn't make his Opening Day start.
The Orioles, however, talked about deploying an opener long before Cobb's groin started to ache during his last spring start.
Cobb, who rejoined the team Saturday after a tune-up start in Sarasota, Fla., said he doesn't think he "had anything to do with the decision to go with it.”
"To have an opener you have to have a well-drawn-out plan of the personnel you’re going to have, moves that you’re going to be able to make over the course of an entire season," Cobb said, noting it will require countless roster moves between Triple-A and the majors for the pitchers involved. "It's something that front offices want to see how it’s going to turn out and what it looks like. But honestly, I don’t even think it’s good for baseball."
It was good Saturday for the Orioles, despite some wobbly moments. Karns' first inning was like the opener concept itself: a bit uncomfortable, yet successful.
He got a first-pitch flyout from Brett Gardner before walking three straight batters to load the bases. Pitching coach Doug Brocail visited to remind him to throw home on a comebacker, which Karns momentarily forgot as he turned toward second base when Miguel Andújar chopped the ball his way. He needed no reminder that the Orioles had a lot riding on him at least getting out of the first inning.
"Every time I go out there, I want to be able to walk off the mound on my terms, getting that third out, having a good inning," Karns said. "I found myself in that position, and you've got to keep going out there. You can't leave your team hanging out."
Both Karns and Jimmy Yacabonis battled their command. But by the time Yacabonis got into his third inning with the Orioles down 1-0 in the fifth, the hard part began for Hyde.
"I had a bunch of different scenarios, whether it was tight, we were down a bunch, we were up a bunch, all kinds of things," Hyde said. "But we were navigating from Yacabonis' third inning."
Miguel Castro was coming in for the sixth inning anyway. But when he looked shaky early after the Orioles gave him a 2-1 lead, Hyde got top reliever Mychal Givens up and throwing quickly.
"I didn't want to lose the game there, honestly," Hyde said. "Castro gave up the hit, the infield single, then he went [3-0] to the next guy. I just ... didn't want Castro to go out there and struggle, so I got Mike up and Castro did a great job of coming back after that. He got better as he went along. I think he threw 40ish pitches, and his last 20 were better than his first 20. Hats off to those guys in the pen."
Givens came in and blew the Yankees away with three strikeouts in the eighth inning, and when Jesús Sucre doubled home a pair of runs to make it 5-1 Orioles, Hyde changed course and warmed up left-hander Richard Bleier.
Bleier allowed a home run and a pair of hits before Hyde summoned Wright, who prepared for the season as a starter in spring training but pitched in relief on Opening Day and again Saturday. Seldom has Wright been trusted with such a situation — the game on the line, tying run at the plate at Yankee Stadium.
And if he had before, it hadn't worked out well. He'd spent years on the Norfolk shuttle and once he couldn't ride it anymore, pitched almost exclusively low-leverage situations for last year's Orioles.
All that baggage went out with the old guard. Saturday was evidence that even tight games will require his services, and Wright said it makes everyone more invested in the game.
"You're watching every pitch, you're yelling at the TV in the bullpen and it's exciting to be into the game," Wright said. "Obviously you're always into the game, but pitch to pitch into it, it's a lot more exciting."
Hyde cares little that someone like Wright has been a source of on-field frustration for years in Baltimore. He just wants to change that.
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"I want to show our guys confidence," Hyde said. "This is such a hard game, and there's so much adversity with so many — it's challenging. And to be able to show guys confidence, to put guys in tough spots and kind of let them persevere, that's what it's all about. That's how guys get better, so I'm going to continue to put guys in tough spots to see how they react."