Orioles reliever Brad Brach's return this week to Petco Park, where the 30-year-old right-hander began his major league career pitching three seasons for the San Diego Padres, could be a precursor to another return trip to San Diego next month, to possibly play in his first All-Star Game.
While the Orioles' vaunted bullpen fielded two All-Star relievers last season — closer Zach Britton and setup man Darren O'Day were selected for the 2015 midsummer classic in Cincinnati — Brach is this year's sentimental favorite to represent the club in San Diego as a reward for the best first half of his career.
"It's something I try not to think about," Brach said. "The last couple weeks I've been asked about it and it's one of those things that if it happens, I'll be ready for it. ... It would be awesome. It's where I started my career. So to go back there would be fun. Honestly, I don't know what it would feel like if it happened, but it would be awesome."
Before the 2014 season, Brach joined the Orioles in a largely untouted trade by executive vice president Dan Duquette that sent minor league right-hander Devin Jones to the Padres. It might now be one of the best deals Duquette has made with the Orioles, as Brach worked his way from long reliever to emerging as one of the best middle relievers in the American League this season.
Brach's stats speak volumes. His 1.05 ERA entering Tuesday's game in San Diego was the sixth best among all AL relievers with at least 25 innings. His five wins were tied for second most among AL relievers and his 12 holds were tied for ninth.
Twenty-nine of Brach's first 34 appearances were scoreless, as he has allowed just five earned runs over 42 2/3 innings, the third most innings of any AL reliever. And he has maintained that consistency while working a variety of roles, from multi-inning outings in the middle innings to taking on more setup opportunities with O'Day on the disabled list.
One key statistic to evaluate a middle reliever is how many inherited runners he strands, and despite often entering games at the start of innings Brach stranded 14 of his first 15 inherited runners — a 93.3 percentage that ranked him fourth best in the AL.
Despite all of that, Brach will likely face an uphill climb to make this year's All-Star Game. And one of the main obstacles might be playing on an Orioles team that will have its share of representatives. Third baseman Manny Machado will likely be voted in by fans to start. AL home run leader Mark Trumbo and Britton, who leads the AL in saves, will also likely be picked for the game.
Ten-game winner Chris Tillman also has a good shot, but like Brach, his chances could be hurt by the rule that one player from every team must be selected.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter said that the voting process for managers, coaches and players — which was conducted last week — doesn't emphasize relievers because they are only allowed to pick three.
"How do we only get three relief pitchers on that thing?" Showalter said. "You have seven relief pitchers on your staff, but you only get to vote for three of them. But you can vote for [all] five starters. Right out of the bat they're saying that starting is more important than relievers, or you can make a case for it. But [picking] relievers is tough."
That means Brach might have a better chance getting selected by AL manager Ned Yost of the Kansas City Royals, who picked Britton and O'Day among his seven selections a year ago.
Winning the game bears more significance because the winning team earns home-field advantage in the World Series, a rule that has been in effect since 2003, so managers have to select players who will best help them win. Take into account that last year Yost brought in the left-handed Britton with one out in the sixth inning to face outfielder Bryce Harper, the Washington Nationals' left-handed slugger and eventual National League MVP. Britton struck out Harper and tossed a scoreless two-thirds of an inning.
"You have faith in Ned, too, in the fact that if it comes down to it, he could take a guy like Brad because he understands the importance of a bullpen," Britton said. "He did it last year with selecting Darren and his guy, Kelvin Herrera, too. He understands the importance of those guys. I think [Brach has] as much of a chance as other guys that are throwing well in that role. There's been a couple guys around the league who are throwing well in noncloser roles and I think those guys have just as much opportunity as any closer. … The way Brad is throwing, I think people have recognized it enough hopefully for him to go because, obviously, he's deserving."
Closers are typically selected more often than middle relievers, but Yost has built a championship club with a lockdown bullpen.
"It's tough," Brach said. "I think a lot of people, they're not really realizing how much the game has changed, even since 2014. The bullpen has become such an integral part of the game. You look at Kansas City last year. They have their seventh-, eighth-, ninth-inning guys. They probably have four guys who could make the All-Star team, so it's completely changed.
"I don't think it's necessarily just take the guys who have the most saves because the game has changed so much where it seems like starters are leaving the game in the fifth and sixth innings now, so I think middle-relief guys should probably start getting the honors they deserve."
While a large part of the manager's selections have to do with input from other managers around the league, Britton said Yost told him last season that the player vote played a large role in the selections of the two Orioles relievers.
"I remember [telling him] thank you for selecting me and he said, 'The players selected you,'" Britton said. "He said, 'I just went off of votes,' and obviously it's not that easy because if everybody votes for guys on their own team, it's very hard for there to be separation. So he's got to go off other people, talking to managers, and then looking at the player ballots and you hope they're not just voting for their own team but looking at whoever is doing well around the league.
"And I think the majority of players do, and he just went off the votes. Darren had a lot of votes last year. He was recognized by the players and that's why he was taken. Ned saw it and he knew what Darren had done last year, too. He told me the same thing, he said, 'You got a lot of votes,' so hopefully everybody is watching Brad and recognizes that."
Even if Brach is not selected when All-Star teams are announced July 5, he could be added to the team to replace a player who can't participate, or he could be one of five players selected by Yost and the league office for the Final Vote, which selects each team's final player via fan vote. Only twice in 28 Final Votes has a reliever been selected: Hideki Okajima of the Boston Red Sox in 2007 and Steve Delabar of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2013.
Even Brach himself said he had difficulty making his All-Star selections last week, especially given the fact that he realizes he is just one in a solid crop of middle relievers including Ryan Dull of the Oakland Athletics, who didn't allow an inherited runner to score in his first 39 relief innings, and Luke Hochevar of the Royals, who allowed just one of 23 inherited runners to score entering Tuesday.
"When we do our voting, it's difficult," Brach said. "I know a lot of guys go on the MLB app and maybe they just click on saves and say, 'OK, there's those guys.' But it's changed and I think the players have a good feel for that. I know the pitchers do. We talk about it, like who we're going to vote for and who deserves it. I think the pitchers realize it.
"… But I hope teams start recognizing it, not just for me; there are a lot of other guys who deserve it. There are a lot of really good middle relievers out there this year. We'll see. I don't know what's going to happen there."