Paul Fry debuted in the majors just 11 weeks ago, yet almost every time Orioles manager Buck Showalter finds himself protecting a rare late lead, the rookie left-hander is trusted to protect it.
Including Thursday’s 5-3 win over the Oakland Athletics, Fry has pitched in seven of the Orioles’ 10 wins since the beginning of August. While he earned that by posting a 1.38 ERA over his first 13 appearances in the majors, he openly acknowledges there’s been some difficulty in those big moments for he and the Orioles.
Fry, 26, struck out Jed Lowrie with two inherited runners on and no outs in the eighth inning Thursday, then let one of those runners score when he issued back-to-back walks before being pulled for closer Mychal Givens. In the win that preceded it Sept. 4 at the Seattle Mariners, Fry pitched a scoreless seventh inning before loading the bases with one out and passing it on to Givens.
Both Fry and Showalter see such situations as the kind of high-stakes moments in a low-stakes season when a rookie who the team has tapped for bigger things can learn the finer points of succeeding at this level. No one in an Orioles uniform has been immune to struggles. These seem like the productive kind, though.
“It’s a process,” Showalter said. “With him, he’s gotten a lot [of chances], and I’m not going to say because we don’t have anybody else. It’s because I think he has a chance to be, initially, a good second left-hander and eventually transition into a [No. 1]. Paul, he’s not scared.”
Said Fry: “I love the experience of it, the rush that you get when you know the team’s ahead and you know you’ve got that opportunity. I do have my struggles. I’m learning in that situation, and it’s tough sometimes, but I think it’s going to be good for me in the long run. It’s grooming me to be that guy.”
Fry, acquired from the Mariners in April 2017 for international signing bonus slots, began this year at Double-A Bowie and had a 3.19 ERA between there and Triple-A Norfolk before he made his major league debut June 29.
Since then, he has been one of the bright spots in the Orioles bullpen, one that has spent all but a few months of the season without injured left-hander Richard Bleier and dealt away the injured Darren O’Day, plus Zach Britton and Brad Brach — all former All-Stars. Fry’s 3.81 ERA in 29 appearances (28 1/3 innings) entering Friday was the lowest on the team among active relievers. He also had a 1.45 WHIP.
He had his most successful stretch in the majors early in the season as the Orioles used him earlier in games, but the team is glad the magnitude of situations his future might call for is sinking in now.
“There’s only four things he’s got to master, and he can do a lot of things for a club,” Showalter said. “He’s got to throw the strike-to-ball breaking ball, he’s got to throw the get-me-over one at will when he’s behind in the count, and he’s got to have a feel for both sides of the plate and not get into that up and away. I was telling him … [Athletics first baseman Matt] Olson was in complete swing mode after the 3-1 pitch that was called. He’s in complete swing mode, and he threw a pitch that was a ball right out of his hand.
“Those are the things that when he gets whatever is causing it — which we have some thoughts. Some of it’s major league anxiety a little bit. You can see it. But this is an athletic, strong [player]. He understands the game other than pitching. You ask him about a hit-and-run play or whatever, he’s a baseball player. That’s why he’s got a chance.”
Fry sees a big difference in when he’s dictating the terms of an at-bat or an inning versus the batter.
“I’ve learned that when I get ahead, I can do more things as a pitcher,” Fry said. “When I fall behind, that’s when I get myself in trouble, where I have to force things and try to pick corners, and that’s not always a good thing for me. When I get ahead, I can be more aggressive and I can put guys away and get the ground ball that I need. That’s the biggest thing for me.”
Showalter wants to see Fry be able to understand those things in the moment and make the necessary adjustments to correct them and prevent night’s like Thursday.
“You like to see how somebody handles his finger on the trigger, so to speak, but do you throw out the fact that he punched out maybe their best all-around hitter in Lowrie?” Showalter said. “We all forget about that, which was maybe the key out of the inning because that actually gave you a chance not to give it all up. It’s very easy to go, ‘You walked this left-hander, you walked the right-hander.’
“What you’d like to see is [him saying], ‘All of a sudden, I’ve got the momentum, I got the strikeout, I’m ready to get these next two guys out.’ That’s why I was talking to him. I said, ‘Do you understand why?’ Really, without beating him up, do you understand why? Because if we don’t understand why, we can’t solve it.”
Even at the back end of the bullpen, those are the Orioles’ circumstances these days — learning on the job, and distinguishing who’s actually improving amid the understandable bumps that come early on a major league road. Fry knows the key to more opportunities like this going forward are showing he’s learned, too.
“It’s definitely something that will give you chills,” Fry said. “I know other teams might not have this much opportunity, so every time you go out there, whether you’re up 10 or you’re up two, you’ve got to go in there and you’ve got to shut guys down. That’s all they’re looking for — throw strikes and get guys out.”