A cerebral pitcher trying to establish himself in the big leagues, Orioles starter Tyler Wilson already knows the difficulty of retiring major league hitters after they've batted against you twice in a game.
What better example than the final at-bat of his most recent start, against Chicago White Sox shortstop Jimmy Rollins?
"First two at-bats, he rolled over sinkers away to second base. The third time — that guy's a former MVP, he's been in the league forever — he reaches out and flips it out to center field for a hit to end my game," Wilson said. ""That just shows you're not going to be able to get guys out the same way every time, no matter how good the pitches are, no matter how good the stuff is, but just be able to learn from at-bats, learn how they react to certain things and learn how to make adjustments within the game."
Wilson was chased from that game mainly because the three weeks he'd spent pitching long relief meant his arm wasn't fully strengthened to starter-level innings. But the anecdote is one that will be important for the Orioles as they work with a short-handed bullpen this week and rely on growth from their young starters, Wilson and Mike Wright.
Those two, considered to just be roster depth at the beginning of spring training, need to develop into pitchers who can get deep into ballgames to save a bullpen that is without closer Zach Britton (sprained ankle) for at least some time. The result will be jumbled and short-handed.
"The third time through the order is what really defines a good starter versus a great starter and that's where you really make your money, as far as saving the bullpen and really getting deep into a game," Wilson said. "That third time through, these hitters are so good up here, they start kind of recognizing things and trends and see what you're all about. You have to really bear down and make good pitches."
The Orioles have some odd splits divvying their first, second and third times through the opposing batting order because of a few poor starts where pitchers struggled early. But their opponent's OPS on the third time through the order is exactly at the league-average, .758.
Opponents, however, have scored 34.8 percent of their runs against Orioles starters on the third time through the order, a sampling that includes 22.6 percent of all plate appearances against them.
Wilson, in his two starts, has faced just five batters a third time and allowed two hits, including the Rollins single. Wright has faced 25 batters a third time and has allowed a .318/.400/.591 batting line in those at-bats.
Last weekend, he was cruising before a sixth-inning home run in Kansas City Royals first baseman Eric Hosmer's third at-bat put the Orioles down by a run. An inning later, he allowed three hits before he was lifted, and was charged with three runs as the game got away from him.
On Friday, he faced the Chicago lineup a third time and allowed four straight White Sox to reach, two on walks and two on singles, loading the bases and plating one run. Only a masterful diving catch and throw home by center fielder Adam Jones secured an improbable inning-ending double play and saved Wright from giving up the lead.
Wright and Wilson are different pitchers — the latter more cerebral, the former more powerful — but Wright also recognizes the importance of those innings. Part of the reason manager Buck Showalter left him in for that inning was because the way to learn how to get hitters out a third time is to simply let a young pitcher try to do it.
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Wright said he's been executing his pitches the last two times he's gotten into trouble when hitters are facing him a third time, and believes that will be the key to success going forward.
"They've seen the [velocity] the whole game, so they've adjusted to that," he said. "But if you've got three pitches, there's no way they can sit on one. They never know what you're going to throw. You've just got to keep them off balance.
"They make good adjustments, but still, first time, third time through the order, they still don't know what you're throwing. You still have three pitches that you can throw at any time. The adjustment is trying to be a step ahead of them, read their body in what they're trying to do, read the situation, and just try to execute pitches."
Wilson said the two have been well-prepared, at least to the extent the minors can prepare someone, in learning how to succeed deep in games in the Orioles' farm system. Between that and watching veterans such as Ubaldo Jimenez and Yovani Gallardo, who thrive the deeper they get into games, there's no shortage of resources for the Orioles' young starters to develop this important aspect of their games.
"It's going to be hard to get guys out the same way three times in a row unless you really have, like, a Chris Sale slider or something like that that's really just kind of a trump card," Wilson said. "So I think that that experience at the lower levels, they really try and push guys to get deeper into the games, to be able to see what that looks like. … The experience part of that, and being able to just recognize trends in a game, recognize what guys are trying to do with you at the plate, that's really invaluable."