Postgame conference with Orioles manager Buck Showalter after the O's beat the Red Sox, 2-0. (Ulysses Muñoz / Baltimore Sun)
You won't hear manager Buck Showalter officially anoint right-hander Brad Brach as the Orioles' interim closer while Zach Britton is on the disabled list. But you also won't find Showalter messing with success.
Brach has continued his commanding start to the season as the Orioles' primary setup man, transitioning to the closer role with the same precision, converting saves on three straight night -- most recently the Orioles' 2-0 win over the Boston Red Sox on Friday — retiring all nine batters he faced in the team's past three games.
After those three scoreless innings, Brach has pitched nine scoreless relief innings this season, allowing just one hit and striking out 12 while walking only three. Just four of the 30 batters he's faced have reached base.
"I'm just going to keep it the way I've been pitching," Brach said before Friday's game. "It's been successful over the last few years. Whether it's the seventh, eighth or ninth, I'm not trying to think about it. I'm just trying to get three outs as quick as possible and I'm just not worrying about the number of innings I'm going out there to pitch."
This is Brach's first extended opportunity to serve as closer at the big league level. His last opportunity to close games came in the minor leagues in 2011, when Brach recorded 34 saves at Double-A and Triple-A levels in the San Diego Padres organization. He came up as a closer throughout the minor leagues, posting 30 or more saves in his first three full professional seasons, including 41 at the High-A level in 2010.
Still, he's never had the opportunity to close at the major league level until now. Brach's ascent to an All-Star setup man is well-known, as he took the opportunity during Darren O'Day's injury-marred 2016 season and ran with it. Before then he was mostly locked into multiple-inning middle relief.
"You don't want to have this opportunity in this kind of situation, but it's nice having some of the chances and to try it out, just because I really enjoyed closing in the minor leagues, just because it was a lot of fun," Brach said. "I had a lot of opportunities in the minor leagues, and I was on teams that won 100 games in the minor leagues. There were a lot of close games and I just kind of thrived in that role and hopefully I can take the experience I've had and transfer it up here."
Closing games in the big leagues and the minors is obviously different, but Orioles manager Buck Showalter said Brach is well-groomed for the opportunity.
"There's a process there, too," Showalter said. "Pitching the eighth inning in the American League East on the road with a one-run lead, I wouldn't underestimate how you get your mettle tested there. But there's another step. That was here in Cincinnati, now hopefully [this weekend] it will be against Boston at Camden Yards. Then it will be on the road with a one-run lead."
After needing Brach to pitch multiple-inning outings last year — his 15 appearances over more than one inning in the first half gave him nearly 50 innings at the All-Star break — but this season all eight of his appearances have been just one inning.
He has thrown more than 16 pitches just once. He's faced more than three batters just twice.
"Getting three outs, it's the same type of thing," Brach said. "Just a little bit different in terms of a pressure standpoint, but besides that it's all trying to keep it as basic as possible to get three outs."
Brach has made closing look basic, retiring all nine batters he faced on 33 pitches. In his first outing as closer Wednesday night, Brach needed just nine pitches to get through the inning. In closing Thursday night's game in the 10th inning, he needed just 10. He closed out the Red Sox on Friday on 14 pitches.
Brach usually pitches off his mid-90s fastball, mixing it with a slider and split-change. In his first two outings as closer, he needed little more than his fastball. Twenty-four of his 33 pitches were four-seamers, and 20 of those pitches were strikes, including six swings and misses.
He was the beneficiary of first-pitch pop-ups on the first batter he faced in both outings. Retiring Adam Duvall on a first-pitch pop-up Wednesday helped Brach get some first-time ninth-inning jitters out of his system. And the following night, he fooled Joey Votto with a changeup, getting him to ground out to first on the first pitch of the inning.
In retiring the Red Sox in order on Friday, he had to work a little harder, inducing two ground outs and a popup. He induced the final out on two pitches, dropping a slider for called strike one and then getting an game-ending ground ball to third baseman Manny Machado.
"I just try not to think about it," Brach said. "I'm not going to lie. The first one the other night, I had a little bit of nerves, but when Duvall popped up that first pitch, it kind of settled me down and made me not think about it. [Thursday] night I felt a lot more comfortable."
Quick outs, exemplary fastball command, pitching ahead in the count and mixing his pitches has been a good combination for Brach. But ultimately, Brach said, he'd just trying to keep the standard that Britton has set going. At the time Britton went on the DL, he had converted 54 straight save opportunities, which is tied for second-most all time.
"Zach has just been so successful in the role, and I think everybody here knows how many he's had in a row, so I don't want to be the one to blow that streak," Brach said. "So I was just going out there and trying to get us the win. That's the biggest thing."