These Orioles haven't won often this season. When they have, Richard Bleier has been in the thick of it.
After Wednesday night's two shutout innings, in which he twice allowed a single only to erase it with a double play for a clean frame, Bleier has held the opponent off the board in seven of the Orioles' 10 wins this season.
It began Opening Day in the 11-inning, walk-off victory over the Minnesota Twins, and hasn't stopped since. In a bullpen that's been without closer Zach Britton (Achilles tendon) all season and now must face a spell without late-innings specialist Darren O'Day (elbow), Bleier is being asked for more than ever — and meeting every challenge.
"Regardless of the situation I'm pitching in, I think that as long as I'm pitching — I've always said that I just want to contribute to the team's success and play a role in the team doing well," Bleier said. "Regardless of what that means, whether it's pitching the ninth inning when we're losing by 20 to save a guy from pitching or pitching late in a close game or a game we're winning, whatever they need me to do, I've been willing to do it and still am."
Said Britton: "Bleier has been like the stabilizer. He's starting to come in and get some big outs. First, it was maybe that we're behind. He's gradually worked his way into [a role] where, there's not a lot of games we've been leading, but he's keeping it close. He's been great. We've needed it. I think it's even more impressive when everyone's pressing and you need a guy to step up, that he did."
According to Baseball Reference's win probability added (WPA) formula, which credits players with their contributions by the team's percent chance of winning on each play they're involved in, Bleier has added more to his team than all but a handful of the game's best relievers.
In his 17 appearances, he has a WPA of 1.601, which ranks third best among relievers behind the Milwaukee Brewers' Jeremy Jeffress and Arizona Diamondbacks' Archie Bradley. The only other Orioles relievers who rate positively in the stat are Mychal Givens (0.584) and Donnie Hart (0.04). The latter has appeared only twice.
Baseball Reference's leverage stats suggest that Bleier has made nine of his 17 appearances in either medium- or high-leverage situations. He's pitched on back-to-back days four times, stranded all nine inherited runners he has taken on, and recorded more than three outs eight times.
He also has a 0.40 ERA, thanks to 19 1/3 scoreless innings since he allowed his only run of the season April 2 in Houston. His career ERA of 1.65 is the lowest of any pitcher in major league history with at least 100 innings pitched.
"I still feel like people don't really know how good he's been for an extended period of time," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "Not just this year. And his confidence, you can see his confidence growing. But he's just been solid.
Said Orioles starter Andrew Cashner: "It's been impressive to watch him pitch. He's got more confidence right now than I think I've ever seen him with."
Some portions of that success are more sustainable than it might have seemed before. Bleier is more confident living in the strike zone because hitters seem to either swing through the ball or make weak contact and bang his sinker into the ground, as evidenced by his 62 percent ground ball rate.
A batting average on balls in play (BABIP) well below the major league average of .300, feared unsustainable last year at .263, is .254 this season. His strikeout rate is still below four per nine innings, but he's also walking batters less often and hasn't allowed a home run.
He just has enough life and deception to be confident just throwing the ball over and letting hitters pound it into the ground.
"I've come to the realization that I don't have the stuff to go out there and punch tickets all night," Bleier said. "I just try and miss barrels and get them out as quickly as possible and throw as few pitches as possible, and get them to put the ball in play. Honestly, it kind of works out in my favor that I don't have swing-and-miss stuff because I don't get a lot swings and misses. I don't get a lot of foul balls. They get out quickly, and I have quick innings when I'm going well, and I get a lot of grounders. The infielders are ready for the ball because I'm throwing strikes and pitching to contact.
"I think that that all plays well now, especially how baseball is played where everybody is just trying to hit home runs. Just make pitches, and as long as you keep it off the barrel, they're going to roll over on the ball."