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Looming returns of Britton, O'Day could come too late to save top-heavy Orioles bullpen

CHICAGO — The day-to-day updates are so promising.

Zach Britton could be mistaken for someone who's ready to pitch now, even if he's not eligible to return from the disabled list after offseason Achilles surgery until next week and won't begin a rehabilitation assignment for another week. Darren O'Day's freak one-week elbow hyperextension is extending into its third week, but he's close to returning, too.

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It was almost prophetic when, before Tuesday night's 3-2 loss to the Chicago White Sox, Showalter both posited a scenario in which he'd have to go to his best pitchers to protect a lead for the second straight night and answered a question about whether there was a psychological impact of Britton's absence by retorting, "Psychological? How about statistical?"

"If we get Darren back and Zach back, and start the bullpen that we envisioned when we had broke camp — usually what happens with that is when you get a couple back, something else is going to be a challenge."

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Those challenges will probably be welcome when considering which ones they'll be replacing.

May 22, 2018 -- The Orioles lose to the White Sox, 3-2. (Denise Sanders, Baltimore Sun video)

Yet with each passing loss, it's becoming less and less clear whether the panacea that's covered over so many cracks for these Orioles in recent years will even have anything left to cure. They've ridden their reliable relievers — Richard Bleier and Miguel Castro all the way through, Mychal Givens and Brad Brach over the last two weeks — as hard as they could.

"We havent' had a lot of late leads," Showalter said. "In a perfect world, we'd be able to go an inning only with these guys so we can use them more, and some of the things about the third time around the order would come into play a lot more if we had more established guys that could pitch those innings."

Nights like Tuesday, when they were forced to go to Givens and Bleier a second straight night to protect another rare lead only to see it done in by a botched catch in the outfield and a few bloops over the infield, highlight that even under the best circumstances the bullpen has been far from blameless. And yet, how can you blame them?

"It's tough, but those guys have been so good for us — especially those two guys in particular, Bleier and Givvy," Kevin Gausman said Tuesday. "It's tough to do that day-in and day-out, and unfortunately, a little hiccup tonight. But those guys will be back out on the mound probably in the next couple of days, and they've been great for us. Ever since Givvy's come up, he's been great, and Bleier was a great addition for us. Those things are more bad luck."

That pair, plus closer Brach, has been involved in many of the team's wins this year. Monday's 3-2 win was the 10th time Bleier and Brach have pitched in an Orioles victory, and the ninth time for Givens. They're saved for games like Tuesday, when Brach would have undoubtedly joined them had a dropped fly ball in right field by Mark Trumbo not set off a three-run eighth inning that took the Orioles' lead away.

But when it doesn't work out, the desperate context of the whole situation is revealed. So many things have gone wrong for the Orioles — more than just a group of young relievers being young relievers — but what happens when the Orioles spend their precious reliable relievers and look elsewhere is part of the reason they're 15-33.

Departed Rule 5 pick Nestor Cortes Jr. gave up a pair of grand slams in close games that ended up with him being sent back to the New York Yankees, and Pedro Araujo, who remains on the roster, has allowed two walk-off home runs in a season that's shown promise even despite that. Mike Wright Jr. has appeared in just eight games in the 38 since he was bumped out of the rotation, and only one was an Orioles win.

There hasn't been the optionable spot or two to keep the late-inning arms fresh this year, but of the three who have been in it, Donnie Hart has both been the most effective but hardly been in it. Jimmy Yacabonis has had two one-day stints, and Tanner Scott has been uneven, albeit with a very high upside.

Showalter was right to say, as he did after Tuesday's loss, that "when we get Darren and Zach back, it should bode well for us."

What's unclear is whether those dates can come soon enough.

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