CHICAGO — In they came, first Alex Cobb from the dugout to begin Wednesday's game for the Orioles, then Pedro Araujo, Tanner Scott and Mike Wright Jr. to finish it.
Each represents his own nightmare archetype for the Orioles, both leading up to this season and during it, and each combined to allow the Chicago White Sox, owners of the American League's lowest-scoring offense, to drum them, 11-1.
That the offense scratched across a futile one run on six hits does little to distract from the four-act play that spelled out the Orioles' pitching challenges this decade, and this season especially. Act One: The free agent pitcher stumbling out of the gate. Act Two: The Rule 5 draft pick. Act Three: The promising Norfolk shuttle riders. Act Four: The one they’re afraid will figure it out elsewhere.
The notices are in, and Wednesday, they were not good. Not, at least, while it mattered.
Cobb started well with two strikeouts in a crisp first inning, showing signs that the curveball and changeup — pitches he's believed to be vital to him starting to miss bats — were coming around. He went on to retire the first seven White Sox he faced on 27 pitches, then used seven to walk slumping shortstop Tim Anderson and set his day on the opposite path. After retiring the first seven, 10 of the next 14 reached. A three-run home run by Yoán Moncada put the Orioles down for good by virtue of making the score 3-1, and it was 6-1 when Cobb (1-6) was pulled in the fourth inning.
“He just started elevating some pitches, not getting the ball where he wanted to get it,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “It's very close. It started out really good. Solid. He got that shutout inning, that shutdown inning after we scored one, and thought he was going to be on his way. Then it just got away from him. ... Some breaking balls that he got up, and I thought there was a better outing there to be had for him.”
The man signed to the Orioles' richest free-agent starting pitching contract in club history has a 7.32 ERA through eight starts. Even allowing for his late start to spring training and the catch-up he's had to play since then, his start is conjuring memories of free-agent flops Ubaldo Jiménez and Yovani Gallardo. Showalter has often warned of the pitfalls of signing free-agent pitchers to long-term deals. Cobb, until he turns it around, is showing why.
“It's the worst feeling when you're out on the mound and you go through the checklist of adjustments that you normally make to get the ball to do what you want, and it's still not doing it,” Cobb said. “In the meantime, you're trying to get outs and it's all happening really fast. To go up there the way I felt early on, it was weird.”
Rule 5 pick Araujo took over for Cobb in the fourth and finished that inning on a slick barehanded play by shortstop Manny Machado, but his next inning showed all the inconsistencies that have made the Orioles carrying him this long so painful. He allowed three runs on a pair of walks and two hits in 1 1/3 innings, watching his own ERA rise to 7.03.
The Orioles (15-34) have long used the Rule 5 draft to supplement their own organizational depth, and the long-term returns of a utility infielder in Ryan Flaherty, a swingman in T.J. McFarland and a fourth outfielder in Joey Rickard haven't been overwhelming. This year's crop of Araujo and the long-gone Nestor Cortes Jr. has been even less so. They've combined to allow 23 runs in 29 innings with a 1.72 WHIP in a bullpen that has pitched behind a rotation that has gone, on average, just over five innings per start.
“Pete made some good sequences and got out of that one inning,” Showalter said. “He just can't string it together. It seems like there's just one pitch, one sequence that gets away from him. That's understandable. But he's got a chance to be a good pitcher.”
Yet the Rule 5 picks aren't the only reason the Orioles bullpen is hamstrung without Zach Britton (Achilles) and Darren O'Day (elbow). The Orioles haven't been able to use the up-and-down optionable bullpen spot as liberally as before.
Part of that is how the roster is built, and part of that has to do with Scott's potential and the desire to let him grow at the major league level. Even though he walked the leadoff batter in his second inning of work and gave up José Rondón's first career home run, his fastball averaged 96.7 mph Wednesday and he had nine swinging strikes on 41 pitches.
He's distinguished himself from the other Norfolk shuttle riders even with the two runs allowed in each of his past two outings, but considering the 4 1/3 innings of relief required Wednesday, the fact that he made one mistake and used that many pitches might mean he'll find his way to Norfolk anyway. Showalter didn’t believe there was a move to be made with the quick turnaround before Thursday afternoon’s game, but absent an injury that requires a disabled list move, the promising Scott would be back to Norfolk, where he’s dominated all year.
“Tanner showed the flashes of why everybody is really excited about his future,” Showalter said.
And then there was Wright, who made just his ninth relief appearance since he left the rotation after two starts this season. His archetype is perhaps most daunting of all — the pitcher the Orioles don't want to get away. The problem is they don't seem to want to use him much either.
If Wright, who many rival evaluators still are intrigued by and is out of minor league options, goes elsewhere, the Orioles could see him added to a list of the likes of Jake Arrieta, Zach Davies, Parker Bridwell and countless others who found success once they moved on. So they keep him for situations like this — the last inning in a 10-run game, and the fact that he retired the side in order in the eighth when down 11-1 to make it three scoreless outings in a row was the only solace from a situation that doesn’t seen to be benefiting anyone.
“I thought Mike threw the ball really well,” Showalter said. “That was good to see, especially with two days off and 52 pitches last time out.”