As All-Star relievers Brad Brach and Zach Britton peeled off their coats in the bullpen Saturday night for the fourth time in as many games to seal another tight win for the Orioles in a week full of them, the understanding was they wouldn't get the chance to do so again Sunday.
The Orioles' early-season schedule had allowed the team to utilize its top relievers to great effect, jumping out to the majors' only 4-0 start and building a cushion in an already-chaotic American League East. But the repeatedly tight games put an early strain on the bullpen's strongest pieces.
The price paid for that was a crew of capable relievers proving less so in Sunday's 7-3 loss to the New York Yankees. It revealed the fragility of a team that's constructed to mask its starting pitching flaws and might need to do so for a full season.
"It's not like we're running out people today who can't do the job," manager Buck Showalter said. "I feel good after five games that we've gotten everybody kind of into the flow a little bit, and they'll seek their level, which is pretty good, as we go forward."
The perfect homestand entering Sunday was owed to the bullpen. The group tacked 16 1/3 innings of scoreless relief on the back of starts spanning 5 1/3 innings, seven innings, 4 1/3 innings, and 5 2/3 innings. The bullpen earned praise for so quickly regaining the form that made it one of the game's best for years.
But the refrain with the group is often that Showalter knows when to pick his spots. Late in a season, he touts that none of his relievers are among the league's leaders in appearances. Now, a week into the season, Britton and Brach are, and the impact of that showed Sunday.
The cost, after a five innings from starter Wade Miley, was substantial. Showalter privately vowed to stay away from Britton and Brach, who had pitched in all four previous games, plus Oliver Drake, who worked in each of the past two victories.
"But it takes some strong constitution not to use those guys," Showalter said, moments after the Orioles' bullpen finally showed weakness Sunday.
Wilson retired the first two batters he faced, and then allowed Aaron Judge and Austin Romine to single before Ronald Torreyes hit a triple to right-center field to score them both in the sixth inning. Mychal Givens and Wilson combined to get through the seventh, but Judge opened the eighth with a towering home run to tie the game, and O'Day had a painful ninth inning.
O'Day, who walked three batters, wouldn't say he got squeezed; he called some of his balls pitcher's pitches and "borderline" calls that certainly aren't compulsory strike calls for an umpire.
He had plans to use his slider away to right-handed hitters, as he often does, and kept missing outside. Matt Holliday and Chris Carter walked. Starlin Castro singled to put the Yankees ahead, and then after the third walk of the inning, the Yankees piled it on.
O'Day, a former All-Star, couldn't get out of the inning and left with four runs on his ledger. It wasn't the type of week a pitcher who dealt with hamstring and shoulder problems in 2016 would ask for, but he didn't use his recent bout with the flu as an excuse. Showalter brought it up for him.
"He'll work his way through it," Showalter said. "He'll be fine. Just barely missing, and a guy with his approach and repertoire depends on [location] and getting some counts in his favor and expanding the zone. I was talking to some of the guys with the video after, and you all saw it. He was barely missing. Physically, arm-wise, he feels fine, as far as I know, but I think he's still fighting through some of that flu."
For some of the other relievers, Showalter said it wasn't all bad. Wilson, he said, was a pitch away from getting out of the sixth inning a few times. Givens made one mistake with a breaking ball that cost him.
It all goes to show the fine line between the echelon that Britton and Brach have reached and the rest of the bullpen. O'Day has subtly slid from that level, and Givens, who had a 3.13 ERA a season ago, isn't quite there.
That it's early in the season gives the team reason to believe its relief pitcher will all become their best selves before long. As dangerous as some of the short starts have been, Brach said relievers need that early work to push through whatever mental doubts and physical limitations might linger from spring training.
"Coming into the season, I kind of assumed I would pitch four of the first five games," Brach said ahead of Sunday's game. "I figured we were going to be winning and I'd pitch in those games, so I was just prepared for it. I know a lot of guys say it's tougher in the beginning of the season, and after the first outing is when you're the most sore, but after that, I feel like that's when you're the most fresh out there. So it's getting your confidence back and just going out and, like I said, I think it's actually a good strategy to get guys going and get us into a rhythm quick."
As the schedule evens out, situations such as Sunday's might not be so prevalent. Miley said it's a starter's responsibility to know the bullpen's stress level, and he acknowledged he made their problems worse Sunday.
In a perfect world for the Orioles, the scheduled days off will even out, the pitchers who faltered in this particular loss will be back in the form Showalter hopes for them, and the bullpen will remain the cure-all to an unstable pitching staff.
"Those guys are going to be fine," Miley said.