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Orioles sinking because of extended cycle of starter-reliever joint struggles

NEW YORK — A bullpen with three All-Stars at the back end can go a long way toward shortening a game. The Orioles have been successful for years because of it.

They're also, regrettably, finding out that ineffective starting pitching and middle relief can lengthen a game. And they're sinking because of it.

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The combustible combination of another short start and the soft underbelly of the Orioles bullpen collaborated for another deflating loss Saturday as the club slipped further behind the pacesetters in the American League East.

The starter this time was rookie Dylan Bundy, who allowed five runs in four innings. The long reliever who couldn't keep the team engaged was T.J. McFarland, on whose watch a 5-4 deficit stretched to 9-4.

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Different faces, but the same result: a lopsided 13-5 loss to the New York Yankees to drop the Orioles to three games out of first place and further cannibalize their pitching staff as the playoff race gets murkier with five weeks remaining in the season.

"From day one, it's a challenging time," manager Buck Showalter said. "What's going on right now doesn't surprise anybody. They've all experienced it."

It certainly has been contagious for the Orioles (70-59) this month. Before the game, Showalter took exception to the constant use of the word "shuffling" surrounding his bullpen moves, all made with an eye toward adding innings to the middle of the bullpen to bridge the gap from the starter to back-end relievers like Brad Brach and Zach Britton.

"I hear that word, 'shuffling,'" Showalter said. "What else are you going to do? … We're trying to win here, right? We're trying to keep people healthy. Our starting pitching gets knocked around a bit, and we have to bring people in. But what are you going to do? I hear people talk about it. I don't quite get the connotation. What are you going to do? Somebody's got to pitch. Somebody's got to play."

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Add a plank here, remove a plank there, try to save your strong planks however you'd like. You still need enough planks to build a bridge, and right now, the Orioles' planks aren't holding up.

It's a self-fulfilling cycle, born of instability in the starting rotation and the constant need to cover for it. This edition began on Aug. 19, when all three of Ubaldo Jimenez, Tyler Wilson and Vance Worley pitched without success after Wade Miley imploded in his second inning that day.

Wilson's roster spot was used to add Odrisamer Despaigne as cover on Aug. 20 for Chris Tillman, whose shoulder discomfort before and after that day's two-inning start indicates he was covering for that himself that day. Despaigne pitched three innings, allowed four runs and was optioned after the game.

That roster spot became Parker Bridwell's. The rookie right-hander pitched twice and was optioned for Logan Ondrusek, who the Orioles tried to coax two innings out of Thursday in his only appearance. He turned a one-run deficit into a four-run deficit, and was designated for assignment the next day.

On Friday, it was Mike Wright who pitched three innings, a night after pitching a clean eighth inning to represent the first back-to-back outings of his career. He followed Vance Worley, the lone constant in this long-relief game who can't be moved off the roster because he's out of options. It was all necessary because Yovani Gallardo didn't make it out of the second inning, and it all meant Wright was the fall guy to make room for an extra outfielder, Julio Borbon, on Saturday.

McFarland could suffer the same fate Sunday, by virtue of his having minor league options and struggling as badly as he did Saturday.

Bundy puts the blame for the latest cycle of starter-reliever joint struggles on himself.

"Anytime you can't get through five or six innings, it's not a quality start," Bundy said. "I didn't give my team a very good chance to win today. That's my fault, and I've got to get better next time."

Said McFarland: "It's frustrating. I tried to come in and do a job there and give length to the bullpen, and I wasn't able to do that. It kind of stresses the rest of the guys down there in the 'pen."

Earlier this week, Showalter defended the use of the long reliever before some of his higher-leverage pitchers who could keep a game close in the middle innings by saying those other relievers could have to pitch anyway if the long man doesn't perform, so it's worth the chance.

Still, it seems the first instinct in times like this is to go with the reliever who can go long and be optioned before anyone else, in the name of protecting the rest of the relievers.

"We keep moving guys in and out so we don't put them in this position," Showalter said. "You really see in August, you get paid back for it physically. … All pitching everywhere is a little worn down some. That's why you see some lopsided games. That's a tough time, August. That's why we try to be so diligent in April, May June, and July, making sure you have your bullets this time of year. We will."

All of the Orioles' top three nonclosing relievers — Mychal Givens, Donnie Hart and Brad Brach — had to pitch behind McFarland anyway Saturday. Showalter wanted to get them innings either way, but they came once the game was already out of reach.

Bundy, who has been in both the relief and starter roles during such stretches this year, knows the burden periods like this put on each aspect of the staff.

"I'm sure it tires them out," Bundy said. "I was in the bullpen the first half. So when the starters aren't going five or six innings, it's tough on the bullpen. I feel for them. We've just got to do a better job, and we plan on it."

twitter.com/JonMeoli

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