Bullpens guiding Orioles, Royals toward one another

Andrew Miller
(Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

It's a little too early to poke fun at the playoff prognosticators, but the events of the past few days have proven the folly of trying to predict what's going to happen during Major League Baseball's four-tiered postseason.

Think about it. The Orioles just toppled two Cy Young Award winners to move to the threshold of the American League Championship Series and the Wild-Card Kansas City Royals have turned baseball convention on its head to win three straight extra-inning games, the last two to push the winningest team in baseball, the Los Angeles Angels, to the brink of elimination.


Neither team has stretched the limits of imagination to put themselves in such a favorable position in their respective best-of-five series, but you'd have to do a pretty extensive Google search to find anybody who predicted an Orioles-Royals ALCS.

They aren't there yet, but it's pretty easy to find the common denominator that has brought them to this point. Both teams have terrific bullpens and both of those bullpens have come up huge in every Division Series game so far.


In a playoff field that features more heralded rotations and deeper batting orders, great relief pitching has been the great equalizer for both the Orioles and Royals.

"From the bullpen standpoint, you knew that was going to be important,'' said Orioles closer Zach Britton. "In a short series … or even a long series … you're going to have a shorter leash on that starter. If the guy doesn't have it that day, you aren't going to say, 'I hope he can get us through six or seven innings.' You're going to get him out of there as soon as possible."

That's certainly true to a certain extent and that's how it played out for the Orioles on Thursday at Camden Yards. Wei-Yin Chen hit a big speed bump in the fourth inning and the O's bullpen — starting with rookie Kevin Gausman — held a very good Detroit Tigers lineup to just one run over the final 5 1/3 innings to allow the Orioles to rally in the eighth inning and complete a sweep of the first two games in Baltimore.

For the most part, however, the magnified impact of relief pitching in this postseason has, for better or worse, come in the wake of decent performances from the quality pitchers that normally populate playoff rosters. In fact, both the Angels and Tigers got solid outings from their starters in both games, but lost the battle of the bullpens.

In the case of the Tigers, they lost it spectacularly, allowing back-to-back eighth-inning blowups to put them in a three-game sudden-death situation.

Tigers relievers were banged around so badly that the banner headline in Saturday's Detroit Free Press read "Poison 'Pen."

"Doesn't surprise me, especially in the postseason setting that the bullpens become important,'' Tigers manager Brad Ausmus said. "Usually the games are relatively low-scoring or relatively close. So when you have low-scoring games, you get late in the game and that's where it's decided, often, and that's what happened to us yesterday."

The struggles of the Tigers bullpen have forced Ausmus to stick with his starters longer at times, and he would not even speculate yesterday on what his strategy will be with David Price on the mound in Game 3 on Sunday.

Showalter, meanwhile, has so many good options that he has little motivation to push his starters even a hitter too far.

The Royals got terrific performances from starters Jason Vargas and Yordano Ventura and the bullpen backed them up with a total of nine shutout innings in which the the relievers combined to give up just two hits.

There was a time when the Orioles were battling to finish with the best record so they could draw the Wild Card team instead the parade of former Cy Young winners in the Tigers' rotation, but it's starting to look like the Royals were the more problematic matchup all along.

"It's good that we have guys in our 'pen who can come down and halt some good hitters, and the same goes for Kansas City,'' Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said. "Them boys out there, they're ready. They got it. It's a good thing to have a back of the pitching staff as strong as we both have."


Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here," at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog.

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