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Orioles’ bullpen turning heads in team’s fast start to season

Much maligned last year, relievers have lived up to their names for Baltimore this time around.

Baltimore Orioles v Washington Nationals Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

Whether it’s been taking a series from the Red Sox, sweeping a rival from Tampa Bay, or pummeling a defending champion in their own park, the Orioles have shown some flashes this season that suggest they may not be rolling over as easily this season as many expected.

The start to the season — Baltimore is 7-7 and in third place in the American League East — feels a little like the start to 2012 did, when the Orioles won some games early and, instead of nose-diving as expected, kept winning and ended up in the playoff chase for the first time since 1997.

Comparing this COVID campaign to that Cinderella season eight years ago might be premature, but there is one common thread: The bullpen led that 2012 team. And so far, that’s been the case this year as well.

The Orioles have been a thorn in teams’ sides so far this season, and given the fact that the key to playing such a role is a bullpen that both puts out fires and slams doors shut, it makes sense that Baltimore’s has been hot of late. And it marks a change from recent past.

The Orioles lost 223 games over the last two years, and a key reason was that they had no ability to close out the rare times they were ahead. Baltimore last season ranked dead last in the major leagues with a 5.79 bullpen ERA. Orioles relievers struck out 8.6 batters per nine innings, and compiled a 1.51 WHIP.

This season? Baltimore’s bullpen is pitching to a 3.99 ERA, and the K/9 is up to 9.51 while the WHIP is down to 1.27. The ERA mark is still only good for 16th in the majors and ninth in the American League, but when you remove the six runs in one third of an inning that Cody Carroll contributed before his demotion, that number is down to 3.10. And that’s good for sixth in all of MLB.

The last time the Orioles’ bullpen pitched this well, guys like Darren O’Day and Tommy Hunter and Andrew Miller were building the bridge to folks like Brad Brach and Zack Britton. This isn’t the result of an overhaul, however.

Instead, Baltimore’s relievers are just pitching better, and making better use of the arsenal they have.

Shawn Armstrong, Miguel Castro and Mychal Givens have emerged as the Orioles’ most trustworthy trio out of the ’pen, with a combined 18.1 innings pitched in 17 appearances and two earned runs allowed. They’ve walked five batters and struck out 24. They’re overwhelming hitters, and not putting shooting themselves in the foot with extra baserunners.

The biggest revelation so far has been Castro, who with his touching-triple-digits fastball and sharp breaking pitches always seemed to be on the verge of such a power pitching breakthrough. Wildness always got in the way, however, and he struggled to a 4.66 ERA and 1.418 WHIP last year.

He’s been fantastic this summer, however, striking out 10 and walking only two in 7.1 innings of work and six appearances. A pitcher with his repertoire should be hard to hit, and so far, he has been.

Givens’s performance is noteworthy too, however. He had started his Orioles career brilliantly, with a 2.75 ERA over his first three seasons, and it seemed like Baltimore tried to shoehorn him into the empty closer role. He never appeared comfortable last year, and the stats (2-6, 4.57 ERA, 11 saves in 19 chances) suggested as much.

This year, while it’s only been four appearances, zero have gone in the books as save opportunities. The Orioles are back to using Givens as their best arm out of the bullpen, rather than as a closer exclusively, and he’s looked back at home so far.

Armstrong is at a 2.57 ERA and 0.857 WHIP after putting up totals of 5.13 and 1.546, respectively, last year. Tanner Scott is down to a 2.08 ERA after putting up a 4.78 mark last year and 5.40 ERA the year before that. And the guys who are new to the mix are chipping in as well; former Red Sox Travis Lakins has a 3.38 ERA in six appearances, and former Ray Cole Sulser has three saves and some impressive outings as the team has experimented with him in the closer role.

It hasn’t been perfect. The bullpen seemed to be up to its usual tricks in an 8-6 loss to the Yankees during which Baltimore rallied from a 5-0 hole, only for Sulser to blow the save in the ninth in a span of four batters in 13 pitches. And there are still some questions to answer. Maybe Sulser hangs on to that role. Maybe Hunter Harvey takes over closing when he’s back. Maybe Givens gives it another go.

There’s time to wait and see. The season is only 14 games old.

In those 14 games, however, the Orioles have provided a blueprint for how a stronger-than-expected season might look. The bullpen was Baltimore’s Achilles heel last year. This summer, it’s been anything but.