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Stingy early, the Orioles’ bullpen has started springing leaks

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Nothing’s been going right for Baltimore lately, least of all the bullpen, which has gone from a strength to a liability in recent games.

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Will Newton/Getty Images

On May 3, the Orioles played the Seattle Mariners and rallied past them for a 5-3 victory. A key for the O’s was starter Dean Kremer, who pitched six strong innings, but it was also the bullpen, which saw Cole Sulser, Tanner Scott and Cesar Valdez come in and pick up key outs to allow Baltimore’s five-run eighth to stand up for the win.

The next day, the Orioles were tied 1-1 before giving the game away with a four-run eighth. This time, that bullpen buckled.

Was it a turning point? Probably not. But before and after that point, be it due to shaken psyches or nothing more than coincidence, the fortunes of Baltimore’s ‘pen have been night and day.

After that May 3 game, the Orioles were 14-15 and playing more like a spirited underdog than a down-and-out cellar dweller. Since then, they’ve gone 3-15. Everything’s been going wrong, but the most startling change has come in the bullpen, which at one point was looking like maybe one of the best in baseball, and definitely the team’s strength.

On May 3, the Orioles’ top seven bullpen arms — Adam Plutko, Travis Lakins, Tanner Scott, Dillon Tate, Paul Fry, Cole Sulser and Cesar Valdez — had pitched a total of 83.1 innings, and compiled a 1.73 total ERA. Only one of the three, Tate at 3.09, had an ERA above 3. Manager Brandon Hyde had someone for every situation. Plutko was the reliable bridge to the late relief guys. Fry could wiggle out of jams. Scott could be unhittable in the set-up role. Valdez was an unremarkable, but reliable, closer. Getting leads was the tough part. Not holding them.

Since then, the group has pitched like they asked Shawn Armstrong for some pointers. That same seven has pitched 40.1 innings from May 4 on, and combined for a 7.59 ERA. And that’s just going into Monday. Those numbers will be worse after the bullpen’s latest implosion in an 8-3 loss to Minnesota (the unraveling actually took place as I was writing this).

The slump has sucked in everyone. Fry had allowed two runs in 11.1 innings on May 3 (a 1.59 ERA), and has given up three in 6.2 (4.05) since. Sulser went from a 0.96 ERA through 9.1 innings to a 3.38 ERA through eight. Tate landed on the injured list. And Scott and Valdez, the culprits behind Monday’s debacle, had a 2.19 and 1.32 ERA through 12.1 and 13.2 innings, respectively. Since that May day, Scott is at a 7.50 ERA over six innings, and Valdez is at an 11.57 mark over 4.2.

The two steepest declines, however, belonged to Lakins, one of the team’s best additions a year ago, and Plutko, who was looking like another great find at the start of this season after pitching for Cleveland. Lakins had allowed two earned runs in 8.2 innings on May 3. He’s allowed 10 in six innings since, and is currently in Norfolk trying to figure things out. Plutko had allowed two earned runs in 16.1 innings. Since? Make it 11 earned runs, and four home runs, in 8.1 frames. He’s allowed earned runs in four of his last five appearances, and multiple runs in his last three.

It’s unfair to put all of the blame for these last three weeks on the relievers, given that the Orioles have been struggling in all areas, but when you have a team with as little going for it in the starting rotation as the Orioles do, a systemic failure in the bullpen rips away any chance the team has of being competitive. It’s akin to the Rockies of the 1990s seeing their lineup go cold. It’s a setback from which the team can’t recover.

Case in point, during their current 3-15 stretch, the Orioles have often been overwhelmed out of the gate. But they’ve also had eight games in which they held the lead either when their starter departed, or took it afterward. They’re 2-6 in those games, including 0-3 in their last three. Make that 6-2 instead, and the O’s are 7-11 in their last 18 games and this is a team playing predictably mediocre baseball, rather than a team currently with the worst record in the major leagues.

If you’re looking for a bright side, it’s that some of these pitchers are good bets to bounce back. With a little more command, given his pitch arsenal, Scott should be fine. Fry has proven himself to be a reliable option. There’s help on the way, too, now that Hunter Harvey has started pitching in the minors after his spring training injury.

Hyde can’t assume it’s all just a speed bump, though. Perhaps the word is out on Valdez, and hitters have learned to wait that extra beat on his pitches. Perhaps Sulser is coming back to earth. Perhaps Lakins and Plutko are closer to what they’ve shown of late than what they displayed in April.

The bullpen should still be a strength for this team. But it has some work to do to get back to the level it was working at last month.