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Orioles get cutesy with bullpen management, lose a late lead to Atlanta, 5-4

Facing a dominant Spencer Strider, the O’s scratched out a 4-3 lead before Bryan Baker and Danny Coulombe coughed up the game. This one falls largely on Brandon Hyde.

Baltimore Orioles v Atlanta Braves
Not this guy again! Former Blue Jay Kevin Pillar launches the game-winning home run off Danny Coulombe in the eighth.
Photo by Todd Kirkland/Getty Images

We knew, facing Atlanta’s pair of aces, Max Fried and Spencer Strider, that runs would be at a premium in this series. So you’ve got to treat any runs you do score like the little pearls that they are.

Which is why, with the Orioles having bravely scratched four runs off Strider and the bullpen and clinging to a 4-3 lead in the eighth, it was maddening and bad and terrible to see Brandon Hyde send out Bryan Baker for a second inning of work after the usually excellent righty looked gravely command-challenged the inning before. Tonight, Baker threw 19 pitches, 9 of which were balls. And he got hit hard, like when he served up a leadoff double in the eighth. Relieving him, Danny Coulombe was even more feckless: he served up a meatball to pinch-hitter Kevin Pillar (flashback to hating him with Toronto), who launched the game-winner, a two-run home run to left.

Like that, the lead was gone, and so was a game that only a gutsy effort by the lineup had made winnable in the first place.

There’s something special about the Spencer Strider fastball. It comes in hot at around 95-97 mph. More than that, it’s elusive, with plenty of spin. And Strider locates it up in the zone perfectly. So you swing for it, but frequently you’ve undercut the ball. Then, having cheated on the fastball, you leave your front hip open, swing through a stupid slider, and have to go sit down.

Time and again on Saturday, the fearsome Quadzilla did this to Orioles hitters—10 times, in fact. Cedric Mullins, who whiffed three times, looked confused all day. Strider was pretty literally unhittable for three innings. Even after allowing a soft Jorge Mateo double in the third inning and balking Mateo over to third with one out, Strider still remained untouched, blowing away the next two batters swinging.

But then, a big momentum shift. Sometimes pitchers roll over and beat themselves—this wasn’t that. Instead, just like M3GAN, the homicidal robot with the killer fashion sense, the O’s learned their enemy’s weaknesses, and adapted. Ryan Mountcastle and Anthony Santander singled and doubled to put runners on second and third with one out. The stadium got deathly silent as Gunnar Henderson dueled with Strider for nine pitches, getting pelted with backfoot sliders and fastballs. Strider finally subdued Henderson with a rare changeup, but it was a huge effort for the rookie, who helped force Strider to throw 37 pitches in the fourth inning alone. Not only that, the next man up, Adam Frazier, poked a fastball into left field, scoring Santander and Mounty. Unthinkably, the Orioles had a 2-1 lead. The O’s deserve heaps of credit for their approach here.

Meanwhile, the fickle Kyle Bradish—who entered this matchup with a 6.14 ERA, having gone up, down, up, then down over his last four starts—was fickle once more, but he deserves credit for keeping this one close.

For two innings—and I say this advisedly—Bradish looked every bit as good as Strider. It’s hard for me to remember seeing Bradish’s stuff looking quite like this, and I watch what is almost certainly too much Orioles baseball. The Bradish fastball, so hittable this season, was a 95-mph slingshot with crazy right-to-left action tonight. The changeup: a little bullet darting down at the last minute. The slider: huge and right-to-left loopy. The curve: sharp, a whiff machine.

If only it could have lasted a little longer. After erasing the first six Braves, in the third Bradish seemed to lose the feel for his slider. He reverted to that combo he sometimes does of “nibble around the zone with the breaking balls, leave the heater over the middle.” So Marcell Ozuna saw eight pitches before putting down the head of the bat on a 3-2 fastball. Boom, 1-0 Braves.

Then, staked with a two-run lead off the Mounty-Tony-Frazier rally, Bradish squandered it immediately, as the Braves tied it up 2-2 in the fourth. A command-challenged Bradish allowed a leadoff single, plunked Sean Murphy, then served up an RBI single to Eddie Rosario. Bradish found his good stuff long enough to whiff Ozzie Albies, then drew a soft tapper from home run author Ozuna. Bradish fired well wide of the bag, but Ramón Urías, in his first game ever at first base, saved his starter’s bacon by spearing the ball and swinging wide to catch Ozuna, all in one motion. Slick!

That wasn’t the only time the D would come to Bradish’s rescue tonight. In the fifth, Bradish coughed up a third run in tough-luck fashion, and it could have been worse. No. 9 hitter Vaughn Grissom cued a double the opposite way, then scored on a soft single up the middle. Could a gassed-looking Bradish get out of the fifth inning? Austin Riley drove a fastball 380 feet to left, but Kyle Stowers bounded back and made a leaping grab at the wall. Fox broadcasterJason Benetti observed, “What a play by Stowers to save the game for Baltimore out there.” “No fear,” agreed his color commentary buddy A.J. Pierzynski. Then Sean Murphy scorched a ball 106-mph, but right at Mateo. Nice work, guys!

The good news: Strider was out after five.

The bad news: Atlanta’s bullpen is really good.

More good news: the Mounty/Taters duo was unstoppable at the plate tonight.

More bad news: the Orioles bullpen sprung leaks where it usually doesn’t, and Hyde’s instincts let him down tonight.

What happened after that was this: King Mounty and Tony Taters singled and doubled to kick off a two-run sixth-inning rally against talented righty Nick Anderson. With the game tied 3-3, the O’s manufactured a run so ugly only a mother could love it, as Henderson reached on an error and Adam Frazier hit a slow roller that just escaped being a double play. I’m lying: a lead is still a lead.

Until, sigh, it isn’t. Bradish was out after five innings with a chance to steal a win. The O’s bullpen had a chance to do great things, but it didn’t go so well.

Cionel Pérez has struggled this season, but he was perfect tonight, retiring all three Braves in the sixth and one in the seventh. After one slider, broadcaster Jason Benetti said, “That was disgusting.”

Well, actually, it was a little nauseating to see Bryan Baker try to pitch the seventh with nothing at all resembling his usual command. After letting the first two batters reach, he magically escaped with a GIDP.

Taking the wrong lesson, Hyde sent Baker out again. “That’s a bold strategy, Cotton,” I thought. And immediately it backfired: Austin Riley smoked a leadoff double off Baker and then Danny Coulombe allowed the go-ahead home run.

I hope you’ll pardon my French, but the manager fucked this one up tonight. Maybe you go to Cionel Pérez in a one-run game. I’m not sure, but it worked so we’ll allow it. It’s OK to go to the reliable Baker next. But with a one-run lead in the eighth, you don’t test your luck by sending him back out on a night he’s so obviously lost the strike zone. The O’s did not get that one more out, and instead the inherited runner turned out to be the winning run.

Fox’s broadcast team speculated that Hyde might have been thinking ahead to tomorrow’s day game, resting key players like Yennier Cano in that situation. Well, lesson learned: don’t count your chickens before they get through nine innings.