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Orioles navigating shorter starts, uncertainty on mound as division race heats up

John Means’s return, Félix Bautista’s injury, and several short outings have led to some uncertainty on the mound and plenty of work for the bullpen.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The Orioles hold the best record in the American League but are still firmly entrenched in a dog fight for a division title. Baltimore will have an opportunity to place some distance between itself and the Rays later this week, but every regular season game carries weight until either team secures the AL East crown.

Both teams know what’s at stake. The Orioles would absolutely love to secure a bye through the wild card round, but the Rays will not go down without a fight.

A sprint to the finish line limits the Orioles from certain liberties like lining up the rotation or auditioning players for certain roles. Baltimore will need to set reasonable expectations for John Means, determine if Tyler Wells can rediscover his mojo, and make a decision with Félix Bautista. Baltimore will need to figure it all out while doing everything it can to win every single night.

With Heston Kjerstad and Jackson Holliday unlikely to debut this year, almost every question rests on the pitcher’s mound. Means began to address one query last night, but his return triggers another one. What type of length can the Orioles expect from their starters the rest of the way?

Orioles pitchers have completed six innings four times this month. Kyle Bradish has worked exactly six innings in five consecutive starts, and Grayson Rodriguez recorded at least 18 outs in four straight appearances before failing to complete the fifth last week.

Dean Kremer completed six innings in three consecutive outings before early exits in his last two appearances. Kyle Gibson, when rolling, has no issue completing six frames.

Jack Flaherty limited Toronto to one run over six innings in his first start with the Orioles, but the righty has yet to complete six innings since that outing. Flaherty lasted only three innings against the Padres on August 15, left after 4.2 innings at Arizona on September 3, and only recorded 10 outs at Boston last week.

The Orioles surrendered three prospects in the deal that brought Flaherty to Baltimore, and the organization is not ready to give up on the rental. Flaherty will start this Friday in a crucial series against the Rays.

Flaherty has allowed three runs or more in each of his last five starts. The Orioles may be pot committed with the free-agent-to-be, but Flaherty does not have a track record with this organization. His four career postseason starts were attractive at the deadline, but they should not guarantee him a spot this year.

The Orioles have utilized a six-man rotation to ease the burden on multiple starters approaching career-highs, and the plan will continue at least through this week. Means will benefit from the extra day of rest, but don’t expect Baltimore to baby the lefty.

Brandon Hyde said before last night’s game that the Orioles need innings after some short outings, and noted that Means is already built up as a starter. Hyde appeared willing to extend the lefty into the sixth inning before eventually opting for Jorge López last night. Means maxed out at 86 pitches during a series of rehab assignments in the minor leagues.

The Orioles’ candid approach with pitchers carried over to an assessment of Wells. Mike Elias said the Orioles would love for Wells “to come back and rejoin the staff.” Elias referred to Wells as one of the team’s better pitchers, but noted that he appeared to “run out of his best stuff very abruptly at the major league level.”

Norfolk’s season continues through the month of September, but there’s no way the Orioles would send him out in the postseason for his return to the major leagues. Wells has not exceeded one inning in his last five appearances for Norfolk, so it’s clear Baltimore would utilize him out of the bullpen if he returns this year.

Bautista would likely require some type of rehab before returning this year. The Orioles revealed that their All Star closer has a partial UCL tear, but stopped short of ruling him out for the remainder of the season. Bautista has played catch at least a few times post injury, but he would need to clear several hurdles before returning to the bullpen.

The return of Bautista or Wells would bolster a bullpen that’s navigating a heavy workload. Yennier Cano, Danny Coulombe and Cionel Pérez have shined of late, and both Shintaro Fujinami and DL Hall feature live arms capable of making a difference.

Means identified a few things to work on during a somewhat encouraging outing, and the Orioles did not hold him to a strict pitch limit. Baltimore would love to see a few longer starts from Kremer and Flaherty. If not, the current bullpen may be forced to carry the load the rest of the way.