O's arms taking 'all-hands-on-deck' approach

April 3rd, 2021

The union formed between the Orioles and Matt Harvey this winter and solidified in Spring Training has the chance to be mutually beneficial. Baltimore’s uncertain rotation picture provided an opportunity for Harvey, after years of injuries and dwindling results, to revive his career. In Harvey, the O’s took a low-cost, high-ceiling flier on a veteran who comes with not just the potential to provide innings, but who could emerge as a potential trade chip later this summer.

It’ll take more than one start to determine whether either of those scenarios come to pass. But both parties took steps toward those goals on Saturday, when Harvey helped the Orioles to their 4-2 win over the Red Sox at Fenway Park in his team debut.

“Overall I think it was a solid first start and I’ll try to build off that next time,” Harvey said. “Anytime you win the first series of the year, it’s big, so we’ve got some good momentum now. To come in here against a good ballclub, you’ve got to play well and our guys came in and pitched great after me.”

Pitching with a lead thanks to Maikel Franco’s two-run single in the fourth, Harvey held Boston to two runs over 4 2/3 innings, striking out four and walking one. Working with a fastball clocking in between 92-94 mph, Harvey was replaced with a lead in the fifth by Adam Plutko, who worked 2 1/3 innings of scoreless relief in his team debut, before Dillon Tate and César Valdez combined to get the final six outs. The Orioles are 2-0.

All told, the result was the O’s second clean, fundamentally sound win in as many 2021 games. And it provided a snapshot of how they plan to navigate so much of the year on the mound, given the increase in innings they’ll be required to cover following the shortened '20 season. The answer? An all-hands-on-deck approach from a bullpen with several length options, but few defined roles.

“I think we’re going to go 162-0 this year, obviously,” Plutko joked postgame. “I don’t think it’s that deep. You get outs. If you string a lot of them together, you’ll be successful. If you don’t, you won’t.”

A right-handed swingman acquired from the Indians during the last week of Spring Training, Plutko is the type of versatile arm key to the Orioles’ strategy. He is one of six converted starters currently in the O’s ‘pen, four of whom profile as potential long-man types or bulk-innings relievers (One of them, Valdez, closed out each of Baltimore's two wins with one-inning saves). Consider them insurance to cover innings on days like Saturday, when Harvey labored and allowed the tying run to reach second base in the fifth.

Enter Plutko: He retired Xander Bogaerts to wiggle out of the jam, then recorded the next six outs to bridge the gap to Tate and Valdez, striking out two and allowing one hit. He is also a candidate to start games down the road, having made 36 starts for Cleveland from 2018-20.

“I am what I am, and I bring what I can to the table and try to help us win as many ballgames as we can,” Plutko said. “I’ll go until skipper takes me out of the game. If that’s seven innings, that’s great. But until he takes the ball from me, I’ll figure out a way to get an out.”

That was easier in the early innings for Harvey, who grew up 100 miles from Fenway Park in Mystic, Conn., and was pitching at the Boston ballpark, in front of a sizeable group of friends and family, for the first time. What kind of pitcher is he at this point in his career, a half-decade removed from his “Dark Knight” days with the Mets and with his sixth different organization since the start of 2018? Harvey provided hints, dialing his four-seam fastball up to 94.8 mph and relying heavily on a newfound sinker, a pitch he hardly threw in his heyday and eschew completely from '19-20.

One start in, he wasn’t dominant. But he was what the Orioles needed him to be, especially if they can count on their arms behind him to handle the rest.

“It’s really satisfying to win close, well-pitched ball games,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Taking advantage of some opportunities, having good at-bats up and down the order, good defense in important times. That’s how you win in this league: Pitching, playing solid defensively and stringing good at-bats together. And for the most part, we’ve done that for a couple days.”