Nearly one-fifth of the way through the 2021 season, the Orioles’ pitching staff has quietly grown into one of the better units in the American League. That sentiment may have sounded like silliness two seasons ago, like small-sample magic in the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign. But now, more than a month into play, it is an irrefutable fact.
The most glaring example of that growth is John Means, whose emergence as a legitimate ace atop the rotation remains plain to see. But another, major chunk of it is their largely unknown bullpen, which, night in and night out, continues to keep the pesky, improving-by-the-day Orioles in games. Can they keep it up?
The question came into focus Sunday, when the Orioles dropped their series finale, 7-5, to the A’s, behind a rare blip from their heavily-leaned-on ‘pen.
Tasked with getting at least 10 outs for the fifth time in six games, Baltimore’s ‘pen bent in the seventh and broke in the eighth, when Ramón Laureano’s game-saving catch and subsequent game-winning homer sealed the victory for Oakland.
“That play is going to be No. 1 on ESPN tonight, probably,” O’s outfielder Austin Hays said after the game.
A half-inning after Laureano robbed DJ Stewart of a potential go-ahead hit at the left-center-field wall, his two-run homer accounted for the first earned runs allowed by Travis Lakins Sr. this season.
It also dashed the O’s hopes of returning to .500 with a series sweep, effectively capping a seesaw affair in which they fought back on three Trey Mancini RBIs and another Hays homer, after Bruce Zimmermann (four runs, three earned) labored for four 2/3 innings.
“It’s a learning process ... I never expected it to be a smooth ride the entire time,” said Zimmermann. “Six innings is always the goal, to eat innings and help save the bullpen, especially on these long trips.”
Due in part to a 25-pitch first and three errors behind him, Zimmermann fell short of completing five innings for the third consecutive start. It was the Orioles’ 20th start of five innings or fewer through 28 games, the most in the Majors. Yet they entered play Sunday middle-of-the-road among AL clubs in team ERA, and fifth in staff Wins Above Replacement, despite the 7.09 combined ERA from the bottom three-fifths of their rotation (Zimmermann, Dean Kremer and Jorge López).
The reason is the bullpen, which will arrive in Seattle this week among the AL’s best in innings (5th), ERA (5th), WHIP (5th) and opponent average (4th). It’s a unit headlined by hard-throwing lefty Tanner Scott and changeup sensation César Valdez but getting results across the board, including from the three pitchers summoned in Sunday’s defeat:
RHP Adam Plutko
Key stat: 95.6 percent strand rate
Acquired from the Indians for cash in the final week of Spring Training, Plutko is a swingman the O’s quickly turned into one of manager Brandon Hyde’s go-to leverage-relievers. He’s pitched to a 1.10 ERA over 16 1/3 innings in 11 games, with six of those appearances totaling four outs or more. That ability to provide length has turned him into Hyde’s first option in the middle innings, particularly behind short starts like Zimmermann’s on Sunday. And Plutko has thrived.
Take Sunday, when Plutko wiggled out of a two-on, two-out jam to preserve a 4-4 tie in the fifth. He followed that up with a 1-2-3 sixth, exiting after issuing a leadoff walk in the seventh. By then, the O’s had jumped ahead, and Plutko done his job. He would’ve given up the ball at that point regardless, with A’s lefty slugger Matt Olson representing the go-ahead run at the plate.
LHP Paul Fry
Key stat: 17 K's, 0 HR in 11 IP
That situation forced Hyde to pivot naturally to Fry, who struck out Olson before allowing the tying run to score on an infield single due entirely to factors outside of his control. It was easily the softest of the two runs allowed all season by Fry, and first since his season debut April 5. The left-hander owns a 1.59 ERA this season and 2.02 mark in 35 appearances over the past two seasons.
The reasons are myriad, with Fry’s stuff and strikeouts ticking up in big ways since 2019. But they are all rooted in Fry’s elite ability to keep the baseball in the park, which he’s seemingly always had. Fry allowed just one home run over his first 35 career appearances, and none in his past 18 dating back to last season.
RHP Travis Lakins Sr.
Key stat: 3.12 career ERA
Something of an under-the-radar contributor the past two seasons, Lakins pitched to a 2.81 ERA in 22 appearances in middle relief last season and went unscored upon in 10 this year, until Sunday. Laureano’s opposite-field homer came on a cutter, which Lakins is throwing nearly half the time and opponents are hitting just .190 on since the start of 2020.
More than anything else, that pitch has helped Lakins stand out amid a crowded group of right-handed middle relievers like Shawn Armstrong, Cole Sulser and Dillon Tate, all of whom are throwing well and were unavailable Sunday. And that puts the onus on Hyde to push the right buttons, which he’d done a lot lately until Laureano stole the show Sunday.
“It was not jarring at all,” Hyde said of Sunday’s results. “It’s going to happen. I thought they threw the ball well. I was happy with how we matched up and it just didn’t happen today. Credit goes to them. I am really proud of how our team played this series.