This O's pitcher could be X-factor down the stretch

August 16th, 2023

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SAN DIEGO --  had never recorded a save. Not in 252 appearances for the Hanshin Tigers in Japan or during the first 43 appearances of his 2023 MLB rookie season, which has been split between the A’s and Orioles.

But Baltimore needed Fujinami for a save opportunity in the 10th inning on Sunday in Seattle. There weren’t many other options at the time in the club’s heavily taxed bullpen.

Although Fujinami has electric stuff, his command has been spotty at times since he was traded to the Orioles on July 19. So the 29-year-old Japanese right-hander was either going to record his first save in impressive fashion or things could have quickly spiraled in a different direction.

With an automatic runner at second base and Baltimore holding a two-run lead, Fujinami began the outing by throwing three consecutive balls to Dylan Moore. That sequence prompted a quick visit from catcher James McCann.

“I just reminded him that he’s got nasty stuff. Just fill it up,” McCann said. “I said, ‘These hitters don’t want to face you. You throw strikes, we’re going to get out of this.’”

“He gave me a good breather after three balls in a row,” Fujinami added via interpreter Issei Kamada. “He told me to relax and just take deep breaths.”

The pep talk worked. Fujinami threw three consecutive strikes to fan Moore, then retired both Mike Ford and Julio Rodríguez in order to seal the Orioles’ 5-3 win and notch his first save.

Fujinami threw 12 pitches during the appearance, nine of which were four-seam fastballs that averaged between 99-101.6 mph. He’s capable of getting even more velocity, as he hit 102.6 mph during his Aug. 6 outing against the Mets.

However, the key to Fujinami’s success is whether he can land those high-octane offerings for strikes. He did so on six of his final nine pitches in Sunday’s outing.

“Great for him, great for us. If we can get him over the plate, it’s going to be a huge weapon for us,” manager Brandon Hyde said following Sunday’s game. “He’s got unbelievable stuff, and we’ve seen that.”

Since joining Baltimore, Fujinami has a 4.76 ERA in 11 appearances. He worked another scoreless inning in Tuesday’s 10-3 loss to the Padres.

In the six outings in which Fujinami has thrown more than 50% of his pitches for strikes, he has a 1.13 ERA. In the five in which that rate has been at 50% or lower, he has a 13.50 ERA.

The Orioles are hoping Fujinami becomes consistent enough to be trusted in high-leverage spots down the stretch. And if more save opportunities arise, he’ll be ready.

“I didn’t think about anything when I got out on the mound,” Fujinami said. “That happened to be the [10th] inning, and I just made my pitches.”