Relievers are key reason Baltimore is back in the postseason
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TIMORE -- So you're wondering how they did it. How a team goes from 69-93 to 93-69 in the space of one season. How a team with a plus-seven run differential finishes with the seventh-best record in the Major Leagues.
How, exactly, the Baltimore Orioles are here today, preparing to host their first Division Series game in 15 years on Sunday against the Yankees on TBS at 6 p.m. ET. And while a lot of things went right, things like Nate McLouth's rebirth and Jason Hammel's emergence, nothing has been bigger than a preternatural ability to protect late-inning leads. If the Orioles have an edge in the final third of a game, they win.
It's not even that they're the best bullpen, top to bottom, in baseball. They rank third in the American League in relief ERA. But nobody brings home a lead better than the O's do. Their 11 relief losses are three fewer than any other team in baseball, and counting the Wild Card playoff game, Baltimore is 75-0 when leading after seven innings in 2012.
And yet, plenty of baseball fans couldn't name more than one member of this shutdown group -- if they could even name one. Fantasy players surely know the name of Jim Johnson, who led the Majors with 51 saves, but it's reasonable to wonder just how much of a household name he is. And beyond Johnson, there's scarcely a big name in the bunch. They just get outs.
"Our bullpen's been great for us all year," said catcher Matt Wieters.
"We feel like if our starters can give us that good outing for five, six innings and turn it over to our bullpen, we've got a good chance to win."
That's an understatement. The relief corps -- Johnson, Darren O'Day, Pedro Strop, Brian Matusz, Luis Ayala, Steve Johnson, Troy Patton, and plenty of others at various points this year -- is simply the biggest reason the O's are back playing October baseball.
It's a perfect combination of some very good arms, some very complementary skill sets, and an exemplary skilled hand deploying all the weapons. Manager Buck Showalter makes it one of his highest priorities to keep his relievers fresh and healthy, and it's paid off beautifully.
"When you think about bullpens, usually what makes them stand out is the mix of left-handers and right-handers, [and] their ability to keep the ball in the ballpark," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi. "You think about Johnson, he's not giving up home runs, O'Day is probably not giving up home runs. You've got a power guy in Strop. So there's a difference there. There's power, there's deception, there's left-handers, there's right-handers, and I think it takes all those things."
It ends with Johnson, which means in a sense it starts with Johnson. He's not a prototypical closer, with fewer strikeouts (41) this year than saves. Johnson throws hard, though, and he rarely gives up home runs or walks. He's become an extreme ground-ball pitcher, playing in front of a significantly improved infield defense. That's a good combination.
Setting up in front of Johnson are righty O'Day and lefty Matusz, whom Showalter loves to use to play matchups. And neither is what you might expect him to be.
O'Day is a sidewinder, but he defies the usual profile by being extremely tough on left-handers as well as same-side hitters. Matusz has transitioned from being a starter to being a lefty specialist in the space of a single season. He made 16 starts, then averaged just more than two outs per inning over his 18 relief appearances.
Matusz has been one of the most critical pieces down the stretch, adding a killer lefty presence. He'll be especially important against a Yankees lineup that features several key left-handed batters or switch-hitters.
"I say this all the time, but once you get out there on the mound, it's still the same game," Matusz said. "It's pitching. It's throwing strikes, attacking the zone and throwing quality pitches. It's nice to have Wieters back there behind the plate, one of the best catchers in the game, someone to rely on as far as pitch calling."
Strop is an even more extreme ground-baller than Johnson, though he sometimes has trouble throwing strikes. Patton is one of the most valuable commodities around: a full-inning left-hander, able to stifle right-handed hitters as much as lefties. Tommy Hunter, another former member of the starting rotation, has pitched multiple innings, a useful bridge on days when the starters don't have it.
They all have roles, but those roles are less about an exact inning and more about situations. Showalter matches skill sets to needs, and it adds up to some beautiful harmony. You may not know all their names, but their work speaks for itself.