The Orioles were out of so many games so early in 2019, first-year manager Brandon Hyde rarely got the chance to flex his strategic muscles with regards to his bullpen. That’s changing in 2020.
Six games into this unprecedented season, Hyde has turned to 30-year-old righty Cole Sulser each time a save opportunity has materialized. The latest example came Friday, when Sulser got another chance a night after blowing a one-run lead to the Yankees. This time, he held on to a two-run cushion and secured the O’s 6-3 win over the Rays at Oriole Park.
With Hunter Harvey on the injured list and Mychal Givens being deployed in high-leverage situations before the ninth, the O’s have effectively given their closing duties to Suler, a former waiver claim with seven games of big league experience before this season. He’s now 2-for-3 in save situations, sandwiching one meltdown with two seamless appearances, including Friday’s 1-2-3 conversion.
“That was gutsy,” Hyde said. “A gutsy performance. Last night was a tough loss. We talked about it a little today. But I told him if we got an opportunity again, I’d try to throw him out there."
Often times dating back to Spring Training, Hyde has expressed intrigue in Sulser’s pitch mix and ability to get both righties and lefties out. Perhaps an introduction is in order: the Indians' 25th-round Draft pick in 2013 from Dartmouth, Sulser spent much of the next seven seasons in the Minors, plateauing a bit at Triple-A two years ago. But that’s when he was introduced to data and began paying attention to analytics -- and his swing-and-miss stats shot up. Sulser posted gaudy strikeout numbers from '18-19 in the Indians' and Rays' systems, pitching well enough to earn a Major League callup last September at age 30.
He didn’t allow a run in seven appearances for the Rays down the stretch ... then he was rewarded by being designated off the roster near playoff time. The Orioles snatched him up off waivers in October, then watched as he pitched his way onto the roster with strong performances in Spring Training and Summer Camp. Flash forward a couple months, now he’s their closer -- at least for the time being.
“I wanted to get him back out on the mound tonight,” Hyde said. “I do think that’s important. I didn’t want him to sit on that outing from last night. For him to get back on the mound tonight and perform, that’s a big confidence booster for him.”
So far, Sulser’s save chances have run the spectrum. He recorded six outs to hold a three-run lead in Boston last weekend and blew a one-run lead to the Yankees on Thursday. He was tasked with preserving a three-run cushion Friday, after homers from Anthony Santander and Pedro Severino erased a two-run hole behind Alex Cobb's four innings of two-run ball, and Santander ultimately putting Baltimore ahead with an RBI single. Hanser Alberto gave Baltimore insurance with a solo homer off Ryan Thompson in the eighth, the cherry on top of a three-hit night for the second baseman. Then Sulser struck out two of the three batters he faced for a 1-2-3 conversion.
“I don’t know him very well, but what I do know is he is a tough kid,” Hyde said. “And he showed a lot of toughness tonight.”
Really since assuming the managerial role almost two years ago, Hyde has said he hoped to assign roles in his bullpen, particularly in the back end. That wasn’t possible for a unit that led the MLB with a 5.79 ERA a year ago; even in a small sample, the unit has been hit or miss statistically this summer as well. But it’s been better, at least at first, with Tanner Scott, Miguel Castro and Givens all yet to allow a run in the early going. Friday night’s trade of Richard Bleier could open more doors for a unit with one message, per Hyde: “If guys are getting people out, they are going to pitch in big spots.”
“I am just looking for some consistency,” he added. “I’m happy with how they’re throwing. I still want to eliminate the leadoff walks; that’s driving me nuts. But I do think for the most part we are improving. … It’s good to see. Hopefully we can build on that, get on a nice roll and get some momentum with those guys throwing the ball well.”