Orioles' revamped 'pen shows promise

Opening Day also brought a big blow from Santander, gutsy outing from Means

April 9th, 2022

ST. PETERSBURG -- Success, struggles and learning on the job will mark the Orioles’ 2022 season. It didn’t take long to experience a microcosm of all those expectations.

Baltimore fell, 2-1, in its Opening Day contest with the Rays at Tropicana Field on Friday, pushing many of the right buttons but still falling by the slimmest of margins against a team that feasts on such opportunities.

“We gave up two sac flies,” said manager Brandon Hyde, “and lost the game.”

But even just one game gives us plenty of opportunity to spout some hot takes for how this Orioles team -- and season -- might look:

1. The bullpen is a work in progress -- but could be a strength!
An Orioles roster shifted by Sunday’s multiplayer deal with the Marlins inspired a bevy of questions about the bullpen. Friday provided a handful of answers.

Jorge López will be the Orioles’ highest-leverage reliever. A steady diet of Dillon Tate, Paul Fry, Cionel Pérez and Bryan Baker will precede him. Hyde has preached that plan since his bullpen was turned over; giving López the chance to assert himself from the get-go was long the vision.

While Baker, Pérez, Tate and Fry each sandwiched López’s day with a dominating scoreless outing, López had one wonky inning that turned the game. Entering in the middle of the eighth with a runner on first, López yielded a walk and a single to load the bases, and the Rays’ second sac fly of the game turned into the winning run.

“That opportunity, even with what happened last year, it's completely what I wanted,” said López, a converted starter who found far more success last year following a late-season move to the bullpen. “I just want to keep going and get better."

How badly does he want the ball the next time such a situation arises? “So bad,” he said.

But roles remain fluid. The Orioles like the makeup of their pitching staff -- higher velocities, different arm angles and attack plans -- and it’s just about finding their best spots.

“We're going to find out, especially early,” Hyde said. “I've told them that all you guys are going to be in big spots -- different levers, spots. Just need to find out who can do what, and what part of the game that they're most comfortable in.”

Even the other dugout -- proprietor of the “Stable” -- has noticed.

"They've got some bullpen arms that I'm not that familiar with, but I’m looking at all their velocities, and they're all sitting in the 96-7, 8, 9 miles an hour [range],” Rays manager Kevin Cash said pregame. “So they've made some upgrades, and we should have our challenges."

2. Santander could be a force once again
Nicks and bruises -- some major, some minor -- stymied from comfort and from building off his stellar 2020 season last year. But an offseason of recovery breathes hope that he can serve as a middle-of-the-order threat all over again.

That was punctuated by Santander’s solo shot off Matt Wisler that tied the game, 1-1, in the sixth inning.

“Yeah, I think he's close,” Hyde said pregame. “I think he paced himself at times. But there were a couple of times this spring where he had to score from first on a double or score from second on a hit, and you saw him move, you saw him go. I didn't see that last year. There's a different gear this year than last year.”

That would serve the Orioles well -- both in the short and long term. Santander, under team control through 2024, is seen as one of the bigger trade chips on the roster, a switch-hitter with pop. He’s still looking for a consistent stretch of stellar play since the shortened ‘20 season, and he gave one indicator on Friday.

3. John still Means business
There was little expectation  would have the pitch count to pitch deep into Friday’s affair, compounded by the shortened spring and the fact that the Orioles are in a precipitous position with innings. Still, their ace did what was asked, with four innings of one-run ball alongside five strikeouts in his second consecutive Opening Day nod.

Means was worked by the Rays, who fouled off 24 of his 84 pitches. That first mark sits just five back of his single-game career high.

But battling through that in a game Means’ manager thinks he should be proud of was a positive first step.

“I knew especially with those long, long innings that it's probably going to be limited to four or five,” Means said. “It was one of those grinding ones, couldn't ease into it.”