Reliable O's bullpen falters in pivotal 8th inning

May 7th, 2023

ATLANTA -- With a sellout crowd of 41,454 packed into Truist Park on Saturday night -- and two of MLB’s best teams over the first month-plus of the season in action -- there’s been a bit of a postseason-type atmosphere for this weekend’s Orioles-Braves series in Atlanta.

But manager Brandon Hyde wasn’t going to manage the middle contest of this three-game set, which was the 33rd of 162 games this season, like a postseason matchup. Too much baseball remains ahead for him to do so.

That’s why Baltimore’s two best relievers so far -- closer Félix Bautista and setup man Yennier Cano -- watched from the bullpen as the team failed to close out a potential victory. Danny Coulombe gave up a pinch-hit two-run homer to Kevin Pillar in the eighth inning, and the Orioles (22-11) fell, 5-4, to the Braves (23-11), evening the series.

“We have five months to go, so health is important and not overusing guys is important,” Hyde said. “Right now, I prefer not to use Félix before the ninth inning, and maybe as we go along, it might change. But Cano, he’s pitched a ton for us so far. We have other guys in the bullpen that have been throwing the ball well, and they’re going to get opportunities.”

Cano, who threw a season-high 32 pitches over two frames in Thursday’s win at Kansas City, hasn’t been the only Baltimore reliever asked to cover a lot of innings this year. The Orioles’ bullpen has combined to pitch 125 2/3 innings, the 10th-highest mark in MLB.

That’s been a product of Baltimore’s starting pitchers not working deep enough into games. The club has gotten only 10 starts of at least six innings this season.

Right-hander Kyle Bradish turned in a solid outing against the Braves. He allowed only three runs, but he was pulled after throwing 86 pitches in five innings. At that point, it seemed probable that the Orioles’ relief corps -- which had the best bullpen ERA in MLB as recently as Tuesday, when they owned a 2.86 mark -- could finish off another victory, especially with Cionel Pérez, Bryan Baker and Coulombe among those available.

Like Cano, Coulombe has been a surprise performer in Baltimore’s bullpen. The 33-year-old left-hander, who was acquired from Minnesota in a trade on the final day of Spring Training, posted a 0.84 ERA over 13 April outings.

Meanwhile, Baker, a breakout rookie in 2022, entered Saturday with a 15-inning scoreless streak that spanned his previous 15 appearances. He hadn’t been scored upon since giving up three runs in two-thirds of an inning on Opening Day in Boston.

But in the eighth on Saturday, Baker gave up a leadoff double to Austin Riley. Two batters later, the O’s turned to Coulombe, and the Braves countered with pinch-hitter Kevin Pillar. The battle promptly went in Atlanta’s favor, as Coulombe mislocated a 1-0 fastball that Pillar crushed a Statcast-projected 405 feet to left field for the game’s decisive blow.

“I put the ball in the middle of the plate, and he put a really good swing on it. What can you do? That’s baseball,” said Coulombe, who had hoped to get his heater more up and in against the right-handed-hitting Pillar.

Nobody in Baltimore’s clubhouse is concerned that Baker’s scoreless streak ended or that Coulombe has hit a bit of a rough patch, having allowed four runs in 1 1/3 innings over his past two outings. The bullpen has proven how dominant it can be, and the O’s still rank eighth in MLB with a 3.37 relief ERA.

“This game’s tough. You’re not going to have your A-plus stuff every outing. But they’ve basically done it all year long,” Bradish said. “Moving forward, I have full faith in this bullpen.”

It could help take some pressure off the relievers for the Orioles’ starters to log more innings. They’re 24th in the big leagues (and 13th in the AL) with 167 this season.

But the pitchers in the bullpen will all take the ball as often as Hyde allows them to do so. And he has faith in more than just Bautista and Cano to get big outs in key situations.

So how does this group of Baltimore relievers move past one of their first rougher stretches of the season? Coulombe explained it best.

“Life of a reliever,” Coulombe said. “You have to have a short memory.”