O's AL East lead shrinks to 1 1/2 after bullpen stumble

Baltimore 'in a tough stretch' of 17 games in 17 days

September 22nd, 2023

CLEVELAND -- Every day this week, Orioles manager Brandon Hyde has stressed the importance of getting a long outing from his starter. He’s sarcastically described the state of his club’s bullpen as “fresh” heading into nearly every game of late.

Baltimore’s bullpen is not fresh, but rather taxed. And that showed again Thursday night.

After the Orioles rallied to tie the game in the top of the eighth, the Guardians immediately answered back and scored three runs in the bottom of the inning to prevail, 5-2, in the series opener at Progressive Field. Cleveland reclaimed the lead on Ramón Laureano’s bases-loaded walk against Jacob Webb. All three runs in the frame were charged to lefty Cionel Pérez.

This game was the first of 10 straight against sub-.500 opponents to end the regular season for the Orioles, who didn’t get the start to that run they were hoping for -- especially because the Rays had already won earlier in the day. Baltimore’s American League East lead was trimmed to 1 1/2 games, and its magic number to clinch the division remained at seven.

  • Games remaining (9): at CLE (3), vs. WSH (2), vs. BOS (4)
  • Standings update: The Orioles (95-58) and the Rays (94-60) are in a tight race atop the American League East, with Tampa Bay 1 1/2 games back. However, should that gap tighten further, Baltimore owns the tiebreaker by virtue of winning the season series between the two teams, 8-5. The AL East champion will be the No. 1 seed and get a bye into the best-of-five Division Series. If the O’s fall out of first place, they will be the No. 4 seed and host a best-of-three Wild Card Series at Camden Yards.
  • Magic number for AL East: 7

“We’re in a tough stretch. A lot of these guys have thrown more than they’ve ever before,” Hyde said of the Orioles’ bullpen. “Just the way our games have been the last week, our guys have had a lot of appearances. I give them a ton of credit for getting out there and trying to get big outs for us.”

After starter Grayson Rodriguez needed 99 pitches to complete five innings, Baltimore used five relievers to navigate the rest of the contest. It marked the fifth consecutive day the O’s used at least four pitchers out of their bullpen. They've called on 26 relievers over their past five games.

Pérez has been one of the Orioles’ best pitchers in the second half. Entering Thursday, the 27-year-old southpaw hadn’t allowed an earned run in 17 2/3 innings over his previous 23 outings.

Pitching for the fourth time in five days, Pérez faced only three Cleveland batters, loading the bases by hitting Josh Naylor, walking Tyler Freeman and allowing a single to Andrés Giménez. All three came around to score following Pérez’s exit.

“Cionel has been absolutely excellent for us this whole second half, has just been lights-out,” Hyde said. “For me, he just had an off night, and that could have possibly been fatigue.”

Another reason for the Guardians’ winning rally was their offensive approach. All night, they did a tremendous job of extending at-bats, wearing down the Orioles’ pitching staff.

Rodriguez allowed only two runs while walking three and striking out seven. The 23-year-old right-hander didn’t record an out in the sixth for only the second time in his past 11 starts, as Cleveland fouled off 37 of his pitches, the fifth-most foul balls allowed by a hurler during a game across MLB this season.

“Just not attacking like I wanted to. Obviously, I wasn’t very efficient,” Rodriguez said. “That’s one thing I’m upset with myself tonight, only throwing five innings. My goal was to really go out there and cover some innings for the bullpen.”

If Baltimore had a better-rested relief corps, it might have won. After they were blanked for seven innings, the Orioles rallied for two runs in the eighth, pushing across their first run on an Anthony Santander groundout and tying the contest on a Ryan O’Hearn double.

Perhaps the O’s will call up a fresh arm at some point during this series. However, righties Bryan Baker and Joey Krehbiel and lefties Cole Irvin and Nick Vespi have been optioned within the past 15 days, meaning they’re unable to be recalled unless they’re serving as injury replacements.

That leaves the most likely option as right-hander Tyler Wells, who was Baltimore’s best starter in the first half (a 3.18 ERA over 18 outings) before showing signs of fatigue coming out of the All-Star break, getting sent to the Minors in late July and working as a reliever in recent weeks.

Wells has a 9.00 ERA over seven appearances for Triple-A Norfolk, but Hyde remains optimistic that the 29-year-old can still return and contribute.

“The stuff is ticking up a little bit,” Hyde said. “He’s definitely an option for us down the stretch.”

Of course, the best remedy for a taxed bullpen is a long start, as Hyde has proclaimed. On Friday, right-hander Dean Kremer will try to outduel Guardians ace Shane Bieber, who's making his first start in nearly two months, and give most of the Orioles’ relievers a night off.

That’s just what Baltimore needs to get back on track.