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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 5-4 loss to Detroit

Posted on 18 May 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles losing for the fifth time in six games in a 5-4 final to the Detroit Tigers, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Needing to give his club a deep outing after Tuesday’s 13-inning affair, Ubaldo Jimenez instead threw 95 pitches over five innings and gave up five runs. I never question the veteran’s desire, but he’s simply not getting the job done.

2. You’d probably never heard of Tyler Collins before this series and understandably so as he entered the night mired in an 0-for-30 slump. Jimenez proved to be the cure to his struggles by surrendering two home runs to the 26-year-old center fielder.

3. Scoring four times over seven innings against 2016 AL Rookie of the Year Michael Fulmer is a respectable output, but — as I wrote earlier on Wednesday — this offense probably needs to score at least five or six runs per night to win games right now.

4. How much of a struggle was Wednesday’s outing for Jimenez? He allowed at least two baserunners in all but one of his five frames. Orioles starters are rapidly making 20-pitch innings the norm.

5. Orioles pitching is seemingly allergic to having a lead. As if Tuesday weren’t bad enough, Jimenez quickly squandered a 1-0 lead in the second and a 5-2 lead in the fifth. There’s no sugarcoating how excruciating it is watching this staff at the moment.

6. If every other starter not named Dylan Bundy were pitching better and there were more interesting alternatives, time would almost be up for Jimenez, who is in the final year of his disappointing contract. That doesn’t mean he shouldn’t still be looking over his shoulder, however.

7. Think Welington Castillo paid attention to what Caleb Joseph and Francisco Pena were doing at the plate in his absence? He’s 6-for-10 since being activated from the disabled list and had a particularly impressive at-bat in the fourth that resulted in an RBI single.

8. After a few rough outings earlier in the season, Stefan Crichton fared well in his 1 2/3 scoreless innings to keep the score at a one-run deficit. The Orioles need to find another effective middle reliever, and he took advantage of the opportunity.

9. Miguel Castro needed 25 pitches to register a scoreless eighth inning, but a 22-year-old sitting comfortably in the mid-90s with his fastball? He’s raw, but there’s some intrigue there.

10. In regards to his brutal call on Manny Machado’s check swing to end the game, I suppose first base umpire C.B. Bucknor just wanted to go home.

11. Donnie Hart being sent to Norfolk was mildly surprising, but he’s not an established major league reliever yet and you can’t pitch that poorly with a three-run lead in the 12th inning. He’ll be back, and the Orioles need him to get back on track after a brutal May.

12. I’m no doctor and am not privy to the rehabilitation plan, but I’m surely not the only one wondering if it’s too soon for Zach Britton to be throwing for the first time in Sarasota on Thursday. Everyone in the organization will have their fingers crossed.

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Orioles option Hart, designate Pena for assignment

Posted on 17 May 2017 by Luke Jones

After a 13-inning game in which the struggling Orioles bullpen allowed an unseemly seven earned runs, changes were bound to be made on Wednesday.

Prior to the second game of a three-game set in Detroit, left-handed relief pitcher Donnie Hart was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk and No. 3 catcher Francisco Pena was designated for assignment to create open spots for fresh bullpen arms on the 25-man roster. Right-handed relievers Stefan Crichton and Miguel Castro were recalled to once again give Baltimore a seven-man bullpen.

Serving as the club’s lefty specialist since last August, Hart had been struggling over his last seven outings including Tuesday night when he was unable to protect a three-run lead in the bottom of the 12th inning. The 26-year-old had allowed six earned runs and 11 hits in his last six innings of work after now allowing an earned run in the entire month of April.

Pena’s designation comes as no surprise after starting catcher Welington Castillo was activated from the 10-day disabled list on Tuesday. It remains to be seen whether the 27-year-old will pass through waivers and remain with the organization after once again being removed from the 40-man roster.

Crichton made his major league debut last month and has allowed four earned runs and nine hits in three appearances for the Orioles covering 3 1/3 innings. He has a 1.56 ERA in 17 1/3 innings for Triple-A Norfolk this season.

Castro, 22, was acquired from Colorado in early April and owns a career 6.12 ERA in 31 1/3 major league innings over parts of two seasons. He had been pitching for Double-A Bowie, allowing one earned run in four innings.

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Time for Orioles to reset bullpen — and find more quality

Posted on 17 May 2017 by Luke Jones

The idea of a six-man bullpen sounded good in theory for the Orioles.

Wanting to keep an extra position player for more flexibility off the bench late in games and having a collection of long relievers with minor-league options on the Norfolk shuttle, manager Buck Showalter tried to maneuver his way through games with at least one fewer reliever available on any given night. The plan may have worked had All-Star closer Zach Britton not re-injured his left forearm upon being activated from the disabled list in early May.

But the failure of the experiment came to a climax in Detroit Tuesday night with the kind of bullpen meltdown that’s been rare in these parts for a long time. Before putting Mychal Givens, Brad Brach, and Donnie Hart on full blast for their efforts in Detroit — and, yes, their performance was brutal — realize there are multiple reasons why the six-man bullpen hasn’t worked.

Many have fairly pointed to the lack of quantity in the bullpen, but the issue is as much about the need for more quality. You can argue that Showalter has relied too heavily on his top relievers in Britton’s absence if you want, but then you have to accept those times when he’s tried others in tight spots — like Alec Asher and Vidal Nuno during the recent four-game losing streak — and it hasn’t worked. Last year’s wild-card game in Toronto reminded us that the Orioles manager is hardly beyond reproach and maybe Darren O’Day’s recent shoulder issue should have landed him on the DL in favor of another healthy arm, but Showalter’s track record for managing a bullpen speaks for itself over the last five years and any skipper is going to look foolish when his top relievers perform like they have recently.

The Orioles need to find another bullpen arm — maybe two — who can be trusted in the sixth, seventh, or eighth inning of a close game, whether that guy is currently in their minor-league system or elsewhere. Frankly, a seventh pitcher in the bullpen isn’t going to help much if he can only be relied upon in mop-up situations.

The starting rotation hasn’t helped with Dylan Bundy being the only one offering both quality and length in his outings this season. Wade Miley’s 3.02 ERA looks good at first glance, but he’s averaging just over five innings per start and walking nearly six batters per nine innings. Kevin Gausman and Ubaldo Jimenez both have ERAs above 6.00 while Chris Tillman is still building shoulder strength in his recent return from the disabled list. It doesn’t take a pitching guru to figure out what strain that kind of a rotation can have on a bullpen.

Until scoring 21 runs over the last two games, the offense also deserved blame for scoring at a below-average level over much of the first six weeks of the season and putting so much pressure on late-inning relief. All those narrow, low-scoring victories that we saw in April and early May take their toll on higher-leverage relievers when the starting rotation is averaging 5.4 innings per start and the best closer on the planet is on the DL. This roster was constructed to have an above-average offense that will hit gobs of home runs to give the pitching some breathing room from time to time at the very least. Instead, the Orioles continue to lead the league in save opportunities.

You can only hope the recent awakening of Chris Davis and Mark Trumbo is a sign of better things to come for the offense.

Even without Britton, the rest of the bullpen is too good to continue like this. There’s little reason to think guys like Brach, O’Day, and Givens can’t return to pitching at a high level if they can stay healthy and relatively fresh, but they also have to take accountability for their own performance and rise up to get the job done without their normal ninth-inning man behind them.

The group must find a way to keep its head above water until Britton returns, which the Orioles hope will be sometime next month.

Still, you get the sense that the Orioles will need to average five or six runs per game more consistently to continue winning games in the short term. That and some reasonable improvement from the rotation would go a long way in calming the current relief crisis.

It’s time to reset the bullpen by adding a seventh man and auditioning the likes of Edwin Jackson, Stefan Crichton, and Jimmy Yacabonis for a legitimate middle-relief role. Perhaps the idea of using Mike Wright in middle relief should be revisited with several starting options ahead of him in the pecking order backing up the current rotation.

But a return to a seven-man bullpen may not matter if the group doesn’t get help from the rest of the roster.

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Orioles offense not making life easier for undermanned bullpen

Posted on 13 May 2017 by Luke Jones

We knew life wouldn’t be easy for the Orioles bullpen with two-time All-Star closer Zach Britton back on the disabled list.

But the sight of recently-recalled long reliever Vidal Nuno pitching in the eighth inning of a 2-2 game in Kansas City on Friday — the night after a rainout, no less — was jarring, and the result was predictable as he allowed the go-ahead run to score. The immediate reaction was to criticize the Orioles’ insistence on carrying a five-man bench in lieu of the seven-man bullpen that’s become standard in today’s game. The sentiment is more than fair when manager Buck Showalter regularly has just three or four relievers available on a given night with designs of keeping the bullpen healthy for the long haul.

Is the problem a lack of quantity or quality in the bullpen, however?

Sure, the Orioles could option Joey Rickard to the minor leagues, designate veteran Craig Gentry for assignment, or even look to trade the buried Hyun Soo Kim to open a roster spot for an additional bullpen arm. But does that merely open the door for another long reliever in the bullpen that Showalter can’t trust in close games or can the club find someone — at least in the mold of a Tommy Hunter or a Chaz Roe circa 2015 — that can be mostly trusted in the sixth, seventh, or occasionally the eighth inning? Perhaps that answer can become an Alec Asher or even a Norfolk reliever such as Stefan Crichton or Jimmy Yacabonis in the near future.

There’s another solution, however, that would help the Orioles as Britton continues to recover in Sarasota and Brad Brach and Darren O’Day try to regain their previous dominant forms of recent seasons.

The offense needs to pick it up.

The Orioles entered Saturday just 21st in the majors in runs scored per game (4.4) and have scored the fewest per game of the top 10 major league clubs in winning percentage. Known for the long ball, Baltimore ranks only 13th of 30 clubs in home runs so far in 2017.

They haven’t played an extraordinary number of one-run games –Baltimore does own a superb 8-3 record in that department — but the Orioles lead the majors with 21 save opportunities and just four of their 22 victories have come by more than three runs. In contrast, 11 of the New York Yankees’ 21 wins have been by a margin of four or more. In other words, the Orioles have needed to lean heavily on their best bullpen arms despite Britton now being absent for the better part of a month. Even when they’ve been successful in those tight games, there’s a price to pay for at least the next game or two after that.

Showalter wouldn’t have to worry about the availability of Brach or O’Day as frequently if his offense could provide more breathing room from time to time. Drop-off from the bullpen was inevitable with Britton on the shelf, but the Orioles lineup hasn’t really been at less than full strength beyond the current absence of catcher Welington Castillo, who has been more than adequately replaced by backup Caleb Joseph for the time being.

Now more than a fifth of the way through the season, the major league home run leaders from the last two years — Chris Davis (2015) and Mark Trumbo (2016) — entered Saturday with slugging percentages lower than Joseph’s and have hit a combined eight home runs. Shortstop J.J. Hardy has provided a timely hit or two, but his .534 on-base plus slugging percentage was the seventh worst among qualified major league hitters.

Is it more realistic to expect a collection of relievers on the Norfolk shuttle to start pitching like legitimate late-inning arms or to ask the offense to produce at a higher level to ease the relief burden? The Orioles will need some combination of both to continue playing at a high level in Britton’s absence, but the roster was built in the offseason with the vision of having an above-average offense that would hit a ton of homers.

Despite their overall success so far in 2017, the Orioles continue to wait for their lineup to fully awaken.

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Even by Orioles standards, superb start to 2017 tough to explain

Posted on 11 May 2017 by Luke Jones

We’ve been here before talking about the Orioles.

After another offseason in which the projection models and pundits didn’t like their chances in the American League East, the Orioles are off to their best start of the Buck Showalter era. Now a fifth of the way through the season, Baltimore entered Thursday on pace to win 108 games despite playing 24 of its first 27 games against division opponents and 21 contests against clubs currently above .500. It’s hardly been a cupcake schedule for the Orioles, who own a winning record on the road and the best home mark in the majors.

Veteran starting pitcher Chris Tillman and All-Star closer Zach Britton have missed most of the season with the latter not expected to return until the latter half of June at the earliest. Opening Day starter Kevin Gausman has a 6.63 ERA through his first eight starts. Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis have a total of eight home runs and both have slugging percentages under .400 so far. Even Manny Machado is hitting just .227 despite leading the club in homers and RBIs.

Of course, the Orioles have had their share of surprises, too, with Dylan Bundy looking every bit the part of an ace over his first seven starts, Wade Miley overcoming a slew of walks to pitch to a 2.45 ERA, and Trey Mancini ranking second on the club in home runs, but how do you best explain a .667 winning percentage through the first 33 games?

The stock answer for most of their success since 2012 has been home runs and strong bullpen work, but even those assumed strengths have been only slightly above average through the first 5 1/2 weeks of the season.

The Orioles entered Thursday sixth in the AL in both home runs and bullpen ERA. The offense ranks seventh in the league in runs and eighth in on-base plus slugging percentage. The rotation has been better than expected without Tillman, but Baltimore still ranks just seventh of 15 AL clubs in starter ERA. It hasn’t been about elite defense, either, as the Orioles are tied for 12th in the AL in defensive runs saved.

In other words, everything about this club has been ordinary except its win-loss record, which is paramount and clearly nothing for which to apologize. An 8-2 record in one-run games and a plus-13 run differential reflect good fortune in amassing a 22-11 record, but the best way to describe the 2017 Orioles so far is to say they’ve been been really good at being opportunistic.

Their .303 batting average with runners in scoring position ranks second in the AL and their pitcher win probability added (WPA) leads the league, which are both indicators of “clutch” performance. The offense has been good when it’s absolutely needed to be while the pitching has been at its best in many high-leverage moments.

Even the most optimistic of fans would concede that the Orioles won’t continue winning two-thirds of their games, but such a strong start has given them some breathing room to tread water if we assume the young and surprising New York Yankees aren’t going to keep winning at their same impressive rate, either.

It’s reasonable to expect the likes of Trumbo, Davis, and Gausman to pick up their production while acknowledging the likelihood of regression for Bundy, Miley, and Mancini, but the bullpen has to be the biggest concern even before Wednesday’s meltdown in Washington. A healthy Britton was never going to be as dominant as he was in his historic 2016, but you just don’t replace the man who ranked second on last year’s club at 4.3 wins above replacement and led all major league pitchers in WPA by a wide margin. The 2016 AL Reliever of the Year made up for plenty of deficiencies last season that would have otherwise prevented the Orioles from qualifying for the postseason for the third time in five years.

Making matters more difficult for Showalter is the current five-man bench, which leaves the Orioles with just six arms in the bullpen on a given night. Yes, the organization has effectively used the Norfolk shuttle to receive some meaningful contributions in long relief, but you’d prefer having another reliable middle-to-late relief option to use in the sixth, seventh, or eighth inning in a given night. It’s a lot to ask of Brad Brach, Darren O’Day, Mychal Givens, and Donnie Hart to pick up the slack in Britton’s absence, and we’ve seen each struggle at times with Brach and his 10.29 ERA since April 28 most recently receiving the loudest criticism.

For now, the Orioles can feel good about their terrific start knowing they haven’t come close to firing on all cylinders yet. But if they’re going to continue to flourish, their old reliables must emerge sooner than later. The home runs need to start flying out of the ballpark more frequently and the bullpen must find a way to tighten up until Britton is hopefully ready to return early in the summer.

The latter is easier said than done, but if anyone can figure out the current relief puzzle, it’s Showalter. Once again, his club is showing to be greater than the sum of its parts.

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Twelve Orioles thoughts following 6-5 win over Yankees

Posted on 08 April 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles topping the New York Yankees in a 6-5 final to improve to 3-0 on the infant season, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Seth Smith picked the opportune time to hit his first home run as an Oriole, not only getting in the tying run from third base with less than two outs but giving his club the lead in the seventh inning.

2. I had to laugh at the Orioles still cashing in via the long ball after J.J. Hardy had bunted Jonathan Schoop to third base before Smith came to the plate. Who needs small ball anyway?

3. Despite striking out three times, Manny Machado hit the three-run shot off the hard-throwing Luis Severino with two outs in the fifth that shrunk a four-run deficit and breathed life into a lineup that hadn’t done much to that point.

4. Friday marked the 18th time in his Orioles tenure that Ubaldo Jimenez allowed five or more earned runs in an outing. Needless to say, it wasn’t pretty for the veteran starter in his season debut as Matt Holliday and Gary Sanchez hit homers off his ineffective splitter.

5. It’s apparent that Buck Showalter still isn’t keen on giving Hyun Soo Kim opportunities against left-handed pitching as Joey Rickard hit for him in the sixth against southpaw reliever Tommy Layne. Kim is still looking for his first hit of 2017.

6. Darren O’Day made his 2017 debut in the sixth inning, marking just the sixth time since the start of 2013 that the reliever has appeared in a game before the seventh. There’s some impressive depth in that Baltimore bullpen.

7. Walks were an issue in O’Day’s injury-plagued 2016 campaign, and he issued two in his 1 1/3 innings of work. It’s fair to note, however,  that the right-hander hadn’t pitched in a while after a bout with the flu.

8. Collecting his first major league win, Donnie Hart gave up a hit to the lefty-swinging Jacoby Ellsbury in his season debut after lefties went 5-for-38 against him last year. It was good to see the lefty specialist retire the right-handed Starlin Castro to end the top of the seventh.

9. Brad Brach was sensational in the eighth, striking out Chase Headley, Aaron Judge, and Pete Kozma on just 11 pitches. That was the All-Star version of Brach that we saw in the first half of 2016.

10. The Orioles didn’t want to see Zach Britton roll his right ankle on a Gary Sanchez comebacker in the ninth, but that was easily his best performance of his first three outings. Showalter seemed to think his All-Star closer was OK after the game.

11. Britton may have converted his 51st consecutive save dating back to the end of 2015, but Chris Davis deserves an assist by picking low throws from Britton and Machado for the final two outs in a one-run win.

12. You had to feel for fans braving a cold and windy night with a less-than-stellar version of Jimenez on the mound. That’s not a pleasant combination, but the Orioles provided the desired result for the home crowd in the end.

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2017 Orioles preview: Donnie Hart

Posted on 13 March 2017 by Luke Jones

With Opening Day less than a month away, we’ll take a look at a member of the 2017 Orioles every day as they try to return to the postseason for the fourth time in six years.

Manny Machado
Kevin Gausman
Adam Jones
Darren O’Day
Seth Smith
Mike Wright
Caleb Joseph

RP Donnie Hart

Opening Day age: 26

Contract status: Under club control through the 2022 season

2016 stats: 0-0, 0 saves, 0.49 ERA, 0.98 WHIP, 5.9 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 1 HR, 18 1/3 IP

Why to be impressed: Despite never pitching above Double-A Bowie, Hart stepped into the lefty specialist role in the second half of 2016, holding left-handed bats to a .132 average and .348 on-base plus slugging percentage in 44 plate appearances. The sidearm lefty also had the third-highest ground-ball rate on the club, an encouraging quality with such a good defensive infield behind him.

Why to be concerned: Hart’s strikeout rate is concerning with him projected to be in the kind of role that often involves entering the game with runners on base. It also remains to be seen how Hart will respond to times of adversity with such a small body of work at the major league level and the Orioles not having a clear-cut option that’s next in line to be their lefty specialist.

2017 outlook: A good first half of the spring and his unorthodox delivery make Hart a good bet to be able to serve a useful purpose in the bullpen for 2017. Right-handers only managed one extra-base hit against Hart in 27 plate appearances last year, but it remains to be seen whether he can consistently defend himself against right-handed bats, which will be key to his hopes of sticking for the long haul.

2017 not-so-scientific projections: 2-3, 0 saves, 3.32 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 6.9 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 5 HR, 49 IP

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Twelve Orioles thoughts on start of Grapefruit League play

Posted on 27 February 2017 by Luke Jones

With the Orioles already playing spring games in Sarasota, I’ve offered a dozen thoughts, each in 50 words or less:

1. Having fetched compliments for his early-spring work, Ubaldo Jimenez induced four ground-ball outs in two solid innings on Monday. Command remains his biggest need, but his average fastball was just 90.1 miles per hour last year, making it even more important for him to effectively use his two-seamer.

2. Jimenez gave up a run thanks in large part to a chopper that Mark Trumbo should have handled. Hyun Soo Kim later lost a routine fly in the sun. Both plays were ruled hits and are examples why error totals and fielding percentage aren’t particularly helpful statistics for evaluating defense.

3. Jonathan Schoop hit a monster homer that Yankees left fielder Aaron Hicks didn’t even bother to react to on Monday. The 25-year-old clearly needs to become more selective, but improving further against lefties like he did last year is another key to him finding another level of success.

4. The early reviews from Sarasota have been positive for Welington Castillo, but you still hate to see the new catcher spending so much time away from Orioles pitchers to play in the World Baseball Classic.

5. I like the idea of celebrating a global game, but I hate the timing of the WBC. Yes, injuries will occur anyway — evident by the Orioles’ ailments before Grapefruit League play — but potentially losing a valuable commodity when it’s not even under your watch is a cruel risk.

6. Donnie Hart struck out two in a scoreless inning against the Yankees and could be an important cog. He held lefties to a .347 on-base plus slugging percentage last year and will be a real force if he uses his changeup to hold his own against right-handed bats.

7. Speaking of young lefties, prospect Tanner Scott was consistently hitting the mid-to-upper 90s in striking out two and walking one in an inning on Monday. The 22-year-old averaged an unseemly 8.0 walks per nine innings last year, but he’ll be fun to watch if he can find more control.

8. It was only his first spring outing, but former Orioles right-hander Yovani Gallardo was roughed up for four runs, three hits, and two walks in an inning for Seattle on Monday. No matter how Seth Smith performs this season, I still like that trade.

9. Vidal Nuno was sharp in two scoreless innings against the Yankees and looks like a good fit to fill the Vance Worley role this year. The difference is that Nuno has a minor-league option remaining, which will aid in the flexibility of the bullpen when necessary.

10. On the other hand, Oliver Drake is out of options and gave up the game-winning three-run homer Monday. The 30-year-old has had some success with a 3.48 ERA in 33 2/3 major league frames, but he needs to have a strong spring to be in position to make the club.

11. A cranky back for J.J. Hardy to begin the spring should be a reminder to give the 34-year-old shortstop enough periodic rest. There’s no reason not to do it when you have Manny Machado to slide over to short as well as Ryan Flaherty to help spell the veteran.

12. Buck Showalter wants to move on from last year’s wild-card game, but you hope everyone learned from it. When possible, your best reliever should be deployed for the game’s most critical moment, which isn’t always for the standard save situation in the ninth. That’s not radical “baseball nerd” talk.

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Orioles activate O’Day prior to series finale with Cleveland

Posted on 24 July 2016 by Luke Jones

BALTIMORE — More than seven weeks after injuring his right hamstring, setup man Darren O’Day has returned to the Orioles bullpen.

The 2015 All-Star selection was activated from the 15-day disabled list 30 minutes prior to the start of Sunday’s series finale with Cleveland. O’Day last pitched on June 1, but his return provides a signficant boost to a bullpen already ranking second in the American League and fourth in the majors with a 3.10 ERA.

Baltimore optioned left-handed reliever Donnie Hart to Double-A Bowie to make room on the 25-man roster.

In O’Day’s absence, Baltimore has leaned more heavily on Brad Brach, who has responded by posting a 1.19 ERA in 53 innings and earned a trip to his first All-Star Game earlier this month. It will be interesting to see how manager Buck Showalter sequences O’Day and Brach before getting to closer Zach Britton at the end of games. Entering Sunday, Britton had pitched on four consecutive days, but he had thrown a total of only 20 pitches.

Signed to a four-year, $31 million contract this offseason, O’Day, 33, posted a 3.15 ERA in 20 innings before going to the DL in early June. However, the right-hander had given up five home runs — matching his 2015 total — and walked 4.1 hitters per nine innings, a career-high rate.

O’Day has been the backbone of the Orioles bullpen since 2012, posting a 1.92 ERA and averaging just under 66 innings per year over his first four seasons in Baltimore.

Hart’s demotion means the Orioles are back to having only one lefty in the bullpen with Britton clearly not used for matchup purposes. The 25-year-old rookie had pitched 2 2/3 scoreless innings over three appearances since being promoted to begin the second half.

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