There’s little to be concerned about with the Orioles enjoying a 9 1/2 game lead in the American League East entering the weekend, but the late innings of Thursday’s 9-7 win over the Cincinnati Reds suggest there might be something worth monitoring in the short-term future.
The Orioles bullpen has been stellar all season, ranking fourth in the AL with a 3.21 ERA, but there have been a few leaks over the last week that likely grabbed the attention of manager Buck Showalter. Baltimore relievers only rank sixth in the AL in innings pitched, which doesn’t indicate overuse being a major concern, but witnessing Brian Matusz and the newly-recalled Evan Meek warm up in the eighth inning of a two-run game Thursday — the night after Miguel Gonzalez had pitched a complete-game shutout to give the entire bullpen a night off — made it clear that Showalter didn’t have his full array of arms.
Left-handed reliever Andrew Miller is currently dealing with a tweaked hamstring and hasn’t pitched since Monday when he allowed two hits and an earned run while retiring only two batters. The former Boston reliever has downplayed the significance of his injury, but it’s clear the Orioles manager was trying to avoid using him this week.
Outstanding right-hander Darren O’Day not warming up after Tommy Hunter allowed a leadoff double in the eighth inning Thursday makes you wonder if he might be dealing with a physical challenge as well. O’Day did throw 26 pitches in a rare poor appearance Tuesday when he allowed a grand slam to Jay Bruce, but the submarine-style pitcher only seeing one appearance since Saturday is a little unusual.
Right-hander Brad Brach has been one of the better stories of the 2014 season, but the 28-year-old has allowed five earned runs, nine hits, and three walks in his last three innings of work spanning five appearances. His four runs allowed Thursday allowed the Reds to come back from what was originally a 6-0 deficit in the first inning to force a 7-7 tie in the seventh.
And even though closer Zach Britton continues to do remarkable work in the ninth, he ranks eighth in the majors in innings pitched by relievers and recently completed a stretch in which he appeared in five games in seven days. The former starting pitcher is used to a heavy volume of work, but pitching so frequently is a difficult adjustment for someone in his first season pitching in relief.
By no means should these factors instill any sense of panic, but they do provide evidence for Showalter to make use of his September bullpen that currently features 11 pitchers. The manager has already said he won’t change his managerial style before the Orioles potentially clinch their first division title since 1997, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to lighten the load for the key members of his bullpen such as Britton, O’Day, and Miller while passing a few more opportunities toward the likes of Hunter, Matusz, Ryan Webb, T.J.McFarland, and even veteran Joe Saunders.
It’s a careful balancing act as relievers need regular work to remain sharp, but there’s no question that Showalter will want to do everything he can to ensure that his late-inning weapons are as close to full strength as they can be in October.