Scattered Clouds 38° Good Afternoon
Scattered Clouds 38° Good Afternoon

Orioles' versatile bullpen has been a huge positive

Baltimore Orioles closer Jim Johnson reacts after beating

Baltimore Orioles closer Jim Johnson reacts after beating the Texas Rangers in the American League wild card playoff game at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. (Oct. 5, 2012) Photo Credit: Getty

BALTIMORE -- So much about the Baltimore Orioles' run to the playoffs has been confounding.

For most of the season, they were handily outscored by opponents. When they entered the home stretch, injuries deprived them of key players. Still, they stormed to their first playoff berth since 1997 and a date in the ALDS with the Yankees, thanks to one of the game's best bullpens.

While the Orioles plugged holes in their starting lineup and their starting rotation -- adding pieces along the way -- it was the bullpen that never wavered. The relievers have been the constant.

"There's power, there's deception, there's lefthanders, there's righthanders, and I think it takes all those things,'' Yankees manager Joe Girardi said Saturday. "You have guys that have the ability to get double-play balls, guys that have the ability to get strikeouts, so I think they work well together.''

As a group, the Baltimore relievers finished third in the American League with a 3.00 ERA. Their performances look even more impressive considering their heavy workload. Orioles manager Buck Showalter coaxed 5451/3 innings from his bullpen, the third-highest total in the AL.

"We've been able to put them in a position where they do what they do because we've gotten deeper in the game with our starters,'' Showalter said.

The relievers have responded by giving Showalter the ability to mix and match. "We have a little bit of everything,'' lefty Brian Matusz said. "So far, it's been working out. We've been able to have certain guys for certain matchups.''

In closer Jim Johnson and set-up man Pedro Strop, the Orioles have a pair of high-octane fireballers. In Darren O'Day, they have a sidearmer whose deception makes up for a lack of velocity. In former Yankee Luis Ayala, the Orioles have a sinkerballer capable of generating valuable ground balls. And in Matusz and Troy Patton, the Orioles have two lefties capable of neutralizing power-hitting lefthanded hitters late in games.

"We have a good time down there in the bullpen,'' said Matusz, a former first-round draft pick who endured ups and downs as a starter. "We keep it loose, we joke around, so when it's time to go, we're loose. We go out and we just play free. It's just a great group of guys all around.''

The final ingredient resides in the dugout, where Showalter has maximized his bullpen's versatility. Said Strop: "You've got a manager who knows how to use those weapons.''

Those weapons have come from different places. Some, such as O'Day and Ayala, once were castoffs. But with the Orioles, they're part of a unit that could shape the course of the ALDS.

"We are big-leaguers,'' Ayala said. "Every player that makes the big leagues can do something great. The only difference is we don't have big names.''

From this collection of imperfect pieces, the Orioles have achieved one form of perfection. They have yet to lose a game in which they held the lead after seven innings. In their wild-card victory over the Texas Rangers on Friday night, the Orioles improved to 75-0.

"No names,'' Ayala said. "Big men. That's the most important thing.''

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