For most of this season Orioles manager Davey Johnson has used his bullpen to protect his valuable starting rotation. Now who will save the 'pen?
The New York Yankees forced the issue last night in a nationally televised 8-2 win over the Orioles before 47,264 at Camden Yards, denying the Orioles a clinch of at least a wild-card berth. The Yankees grabbed three of the series' four games by outscoring the Orioles 36-15. Of more concern, the Yankees again went wild once into the Orioles' bullpen.
Over the last 13 games the game's deepest bullpen is 0-5 with a blown save and an 8.55 ERA. In that span -- covering 46 1/3 innings -- relievers have surrendered 63 hits and 30 walks against 27 strikeouts, a disconcerting ratio suggesting fatigue, bad matchups, inexperience or a combination of the three.
During the four-game series against the Yankees, the 'pen was savaged for 16 earned runs in 14 1/3 innings -- a 10.05 ERA -- that included 15 walks offset by only six strikeouts.
Now the tough part.
Last night's game was only the opener in a grind that forces the Orioles to play five games in 46 hours.
Because of the impossible schedule, starter Scott Kamieniecki had geared himself to go at least seven innings. He had used only 77 pitches through five innings and assumed he would return for a sixth when Johnson told him he was done.
"It's a two-run game in the sixth inning," Kamieniecki said after taking his first loss since July 25. "We're only down 3-1 and I'm pitching good. Then I'm out of the game. I'm surprised."
Johnson explained that he was only protecting his pitcher after Kamieniecki asked out of last Monday's game in Cleveland after experiencing tightness in his right biceps.
Quickly, Arthur Rhodes and Alan Mills were torched for a three-run sixth inning capped by left fielder Chad Curtis' two-run homer.
Mills returned for the seventh inning, allowed two base runners, then looked on as Jesse Orosco came on to allow both inherited runners to score.
"Early in the season, everybody would have a down period, but then it was one of us at a time. Everybody else hid our faults," said Terry Mathews, who gave Johnson 1 1/3 scoreless innings last night, only his fourth scoreless outing among his last 13. "It's TTC a weird coincidence where this many of us are going through a bad spell at the same time.
"But you'd rather it happen now than three or four weeks from now [in the postseason]. It's not time to worry yet. Everybody still has time to find their groove."
Johnson maintains his bullpen is healthy and well-rested. However, long man Shawn Boskie is dealing with elbow pain and Mills has surrendered runs in five of his past eight outings after 15 consecutive scoreless appearances.
Rhodes' performance last night was hardly reassuring for a pitcher given significant down time recently to heal a tender right side.
"Everyone's a little bit off. When you have a rough game but somebody comes behind you to pick you up, you don't dwell on it," Mathews said. "Now the guy coming in behind you isn't doing the job. So he's dwelling on it, you're dwelling on it and it starts to snowball."
An avalanche may be on the way. The Orioles are relying on Esteban Yan and Nerio Rodriguez to pitch the day games of the two doubleheaders. Neither has suggested he can go more than five innings.
"Right now I'm paranoid. And I know I'll be paranoid the next two days," pitching coach Ray Miller said. "I know we agreed to this schedule and there are gates involved, but what if we were one game up instead of where we are? What if we were in a situation like San Francisco and Los Angeles with five games in 48 hours?"
Johnson added: "Once we get past the next couple days nobody's really overworked. I don't think anybody's overworked or laboring. If you get a well-pitched game, things get easy. If you don't, I haven't been abusing Orosco, Rhodes, [Armando] Benitez. The other long guys are going to get banged up a little bit, but that's going to happen if you don't get six or seven innings from the starters."
Closer Randy Myers discounted suggestions the bullpen is fatigued. Then again, Myers has received only one save opportunity since Aug. 23, a relative drought for a relief pitcher with 41 saves, and recently appeared in a non-save situation Sept. 4 just to find work.
"I don't think it's a big deal. It's September. You've got guys pitching out of sequence. How many leads have we had lately? Not a great deal. You have to look at the situations guys are coming into," he said.
"When the situation arises, you'll have Jesse, Armando and me ready. But what do I have, one save in 15 days?"
Pitching with a two-run lead in the eighth inning is different than pitching when behind five runs in the sixth. Recent problems within the rotation has placed the 'pen in the unfamiliar situation.