Sigh of relief

Strong arms give team a leg up over last season

On the Orioles' bullpen

July 03, 2008|By DAVID STEELE

Matt Albers decided yesterday against surgery on his shoulder, which matters to the Orioles only in terms of how long he'll be out. Torn labrums on one of your most pleasant surprises of a surprising season are generally bad news, surgery or not.

Except that as Albers exits, Adam Loewen enters. The way he threw in his first game back Tuesday night at Camden Yards greatly eased the pain, figuratively speaking. His injury was supposed to be bad news, but he came back earlier than expected. Because the Orioles are in no mood to rush him back and will resist the temptation to start him this season, Loewen might have ended up solving the Albers problem practically as soon as it came up.

That's the kind of charmed life the Orioles bullpen is leading this year. Something good happens to counteract something bad. Question marks miraculously turn into exclamation points. Their slumps don't even last all that long, as the hero of that very same Tuesday night game against Kansas City, George Sherrill, has proved.

Everything the `pen touches in 2008 seems to turn to gold. No longer does it touch leads and turn them into ashes. You know, the way it did ... well, you know.

"We don't talk about last year," Dave Trembley reminded reporters before last night's game against the Royals. Looking at this year's team through the filter of the immediate or recent past is generally frowned upon and, if done too often, touches an obvious nerve around this team.

But you can't hide from the truth. A lot of new faces, a lot of increased production, a lot of the right buttons pushed and, it has become apparent, a little luck, mean the comparison is too obvious to ignore. So Trembley didn't.

"Those of us that endured some of that suffering at a particular point in time late in the season last year, I think, [know] our bullpen was less than major-league quality," the manager said, diplomatically. "And that's not telling you anything other than the fact. We have better arms from the bullpen this year, and we have better arms in the system that are coming that are very close to making it very not only interesting in our starting rotation but also finding their way into that bullpen."

It's the arms in the bullpen this year, though, the boost they've given this team, that are making the impact. It has turned this season 180 degrees from last year. It has made Trembley look like a better manager. It has filled Andy MacPhail's one-year report cards with A's. It has made the Miguel Tejada trade look like grand larceny, even though Albers is the second pitcher from that deal to go down with a serious arm injury and even though the Orioles are one injury or batting slump away from a "So You Think You Can Play Shortstop?" promotion at the ballpark.

Conversely, last year's bullpen very likely is what created job openings for Trembley and MacPhail. No wonder they don't want to belabor it. Along with everything else, it's cruel to Sam Perlozzo and Jim Duquette. They weren't even lucky enough to have injured former starters fall into their laps to throw middle relief when their incumbents got hurt.

The numbers tell the tale: The Orioles relievers went into last night with the fourth-best ERA among American League bullpens at 3.28, nearly 2 1/2 runs lower than the 5.71 figure that was third-worst in the AL last year. With Jamie Walker going into the DL, Chad Bradford is the only reliever left from the debacle of last season. Bradford looks like the Bradford they thought they'd picked up last season, and we now know that Walker has been pitching hurt.

Everybody else? Spectacular, unexpectedly so. Sherrill's struggles in recent weeks only accentuates how sharp he had been; otherwise, as Trembley said, "you talk about a story in Major League Baseball, it's got to be Sherrill."

Also worth singling out by the manager: Jim Johnson. "In February," Trembley said, "I didn't think Jim Johnson would play as significant a role as he has. The guy has come out of nowhere."

That fits for everybody involved. Even Loewen, although it's probably a little early to proclaim him the answer to the Albers problem. But there's no doubt that Loewen has made that problem a little easier to handle.

Nice to see the Orioles bullpen solving problems instead of causing them, isn't it?

david.steele@baltsun.com

Listen to David Steele on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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