The Orioles were not a perfect team in 2012, though it's easy to get nostalgic about their first truly competitive season of this century. They were plugging holes in the starting rotation throughout the summer. They needed several months to assemble an adequate defense. And clutch hitting was always an issue.
The only component of the club that was never cause for serious concern was the bullpen, which was pretty much airtight and was the main reason the Orioles put up otherworldly numbers in one-run and extra-inning games.
In other words, Jim Johnson and Co. spoiled us all, and only now — during this discouraging homestand — are we getting a full understanding of just how good last year's bullpen was and this year's needs to be.
Of course, the focus has been squarely on Johnson, whose recent 35-save dalliance with late-inning perfection seemed like a distant memory when he blew his third straight save opportunity on Monday night against the first-place New York Yankees. His command problems have been so sudden and out of character that it's fair to wonder just how long they might persist.
It's not fair, however, to place the blame for the Orioles' first extended slump of the season solely at his feet. Johnson has given up eight earned runs and nine hits over just 2 1/3innings in his last three appearances before Tuesday's scoreless 10th — a scary line indeed — but he isn't the only reliever who has had trouble holding things together for the club's underperforming rotation. Entering Tuesday night's game, the rest of the bullpen had combined to pitch 20 1/3innings, allow 37 baserunners and post a 5.31 ERA.
Manager Buck Showalter isn't exactly freaking out after just one rocky week, but he knows how this kind of thing plays when the Orioles are going head-to-head with the teams they will need to beat consistently to get back to the postseason. He also knows that the members of that bullpen are way past patting themselves on the back for last year's performance.
“They want to help us win, and they will,” Showalter said. “Darren [O'Day] wasn't perfect all year last year. Pedro [Strop] wasn't perfect all year last year. And Jim Johnson wasn't perfect. You have failure here, and it's painful. It's hard to watch good people go through that, but they're strong guys.”
There are all sorts of possible explanations for their various struggles, but most everybody seems to think that it has something to do with the inability of the starters to consistently pitch into the late innings. Showalter has pushed a lot of buttons in an attempt to keep everyone fresh, but he concedes that it's unrealistic to expect an unbroken chain of scoreless performances when you're running four or five relievers to the mound in every game.
“You have to have a lot of pieces of that bridge working if you don't get deep in the game with your starters,'' Showalter said. “I've told you guys last year, the year before and I'll tell you this year again, if you're getting consistently deep into games with your starters, you'll have some fun. You'll shorten the outs you need to get. That's what the Yankees have been able to do for the most part, and the Red Sox. It's really not as complicated as I make it some times.”
The proof was in Tuesday night's performance by Miguel Gonzalez, who worked seven strong innings and set the table for Tommy Hunter and Johnson to throw three scoreless and deliver a 2012-like victory.
Catcher Matt Wieters has suffered through this stretch right along with the pitching staff, but he's still able to step back and see why this week-long flareup in the bullpen seems so alarming when viewed in contrast to last year. In essence, up until this homestand, everyone took for granted that the relievers would always come to the rescue.
“It gives you a good feel for what happened last year,'' he said. “We just have a few guys who are having a tough time, but I feel our bullpen is as good as last year. There are a lot of guys who improved their games since last year. Sometimes, struggling improves you as a pitcher.”
Fair is fair. The relievers didn't complain last year when the lack of timely hitting made their jobs harder, so you're not going to hear the hitters throwing anybody under the bus now that they are providing more consistent run-support.
“People want to point fingers, but we win and lose as a team,'' said center fielder Adam Jones. “There were points in [Monday's] game when we could have scored that extra run. There were spots where we could have moved the guy over. There are certain things where you can try to blame it on one guy at the end or in the middle ... but you can't. It's a team effort. We win or lose as a team, and right now we're in a little skid, but we still look at it the same way we did the last year and a half.”
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, “The Schmuck Stops Here” at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts “The Week in Review” at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.