Orioles manager Buck Showalter is one of the best in baseball at managing a bullpen. He doesn’t make relievers warm-up needlessly and he doesn’t manage every night like it is the seventh game of the World Series.
I’ve covered managers like that, and they burn out their bullpens by July.
So it’s refreshing to see a manager handle his relievers with care, not putting them in harm’s way and sometimes sacrificing one game now to win more later on.
It’s refreshing, until it doesn’t work.
And that’s what happened Thursday night in the Orioles’ 4-0 loss to the Washington Nationals.
Showalter’s cautious nature may not have lost the game for the Orioles. But it prohibited them from having a chance to win it.
The Orioles had already taken three straight from the Nationals heading into Thursday. So, in a sense, maybe they were playing with house money in the bottom of the eighth, down 1-0 to Nats’ ace Max Scherzer, who was twirling a two-hit shutout.
Maybe Showalter figured this one was almost certainly in the loss column anyway. So he decided to pitch right-hander Logan Ondrusek a second inning.
Ondrusek had allowed just one hit in the seventh and had struck out two batters. But Ondrusek was called up from Double-A Bowie on Thursday morning and hadn’t pitched in a big-league game for the Orioles since Aug. 11. He had a 6.75 ERA in six previous outings with the Orioles this year. By all accounts, getting one solid inning from him Thursday was more than adequate.
But Showalter sent him back out for the eighth to face the top of Washington’s order. No other reliever was warming.
Brad Brach, who is the Orioles’ top eighth-inning reliever, was not summoned despite pitching just twice in the past eight days, throwing 25 pitches total in those two outings.
The reason, Showalter said, was simple.
The Orioles were losing, Brach has pitched a lot this year, and Showalter doesn’t typically use Brach when his team is down.
“We were behind 1-0 and I don’t like him pitching there,” Showalter said after the game. “He’s had (55) outings. We’re gonna keep him healthy and that’s not a position that he’s pitched in all year. And he’s not going to start tonight.”
So Ondrusek pitched the eighth. He gave up a single to Trea Turner, a single to Jayson Werth and a double to Daniel Murphy that scored Turner.
Mike Wright, who was recalled from Triple-A Norfolk on Wednesday, entered and surrendered a two-run double to Bryce Harper.
The bleeding stopped then, but the Orioles failed to solve closer Mark Melancon in the ninth.
The Orioles lost by four, yet Showalter has his primary relief corps rested for the upcoming, there-game series in Yankee Stadium that starts Friday.
He’ll probably get some more bullpen reinforcements, since Ondrusek and Wright aren’t guys who pitch in back-to-back games, so one or both could be headed back to the minors.
Showalter made another curious move in the ninth, pinch-hitting Pedro Alvarez for Adam Jones. But that one was more easily explainable.
“(Jones) had a cramp in the hamstring in one leg. Felt it earlier in the game, and I just didn’t like the description,” Showalter said, “I talked to him when he came off the field in the bottom of the eighth. It’s just not worth taking a chance, because we really don’t have much depth at that position, either.”
Jones said he was fine and will play Friday in New York.
Winning in the division and on the road is key for the stretch run. So this three-game series versus the Yankees certainly holds some significance.
And that’s part of why Showalter did what he did in the eighth Thursday.
Theoretically, I get it.
But down just one run with a roster filled with one-swing, game-changers, to me it’s worth it to use the best pitcher possible. In that situation, it would have been Brach, not a guy just back from the minors.
Showalter was willing to sacrifice an outside chance at winning to keep his guys rested and healthy. That’s his modus operandi. Maybe that pays off in the long run.
Or maybe this loss will haunt the club in late September.