Orioles' Bullpen Gets a Breather
By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2004; Page D07
CLEVELAND, May 2 -- The dark clouds that seem to have followed the Baltimore Orioles around for more than a month -- in a strictly literal sense, since, figuratively speaking, their 12-10 start and flirtation with first place have been like rays of sunshine -- produced yet another rainout for the team on Sunday, which was good news for the Orioles' bodies, but bad news for their souls.
Sunday's postponement, which is already the team's fourth of the season, means the Orioles will have to play one less game without centerpiece catcher Javy Lopez (strained oblique), whose absence during losses the two previous days was acutely felt. And it means their overburdened bullpen, which has pitched more innings than any in the league, gets an extra day to replenish its supply of arms.
That bullpen was further bolstered by the team's decision to move struggling left-hander Matt Riley -- Sunday's scheduled starter against the Cleveland Indians -- out of the rotation for the next two weeks and into the bullpen.
Thanks to a pair of upcoming off-days, the team will not need him to start again until May 14, making him the de facto fifth starter.
However, for a team still kicking itself for losing an exceedingly winnable game Saturday afternoon -- a 3-2, 13-inning loss that stands as perhaps the most painful of the season -- Sunday's rainout merely forces the Orioles to endure 24 more hours of stewing over their failures the day before.
Among them, twice failing in extra innings to get a runner home from third base with less than two outs.
Manager Lee Mazzilli spent a good deal of Saturday evening replaying the game in his head, considering and reconsidering the many turning points that hinged on strategy. But at the end of the night, he decidedly resolutely that he would not have done anything differently.
"It's tough for me, going back and thinking about it," Mazzilli said.
"No one likes to lose that way. But through the course of the year you get games like that. You could say, 'I wish I did this.' But I really couldn't do that. What could I [have done]? I was limited in what I could do on the bench. And the bullpen did what it had to do."
Thus, Mazzilli, for instance, stands by his decisions to let light-hitting backup catcher Keith Osik swing away rather than lay down a sacrifice bunt with nobody out and a runner on first in the eighth inning . . .
("Everybody in the stadium was looking for a bunt, and [Indians infielders] were all charging," Mazzilli said, "so we tried to hit-and-run. If [Osik] shoots it through [the hole], it's first-and-third, nobody out. But he pops it up.")
. . . and to leave right-hander Mike DeJean in the game to face switch-hitter Coco Crisp with the winning run on second base in the 13th, despite the fact lefty Buddy Groom was ready and Crisp was hitting nearly 150 points lower this season against lefties than against right-handers.
("Groom can't give me more than a few batters," Mazzilli said, "and I was starting to run out of guys out there [in the bullpen]. [Rick] Bauer was running on fumes. They had two switch-hitters coming up. That's DeJean's role. If that ground ball is hit at someone, it's a double play. But it goes through, and we lose. What are you gonna do?")
The fact the Orioles' bullpen held the Indians scoreless for seven innings, giving the team multiple chances to win, before DeJean gave up a run in the 13th is nothing new. This bullpen has maintained a 2.87 ERA (second only to Boston's) despite pitching more innings than any other in the league.
Rodrigo Lopez's 31/3-inning scoreless stint on Saturday and DeJean's 21/3-inning effort marked the third and fourth times in the Orioles' last five games they have asked a reliever to stay on the mound for a third inning of work or longer. Such efforts, which mostly have fallen upon Lopez and Bauer, might be the only thing saving the Orioles' bullpen from absolute implosion.
"The more outs you put on your bullpen, the more chances you have to fail," said veteran Groom. "But even though we've thrown that many innings, it hasn't really been that bad, because Bauer and Lopez have been able to eat up multiple innings, and it's not as taxing on everyone else. Those guys have been able to save us.
"But I'd hate to think of where we'd be without them."
Orioles Notes: Sunday's rainout will likely be made up on June 14, a mutual off-day for the Indians and Orioles (who will have just wrapped up a homestand and will be on their way to Los Angeles). . . .
Javy Lopez said he hopes to be able to play Monday, when the Orioles open a three-game series against the Chicago White Sox in Baltimore. "I have to be careful," he said. "It's a long season, and I look forward to September, so I have to take it easy now."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company