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BALTIMORE – The biggest divas in modern baseball are relief pitchers, a group coddled and pampered like a rich old lady’s lap dog. They pitch one inning at a time. They rarely work on back-to-back days, and when they do, managers dare not use them a third consecutive. Almost every closer lounges in the clubhouse until the sixth inning or so, at which point he joins the rest of his bullpen mates. Some relievers exist strictly to get one out at a time. That’s equivalent to working 17 minutes, 47 seconds of an eight-hour day. Relievers are kings, and the rest of us are suckers.
Perhaps the worst trend of modern relief pitching is the intractability of bullpen roles. Their very existence is manicured. At some point, when baseball recognized that, yeah, it probably is a good idea to exploit platoon splits, managers started slotting relievers in specific situations. Seventh inning for one guy, eighth for another, ninth and only ninth for the closer. And even if the heart of the order was up in the eighth and Scrub Jones, Slappy Jackson and Pipsqueak Fontana in the ninth, roles are roles, and roles must be adhered to.
Then there is Buck Showalter, the manager of the Baltimore Orioles. On Thursday, he took a tire iron to roles. He threw arguably his best reliever in the sixth inning – and let him pitch another for good measure. He went to his closer for an out in the eighth inning, fully intending to use him for a four-out save. He managed like he always does: with a keen sense of the moment, a singular ability to suss out the right thing for the right time.
And, sure, the gas-station-next-to-a-match-factory that is the Detroit Tigers’ relief corps rendered Showalter’s freewheeling bullpen of yore rather moot in Game 1 of the American League Division Series, combusting with such rapidity that some good October baseball turned into a 12-3 rout. It was stark, actually, to see the two side by side, the Tigers’ biggest weakness exposing itself and the Orioles’ greatest strength doing just the same.
The Orioles are here, on the surface inexplicably, seeing as Manny Machado and Matt Wieters, their All-Star third baseman and catcher, are out with season-ending injuries, while their slugging first baseman, Chris Davis, is serving a suspension for amphetamine use. Their rotation, though far from shambles, pales compared to the Tigers’. Baltimore owes much of its success to a bullpen similarly anonymous, with rarity (left-handed closer) after rarity (submarining, 88-mph-throwing setup man) after rarity (manager who knows how to utilize them).
“In the postseason, you put your best guys out there to win the game,” Baltimore reliever Brian Matusz said. “There’s no holding back at this point. Buck’s done a good job all year of minimizing games by using the right guys. In a way, it works. Everyone’s in the game. Everyone’s ready at all times. It’s been working at this point, so let’s stick to it.
“I mean, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Miller go in the sixth inning.”
He meant Andrew Miller, the aforementioned sixth-inning monster. Since arriving in a July 31 trade with Boston, Miller has thrown 20 innings, struck out 34 and walked four. He is the monster they expected, and he pitched exclusively past the seventh inning. Only Game 1 provided Showalter with a different scenario and tested his improvisational skills. Ahead 3-2, with starter Chris Tillman already over 100 pitches and Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez and J.D. Martinez due up, Showalter spit at convention and embraced the concept of high-leverage situations.
After walking Cabrera, Miller struck out both Martinezes and induced an Alex Avila pop-up. He got two more outs in the seventh, tying his season best with 32 pitches in the first playoff appearance of his career. On the bench with a foot injury during the Red Sox’s championship run last season, Miller saw the dominance of Boston’s bullpen and expects Showalter to run his out in similar, if not even more daring, fashion.
“The guys that are out there are ready for anything,” he said. “That’s the way it goes. That’s what playoff baseball is all about. ... That’s reality in the playoffs, and I hope we all have enough left in the tank.”
The full embrace of his players is part of Showalter’s virtuosity. It’s one thing to manage a bullpen like it should be; it’s another for the relievers to step away from the cosseted existence to embrace it.
Granted, Showalter’s bullpen is a veritable Breakfast Club of cast-offs and failures who found life under Showalter. Closer Zach Britton lost his rotation spot, ended up a reliever and earned the closer slot rather than Peter Principling his way in as occasionally happens. Darren O’Day, the submariner, was let go by the Angels (oops!), the Mets (eek!) and the Rangers (yikes!) before landing in Baltimore, where over nearly 200 innings he has put up a 2.05 ERA. They combined for four more outs, the lone blemish a Cabrera solo home run off O’Day, which came right after Torii Hunter lined out as Ian Kinsler tried to steal second, the easiest double play of the postseason. Britton would’ve returned after getting one out in the eighth if not for the Orioles turning around and going crazy for eight in the bottom of the inning.
“I was ready, and I’ll be ready throughout the postseason if he needs to use me in the eighth, seventh, wherever it is,” Britton said. “I don’t think people feel like they’re entitled to throw a certain inning. That’s a lot of it. Some guys maybe feel like if you’re the closer you only throw the ninth. It’s not our mindset here. We’re team guys. If he needs to throw us in the fifth, we’re going to throw the fifth.
“He’s going to throw the best guy for the situation. If that’s you, you’re going into the game.”
The immense respect for Showalter inside the Orioles’ clubhouse goes beyond the players’ words. They know he arrives at the stadium before 1 p.m. for a 7 o’clock game. They recognize that he somehow functions at a high level on the sort of sleep that would leave an average man with bags the size of potato sacks under his eyes. They appreciate the thought he puts into his decisions.
“I wouldn’t have signed on for six more years if I didn’t like him,” said Orioles star Adam Jones, he of the six-year, $85.5 million deal. So much of modern managing is about placating ridiculously rich young men who can mutiny against authority, and the 58-year-old Showalter’s ability to cohere them might be his finest gift.
His intellect, of course, is up there with it, and while managers around baseball play paint-by-numbers bullpen in October, Showalter showed in his first game this postseason he’s doing calculus to their one-digit addition.
“It’s the postseason,” he said. “We’ve talked to ’em since the season was over about how this was gonna work. There aren’t guys strolling down there after the fifth inning like they normally do. They know that it’s all hands on deck.”
With starters Ubaldo Jimenez and Kevin Gausman to use, Showalter finds himself with even more hands than needed, a problem Tigers manager Brad Ausmus wished he had. At one point Thursday, Detroit’s bullpen sported a team ERA of 162.00 – and, no, that decimal point is not misplaced. Joba Chamberlain’s ERA was infinity. Joakim Soria allowed four runs. And those are the two setup men in front of closer Joe Nathan, who gas-canned his way through 2014.
Nobody would blame Ausmus for being jealous of Showalter’s options, though absent them he still could take a few pointers. The best tactician in baseball sits in the Orioles’ dugout, the one who all season didn’t just manage his relievers’ innings totals and pitch counts but kept track of how often they warmed up. He wanted them ready for now, ready for the time he would deploy them at his whim.
Ready for the divas to get a little dirt under that manicure.