BY BRIAN REID
This time last week, the Orioles were staring down the barrel of disaster. Home plate umpire Sam Holbrook ejected Orioles’ starting pitcher Kevin Gausman after the first pitch of the second inning. The Orioles used their long reliever, Alec Asher, in a spot start the previous night. They had called up Richard Bleier from AAA on the Norfolk Shuttle earlier that day to fill the void, and now he would have to give them key innings to save the rest of the bullpen. Bleier rose to the challenge, giving up just one earned run in four innings of relief, in what ultimately turned out to be a losing effort.
The disaster spilled over into the next day. Manager Buck Showalter had elected to use Ubaldo Jimenez, the projected starter for the final game in Boston, in the final three innings of the previous night’s game, after Bleier. Tyler Wilson rode the Norfolk Shuttle to Boston to make the start. Wilson was excellent, giving up three earned runs in 6 innings and earning the victory.
The game on Friday was set to offer a return to normalcy. Then, Wade Miley was struck by two hard hit balls in the first inning and had to leave. Gabriel Ynoa, the newest addition to the bullpen, was called into action. He pitched an absolute gem, giving up 6 hits in 6 innings while recording 5 strikeouts and not allowing a single run on his way to his first win of the season.
On Sunday, it was Asher’s turn again, coming on in relief of starter Chris Tillman. Asher provided 3 1/3 scoreless innings, allowing 5 hits and striking out 2. Finally, last night, the Orioles turned to their most recent Norfolk Shuttle passenger, Logan Verrett, for three innings in a tie game against one of the hottest offensive teams in baseball. Verrett, like Ynoa, earned the win without allowing a run.
For those keeping track at home, that’s five pitchers who were sent down and called up within a week’s span. They combined to give up just four runs in 22 1/3 innings in absolutely dire straits for the Orioles. Their contributions have had an enormous, if not central, role in the current 6-game winning streak. These largely unsung heroes were rewarded for their clutch performances with a bus ticket to Norfolk and a quick, “See you in five days” from Showalter.
The other amazing factor in the story of the Norfolk shuttle is that, besides Tyler Wilson, none of the pitchers mentioned above played for the Orioles last year. Asher, Ynoa, Bleier, and Verrett were all acquired via offseason trade. Say what you will about Orioles Executive VP Dan Duquette, but even his most staunch critics must give him praise for the way he has assembled a “long-reliever by committee” this season.
Together, Duquette and Showalter have mastered the use of the 40-man roster as a means to keep the bullpen fresh behind what is often shaky starting pitching. The constantly rotating bullpen arms may be the way the Orioles beat PECOTA projections year after year. Norfolk Tides manager Ron Johnson perhaps deserves the most credit. His pitching roster is constantly in flux, and when swaps between the rosters are made, he often gets a pitcher who just pitched his absolute maximum number of innings the previous night. Johnson takes all of this in stride, while somehow managing to always have an arm or two ready to be sent up to the majors. Like the Norfolk Shuttle pitchers, he too can be considered an unsung hero in this winning streak.
The Norfolk Shuttle has enabled the Orioles to become one of baseball’s most resilient teams. Losing starts for three pitchers in a three day span would decimate the bullpens of most teams, but Showalter, Duquette, and Johnson managed the 40-man roster without a hitch, winning 2 of those 3. All three men, and the pitchers who obligingly ride the shuttle week after week, deserve praise for this 6-game winning streak. The Norfolk Shuttle made it happen and will continue to deliver fresh arms whenever the need arises.