MLB.com Columnist

Tracy Ringolsby

O's closing in with masterful 'penmanship

Britton, Brach anchor Baltimore's reliable relief unit in tight AL East race

O's closing in with masterful 'penmanship

SAN FRANCISCO -- Thirty-six years later, and the memory still haunts Orioles general manager Dan Duquette, who at the time was the assistant director of player development and scouting for a Brewers team that made what remains the only World Series appearance in franchise history.

Rollie Fingers had been the American League MVP and Cy Young Award winner the year before, and had 29 saves by the final days of August in 1982, only to suffer an arm injury that sidelined him for more than a year. He missed the 1982 postseason in which the Brewers rallied after losing the first two games of the best-of-five AL Championship Series with the Angels and then fell to the Cardinals in a seven-game World Series.

"If Fingers wasn't hurt," said Duquette, who at the time was in only his second year as a member of a big league front office. "It is not just what he did on the mound, but the feeling he gave everybody in that clubhouse. It impressed on me the importance of a bullpen for a championship team."

In putting together the Orioles roster, Duquette has successfully created the most dependable bullpen in the AL, overseen by a manager, Buck Showalter, who Duquette feels "handles a bullpen so well. It is one of his strengths."

And it is a prime reason the Orioles are very much a factor in the AL East. They are a half-game behind the first-place Blue Jays thanks to an 8-7 victory on Sunday afternoon capped off by Zach Britton closing out his 37th save in 37 opportunities and lowering his ERA to 0.54.

Impressive? Well, understand the Orioles were down 7-1 through five innings but came back after grinding out two runs in the seventh, a two-run home run from Mark Trumbo in the eighth and a game-deciding three-run shot from Jonathan Schoop off Giants closer Santiago Casilla with two outs in the ninth.

Must C: O's rally to beat Giants

Rewarding? For sure, but it also was challenging.

"I don't take anything for granted," Showalter said. "Too many things can happen."

They didn't happen on Sunday, however. Oh, Britton did have to work out of a two-on, two-out situation, getting Denard Span to ground into a fielder's choice. But Britton also admits he had to work up that emotional charge relievers rely on when they get the ninth-inning call.

"You have to regroup in a hurry when you come back with two outs," Britton said. "You always feel these guys can come back, but they are up with two outs in the ninth, and they have a good ballclub. Next thing you know you have to warm up quick. You have to battle a little."

But that's nothing new for these Orioles. They have these late-inning rallies down pat. They have scored 182 runs in the seventh inning or later, which ranks third in the AL, and 55 of their MLB-leading 176 home runs have come after the sixth. They have come from behind in 34 of their 66 victories -- 13 times when they have trailed after the sixth inning.

"The way the lineup approaches things is what make it all happen," Britton said. "It's the last day of [a 10-game] road trip, we're down 7-1 early, but nobody is going to give in. It's fun to watch."

Yes, the Orioles lead the Majors with 176 home runs, and that is a powerful weapon, but nothing is more dominating than that bullpen, anchored by closer Britton and setup man Brad Brach.

Brach's 7-1 record and 1.34 ERA is impressive, but then there is Britton, in the midst of a record 41 consecutive scoreless relief appearances and having converted all 37 save opportunities, the fifth-longest season-opening streak and longest by a left-hander.

They are the foundation for a bullpen that has offset a rotation that ranks eighth in the AL with a 39-42 record and 12th with a 4.82 ERA. Orioles relievers have worked more innings (394 1/3) than all but two AL bullpens, compiling the lowest ERA (3.15) of any AL bullpen and leading the Majors with 43 saves -- 37 by Britton, three from injured right-hander Darren O'Day, two by Brach and one from Ubaldo Jimenez.

That bullpen is pretty close to unbeatable, but as Showalter knows, perfection is rarely a part of the fabric of a baseball game -- not even for Britton. He has, after all, given up three earned runs this season.

"I don't take anything Zach's doing for granted," Showalter said. "I appreciate every moment. At some point it's not going to work out that way. That's part of the game."

Showalter paused, and smiled.

"Zach's the guy who is always defending the heavyweight title," he said. "Someone is always trying to get that knockout punch."

Nobody, however, has succeeded -- at least not this season.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.