Commentary

O's bullpen mojo returns

Brian Matusz and Jim Johnson lead the charge as Baltimore evens ALDS

Updated: October 10, 2012, 1:06 PM ET
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

BALTIMORE -- The Baltimore Orioles' bullpen is one big happy family, and it's borne out by the crunch-time stats: The Orioles are 76-0 when leading after the seventh inning this season, and they have a 55-23 record in games decided by one or two runs. Once they get a lead, they hold onto it with the tenacity of Boog Powell clinging to a rib.

Closer Jim Johnson, the group's resident Big Bird, specializes in exclamation points. He pounds ground balls, punctuates games by shaking hands with catcher Matt Wieters halfway between the mound and home plate, and can expect to parlay his 51 saves and an All-Star appearance this season into a generous pay increase from his current $2.6 million salary during arbitration next spring.

The other guys --- Darren O'Day, Brian Matusz, Pedro Strop, et al -- do their jobs for less pay and negligible acclaim. They're masters of cleanup detail, without a whole lot of recognition or appreciation beyond the confines of the clubhouse. That's just part of the job description.

"Usually we're like offensive linemen," O'Day said. "Nobody talks to the O-lineman until he misses an assignment and the quarterback gets sacked and his head falls off, and then they want to talk to him. Sometimes it can be a thankless job. But we take pride in what we do. We have a lot of fun and we relish those big situations."

[+] EnlargeBrian Matusz
AP Photo/Nick WassMatusz allowed a .114 average against during the regular season as a reliever.

Johnson and his support staff did their jobs with aplomb during a 3-2 playoff victory over the New York Yankees on Monday night. It was just another cooperative effort between Baltimore's star closer and the unsung guys who do the heavy lifting.

With the Orioles' season on the line, Johnson proved that he does, indeed, have the requisite short memory for October baseball. He jogged out of the pen to raucous cheers and set down Derek Jeter, Ichiro Suzuki and Alex Rodriguez on 12 pitches in the top of the ninth to even the American League Division Series at one win apiece with three more games on tap at Yankee Stadium beginning Wednesday. The performance was sweet redemption for Johnson, who endured a rare stinker in a 7-2 loss in the series opener Sunday night.

"Human nature says it's going [to] bug you. It should, because you care," Johnson said. "Usually about an hour after you leave the ballpark, you clear it out of your system. You just have to trust your prep work, trust who you are and come back the next day and execute your pitches. It's that simple."

Johnson and the Orioles benefited from some bravura setup work in the seventh inning, when manager Buck Showalter pushed all the right buttons and O'Day and Matusz recorded big outs against formidable hitters under duress. So what else is new?

After Baltimore starter Wei-Yin Chen stood toe-to-toe with counterpart Andy Pettitte, things got a little dicey for Baltimore in the seventh. The Yankees pulled within 3-2 on a leadoff double by Eduardo Nunez and an RBI single from Jeter. After Ichiro reached on a fielders' choice, Showalter signaled for O'Day -- who has emerged as Baltimore's main setup option since Strop began struggling with his control, fatigue and/or general ineffectiveness late in the regular season.

O'Day struck out A-Rod for the second out of the inning while Ichiro stole second. Showalter then signaled for Matusz, who issued an intentional walk to Robinson Cano and compounded his problems with a wild pitch to put two runners in scoring position for New York.

It was a sequence that is worth dissecting: Why would the Orioles put the potential go-ahead run on base? Why did Showalter make the incoming pitcher, Matusz, begin his outing by throwing four wide rather than entrust that chore to O'Day on his way out of the game? And why would Showalter defy the percentages by having Matusz, a lefty, walk the left-handed hitting Cano and pitch to Nick Swisher, a switch-hitter who had the luxury of facing him from the right side?

"I think Buck was tired of seeing me pitch like a girl," cracked O'Day, the sidearmer. "Buck knows his numbers. There's no better prepared manager in the game. He's way over my head. Maybe he thought Matusz needs some practice on his intentional walks."

[+] EnlargeJim Johnson
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesAfter getting shelled in Game 1, Johnson retired all three batters he faced in Game 2.

The numbers showed why Showalter took the approach he did. Cano was hitting .321 (9-for-28) against Matusz, while Swisher was batting a feeble .053 against him. As for the intentional walk, Showalter said he wanted Matusz in the game to deliver it, rather than O'Day, because it would force New York manager Joe Girardi's hand and make him decide to either stick with Swisher or go to a pinch-hitter.

At any rate, the strategy paid off when Swisher lofted a harmless fly ball to left field to end the inning. Matusz stayed in the game and pitched a scoreless eighth to set the stage for Johnson.

Matusz has made his manager look smart an awful lot lately. He displayed a penchant for nibbling as a starter earlier this season, and gave up too many big innings on the way to some ugly numbers (a 5-10 record and a 5.42 ERA) and a demotion to Triple-A Norfolk in July. The Orioles moved Matusz to the bullpen upon his return to Baltimore in late August, and it's an understatement to say he has thrived in his new role. During the regular season, Matusz pitched to a 1.35 ERA in 18 relief outings and stranded all 14 inherited runners entrusted to him.

His teammates see a more consistent focus as the major reason for Matusz's turnaround. For a couple of years, the Orioles trumpeted Chris Tillman, Matusz and Zach Britton as the future of the organization. This year, Tillman took a huge leap forward in his progression, Britton had his moments, and Matusz transformed himself from struggling starter to dominant reliever.

"I've been here and seen Matusz for three years," center fielder Adam Jones said. "I've seen him good, I've seen him bad. The big thing now is that he's just getting that ball, picking up Wieters and throwing it through Wieters. I don't think he's really even looking at who's hitting."

Said Johnson: "The tempo is totally different. As a starter, you kind of feel your way through things. You don't have that luxury in the bullpen. You have to be aggressive and up-tempo. That makes him better because it takes a little bit of the thinking out of it. Less thinking is sometimes better for some people. Now he's able to focus on just making his pitch, and nothing else."

Does Matusz view himself as a reliever, or a starter who just happens to be pitching in relief?

"I'm a reliever," he said. "That's my role. It's a lot more fun coming to work every day knowing I have a possibility to get in there.

"It's a different world down there. Guys are goofing around trying to stay loose. But once guys get up and get ready, they put their game faces on. We have each others' backs. We support each other and we take it out there on the field."

Who knows what role Matusz might be asked to fill when he shows up for spring training in Sarasota, Fla., in spring training. The only focus now is on a best-of-three test in the Bronx that will bring the winning team another step closer to the World Series. Matusz has no idea when he'll be called upon, or which All-Star-caliber hitter he'll have to face next. He only knows that he'll be ready.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer