O's have more than one option to close games
Johnson will still get chances, but Baltimore can use Hunter, O'Day, Matusz
BALTIMORE -- On most other nights in a late-August divisional game against Tampa Bay, Orioles closer Jim Johnson -- who threw 19 pitches on Tuesday in his first outing in four days -- would've jogged out from the bullpen to the Foo Fighters' "The Pretender" to man the ninth inning with a two-run lead.
Instead, manager Buck Showalter started the ninth with reliever Darren O'Day, who had pitched the eighth, and also used lefty Brian Matusz and righty Tommy Hunter, who recorded the save, leaving the struggling Johnson on the bench as the O's fight to stay in postseason contention.
That decision -- along with television footage of Johnson, who didn't even warm up -- was enough to lead to speculation regarding the team's closer role in the immediate future. Asked if staying away from Johnson -- who has blown three consecutive save opportunities -- was something to read into, Showalter didn't disagree.
"Oh, sure, you can read," he said.
"We've got 30-something games [left]. We're going to put our best foot forward every night," Showalter said. "Jimmy's our best option, one of them. I'm glad we've got more than one good option. We've got a lot of good options, and we'll continue to make use of them."
Prior to his recent rough stretch, Johnson (3-7, 3.58 ERA) had converted 10 straight saves, and he stills leads the American League in saves (39). But he's also tops in blown saves (nine), and the lockdown form he displayed in last year's All-Star season, in which he went 51-for-54 in save opportunites, hasn't been there consistently in 2013.
Johnson has allowed runs in four of his past five appearances, and based on what Showalter said, he still looks like the favorite to get the ball in the team's next save spot. But it isn't automatic, with Hunter, O'Day and Matusz all other options moving forward.
"I could have pushed it," Showalter said of using Johnson, who has pitched in 59 games. "[Johnson] had been up two or three days in a row and pitched last night. He's like second or third in appearances [in the AL], and I was trying real hard to stay away from him."
Hunter, who entered with runners on first and second and no outs, retired two batters before Matt Wieters threw out Kelly Johnson trying to steal second to end the game. Asked if he was surprised he was used in a save situation, Hunter said no.
"This is a baseball game," Hunter said. "Being a pitcher, you've got to be ready to go. When he got Matusz up, he got me up with him. It's like, 'That's the way he's going tonight.'"
Hunter has four career saves, all this season, and said he treats the ninth inning like any other portion of the game.
"That's just getting outs," Hunter said. "That's pretty much the basis of being a pitcher, is getting outs. It is what it is. Whether it's the sixth, ninth, eighth, seventh -- as baseball players, you have to get outs."
Hunter is part of a bullpen that has been the team's strength the past two seasons, and Showalter has meticulously monitored each reliever's workload, although he cautioned that will change until reinforcements arrive with September's expanded rosters.
Baltimore (68-58) will use an all-hands-on-deck approach to bridge to the expanded rosters, with top pitching prospect Kevin Gausman expected to be among the callups and likely to pitch out of the bullpen. On nights like Wednesday, when starter Wei-Yin Chen went seven innings, Showalter has more flexibility to play matchups late in the game.
In addition to Hunter, O'Day and Matusz, the Orioles also have Francisco Rodriguez, who was acquired in a trade from Milwaukee last month. No stranger to the ninth inning, Rodriguez has 304 career saves over a 12-year big league career, although he hasn't pitched particularly well with Baltimore. The veteran right-hander, who exited Friday's game with a right groin strain, has been able to avoid the disabled list and is another option for Showalter in the later innings.
Rodriguez, who had five scoreless appearances during the team's West Coast trip, is 1-0 with a 4.22 ERA in 11 games for the O's. Over 10 2/3 innings, he has allowed five earned runs on 11 hits, with three walks and 16 strikeouts.
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.