ANAHEIM, Calif. — Shintaro Fujinami knew he needed the pitch out of the zone.
That hasn’t usually been his focus since joining the Orioles in July. The right-handed reliever has struggled mostly from a lack of control; pounding the zone with strikes has been the constant chorus from Baltimore’s pitching coaches.
But in this case, Fujinami had already blown two pitches by Los Angeles Angels first baseman Nolan Schanuel, and a mistake there, with two strikes and two outs in the 10th inning, could prove to be an unrecoverable blow to a bullpen that was short its best-remaining option and had already allowed four runs in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
The game was hanging on the balance of Fujinami, who hadn’t been thrust into a high-leverage situation for weeks. He needed this — the Orioles needed this — and he got it done.
Schanuel offered on the low splitter, placed to perfection out of his reach, and Fujinami’s 10th-inning save secured Baltimore’s 5-4 victory against the Angels in extra innings of a game that could’ve been wrapped up earlier had the Orioles’ bullpen not shown signs of stress without closer Félix Bautista or setup man Yennier Cano available — one for perhaps the rest of the season, the other just for one night.
“Our man Fuji, that’s the stuff we’re looking for right there,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Taking a chance with the stuff there, with three lefties there, hopefully he can get a punchout or two, and he did. Hopefully, that can get him going a little bit, because that was unbelievable pitching there in the 10th inning.”
Fujinami sealed his second save since joining Baltimore in a trade from the Oakland Athletics, and in doing so, he preserved the Orioles’ 3.5-game lead on top of the American League East. Behind him and an offense that fought back late, the Orioles won their fourth straight game of a lengthy road trip.
They did that in spite of a bullpen that fumbled away a two-run lead while it covered for the shortened start from right-hander Dean Kremer. And without Bautista or Cano in the fold, new pitchers were in new situations.
Right-hander Jorge López, a waiver claim over the weekend, pitched and allowed two runs in the seventh. Right-hander Jacob Webb, another waiver claim, to the mound in the eighth — where another run crossed. Hyde turned to left-hander DL Hall with the ninth-inning responsibility of securing his second career save, something he didn’t achieve.
When the lead evaporated, though, a pair of pinch-hit appearances in the ninth inning preserved Baltimore’s chances.
First came Adam Frazier with a bloop double that landed just inside the left-field line. Then Ryan O’Hearn, a relatively minor offseason acquisition who has turned into a vital piece of the Orioles’ lineup, came to the plate.
O’Hearn hasn’t been thrust into the pinch-hitting role as frequently as he was earlier in his career, because with the Orioles, the first baseman is nearly an everyday player. His experience as a pinch hitter from his time with the Royals is still invaluable here, though, because the poise it takes to pinch hit is something learned — and in a young Baltimore clubhouse, many haven’t had the chance yet.
“It’s acquired from practice,” O’Hearn said. “Not many guys get the ability to practice pinch hitting and actively do it. It wouldn’t have been my first choice, but that’s what I did last year. Just kind of taking that experience and bottling it up and using it whenever I get an opportunity to help the team here.”
So O’Hearn came to the plate in the top of the ninth inning with Frazier on second. He had spent much of the evening in the batting cages below the stands, studying which relief pitchers he might face and taking hacks against the machine to prepare. He came up against right-hander Carlos Estévez searching for a fastball he could hit into left field or a slider to pull into right-center.
He got the fastball. He hit it to left field, and in came Frazier as the tying run.
“O’Hearn has just been an amazing story for us,” Hyde said. O’Hearn hardly played late in the year for Kansas City and managed 16 RBIs in 67 games. Now, O’Hearn’s ninth-inning run-scoring single pushed home his 50th RBI of the season and brought his batting average to .303.
“He continues to get enormous hits on I feel like almost a nightly basis,” Hyde said.
Ryan Mountcastle provided the go-ahead RBI in the ninth, but Hall couldn’t hold the one-run advantage. Once Hall conceded the tying run, two groundouts from Gunnar Henderson and Jordan Westburg brought home the eventual game-winning run in the 10th.
That left Fujinami to enter out of the bullpen in a position he’s been kept away from for some time. He’s been up and down. It’s hard to know how exactly his control might look before he takes the mound.
But without Bautista and Cano — the two most reliable relievers thus far — the Orioles needed Fujinami’s best. And with a splitter down below the zone, they got it.
“Each outing, I feel like I get better,” Fujinami said through interpreter Issei Kamada. “But especially tonight’s outing gave me more confidence.”