Dillon Tate believes what happened to him last year — a lingering elbow injury that kept him from contributing to a 101-win Orioles team — can happen to anyone. It was just his turn this time.

As he returns to a bullpen that’s without injured closer Félix Bautista for the entire season and that has plenty of question marks among the players who will be pitching the middle and late innings, he’s seeking to do something a bit more uncommon. He wants to prove he can sustain success pitching the late innings, where outside a select few top arms volatility is almost to be expected.

“The motivation is to show I can still play in the best division in baseball,” Tate said. “I know that I can.”

Such a return would be welcome for manager Brandon Hyde, who still has All-Star Yennier Cano to slot into a setup role in front of new closer Craig Kimbrel but who found out firsthand with the uneven 2023 seasons of Bryan Baker and Cionel Pérez — two other pitchers who took a massive step forward in 2022 — that outputs from relievers can vary from year to year.

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He’ll be hoping for more of the same from Tate on his return. In 2022, Tate, whom the Orioles acquired in a 2018 trade that sent Zack Britton to the Yankees, had a 3.05 ERA and a 0.99 WHIP, with even more impressive under-the-hood relief metrics.

Tate allowed just two of the 23 baserunners he inherited to score in 2022; at 91%, that was the highest strand rate of anyone who had come to the mound with at least 20 runners on base over the course of the season.

He had an elite ground ball rate at 58.9% — no doubt a part of that success — and Hyde frequently summoned him in situations when the team needed a ground ball. Tate often delivered.

The stage was set for quite a follow-up. Tate was going to pitch for Team USA in the World Baseball Classic, but elbow soreness kept him out of it and he was placed on the injured list with a right flexor mass strain to begin the season. While the injury can often be a precursor to Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, it can also be slow to heal. And being medically cleared isn’t the same as being healthy and ready.

Tate went on a rehab assignment in April and made 10 appearances before he was shut down again. His velocity fell steadily as the second half of his rehab at Norfolk progressed, and Tate revealed that the process of getting “back into the regular swing of the baseball season was when I started having complications.”

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“It’s not just being here [in Sarasota, Florida] doing a throwing program, and then coming inside and getting your work done every day,” Tate said. “You’ve got to do your throwing program; you’ve got to go out for batting practice. There’s a lot of throws that happen throughout the course of the season, and that’s outside of pitching. My body wasn’t ready to handle that amount of throws.”

He viewed his recovery as a challenge any competitor would embrace.

“You’re always trying to get the best out of yourself, so I’m going to do as many treatments as I can, I’ll go wherever I have to go — I don’t care how far I have to drive,” Tate said. “I don’t care how far I have to fly. I’ll get the answers that I need. Our medical staff was patient with me, and they gave me what I needed.”

Tate had a 0.991 WHIP and a 3.05 ERA in 67 appearances in 2022. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

Still, Tate knows his body as well as anyone. He spends time on the mound doing dry repetitions of his delivery without a ball to ensure he has the consistent feel of his pitching mechanics he’s seeking, and his offseason work at Driveline is designed to get the most power he can into his pitches. Tate acknowledges injuries happen to everyone. The lingering ones are the most challenging.

“At a certain point in the rehab process, I was just going out there to have fun with baseball,” he said. “I knew that I wasn’t at 100%, so you have to take it with a grain of salt. You have to go out there and play baseball, and it is what it is.”

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He had a second rehab stint beginning June 15, making three appearances, and was eventually shut down in mid-July.

The Orioles bullpen was strong without him but faded down the stretch. Cano’s emergence was vital to that, and at times Pérez, Mike Baumann and Baker were their best selves. DL Hall came up to provide a dynamic late-inning arm after Bautista’s injury, but he was traded to Milwaukee for ace Corbin Burnes. Shintaro Fujinami was a low-cost trade acquisition who didn’t make the postseason roster, and waiver claim Jacob Webb — who started his Orioles career well — yielded costly runs in big spots in the postseason.

A consistent and healthy Tate would be a welcome addition to the 2024 group, and he’s been perfect in three spring training outings. It’s a reward for the patience his rehab required.

“You’ve got to experience some lows to really experience the high in its best form,” Tate said. “That’s how I went through it.”

Jon Meoli is the Baltimore Banner's Orioles columnist and head women's ice hockey coach at Loyola University Maryland.

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