SARASOTA, Fla. — In prior years, hitters standing in the box to face right-hander Eduard Bazardo knew what was coming. It was either his upper-90s four-seam fastball or his slider, and while knowing didn’t make it any easier, it cut down on the guessing.
Bazardo is a different pitcher now, though. He’s in Orioles spring training as a non-roster invitee with the intention of proving it.
The former Red Sox prospect finds himself in this position, pushing for a bullpen role once camp breaks, because there was always something missing from his time in Boston’s organization. In 2021, it was a lat strain that prevented him from making more of a major league impact. In 2022, it was an elevated WHIP in Triple-A.
But in 2023?
Bazardo is healthy, and through two spring training appearances for Baltimore, the 27-year-old has displayed how he’s far beyond the two-pitch pitcher he was in previous seasons. He has five in his arsenal now, and is confident he can throw them all for strikes.
That’s the sticking point for Bazardo.
“We love his stuff,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “He’s got off-the-charts stuff. It’s about throwing strikes. We’re trying to find out if he can throw enough strikes and get big league hitters out and work ahead in the count like about nine of our guys back there.”
Compared to a year ago, the Orioles have a better understanding of how their bullpen will look heading into the season. But there is still a chance for the unheralded Bazardo to play himself into contention, just as some key contributors did last year.
In 2022, Hyde didn’t know right-hander Félix Bautista would blossom into the club’s closer, boasting one of the best splitters in baseball. Hyde didn’t know right-hander Bryan Baker and left-hander Cionel Pérez would hold down late-inning roles for the team — and find so much success doing so.
“There’s a lot of guys in this camp that are in similar shoes as Baker, Pérez, Bautista last year,” Hyde said. “Those guys obviously took to it and were awesome for us last year. Hopefully we can find a couple more like that.”
So early in spring training, with the calendar only now flipping to March, any projections on who those players will be is premature. Bazardo, however, sees himself in that conversation.
He began throwing a splitter in 2019, but he didn’t develop trust in the pitch until this offseason. After the lat injury caused the spin rate on his four-seamer to drop, he relied more on his sinker.
Bazardo can couple the splitter with his sinker back-to-back, giving the batter a view of two pitches that mirror each other until about halfway to the plate. Then, the splitter dives. The sinker — which he throws with more of a two-seam grip — has arm-side run that’s effective in right-on-right matchups.
Now, his spin rate is back to where it was pre-injury, and his five-pitch mix — which includes a curveball and slider — gives him an arsenal wider than most relievers.
“I try to get all my pitches thrown in the game,” Bazardo said. “But sometimes when I get into a situation, I come in with just two pitches, probably fastball and slider, because I know I can make outs with those pitches. But this year, I try to use all my pitches to see how the hitter works it out with all my pitches, and see what’s going on this year.”
In his first outing, Bazardo struck out two batters and retired the side in order, utilizing his slider for the final whiff.
On Tuesday in Bradenton, Florida, he walked off the mound shaking his head in disgust. Bazardo struck out the first batter he faced with his four-seam fastball catching the bottom corner of the zone. He forced the second to ground out with a sinker that ran in on the hands of the batter.
But the third batter, Jason Delay, jumped all over a hanging slider and blasted it 401 feet for a homer. It’s the only hit Bazardo has allowed this spring.
To make the team, Bazardo knows he has to live in the strike zone. He’s done so in both appearances. But to pound the strike zone leaves the window open for one big, game-changing swing.
That’s the life of a reliever. He lives with the blemish until the next chance to take the mound and do it all again.