Orioles’ closer Félix Bautista unleashed one last pitch before finally relaxing into a big smile.

It wasn’t a game, but rather just a session off the mound against one hitter on Tuesday afternoon before the Orioles opened a two-game series against the Nationals. But for Bautista, who partially tore his UCL a month ago, it was another step closer to a potential return during the postseason. He threw 25 pitches as he faced a hitter for the first time.

“Great to see him out there,” manager Brandon Hyde said. “Hopefully he feels good tomorrow.”

It still may not make a difference. There are only six regular season games remaining. If they clinch the AL East — which they are potentially one day away from doing — they have until the American League Division series Oct. 7. If they don’t, the wild-card series will begin on Oct. 3.

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“We are running out of time,” Hyde said. “He’s going to need to get on the mound more often.”

Bautista injured his elbow on Aug. 25 against the Rockies and was diagnosed with an acute-on-chronic UCL injury, meaning the partial tear was sudden but there was already stress in the elbow due to how hard he throws. Doctors determined that immediate action was not needed and that it would not do his elbow any additional harm if he tried to continue throwing. Surgery — such as Tommy John — may still be needed at a later date regardless of whether he is able to come back this year.

Bautista began cautiously testing out his elbow, playing light catch two weeks after the injury. Eventually he built up to playing long toss before throwing off a mound in a bullpen session and now facing hitter. With each step, he’s increased the intensity.

He’s responded well to every new task, Hyde said, but they will continue to monitor how he feels.

On Tuesday, as Bautista took this step forward, his teammates gathered in the dugout to watch their closer. They’ve taken on an additional load in his absence. With the roles reshuffled, Yennier Cano, Shintaro Fujinami, Danny Coulombe and Cionel Perez have all been used in save situations. DL Hall is also an option.

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“It’s definitely an adjustment,” Coloumbe said. “Guys are hanging in there, guys are grinding. I think everyone understands that you can’t replace a guy like that, people just need to step up and a lot of guys have.”

danielle.allentuck@thebaltimorebanner.com

Danielle Allentuck covers the Orioles for The Baltimore Banner. She previously reported on the Rockies for the Denver Gazette and general sports assignments for The New York Times as part of its fellowship program. A Maryland native, Danielle grew up in Montgomery County and graduated from Ithaca College. 

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