PHILADELPHIA — The temptation is there on a nightly basis for Brandon Hyde, and it’s understandable why. When the Orioles manager looks at the situation, then looks at his bullpen, there’s one name that sticks out more evidently than any other.
Félix Bautista, Baltimore’s second-year closer, is on pace for his busiest season ever. He’s also on pace for his best season ever — and one of the best in baseball at large. For a relief pitcher to receive Major League Baseball’s Cy Young Award is to overcome a skew toward starting pitchers. Nine relievers have won the award since its inception in 1956, the latest coming in 2003.
Bautista, whose confidence never extends anywhere close to cockiness, wouldn’t be drawn into a discussion of how supreme his season has been. The 28-year-old admitted he likes to take certain moments to reflect on his journey — which was long and winding and led to an All-Star Game appearance this year — but he hasn’t done so yet.
“Right now I’m just focused on continuing whatever it is I’m doing,” Bautista said through team interpreter Brandon Quinones, “and I don’t think right now would be a good time to really think about it and reflect on those things.”
If Bautista won’t, though, Hyde will.
“He’s on my ballot. The box is checked on my ballot,” Hyde said regarding Bautista’s Cy Young hopes. “What he’s doing is different than anybody else in the game right now. The multi-inning save situation, how dominating he’s been — the situations I’m putting him in are not easy. The way he’s come through more times than not in dominating fashion, just having a great year.”
That makes it all the more difficult to pick up the phone to the bullpen and not say Bautista’s name. Hyde decided before Tuesday’s game that after Bautista pitched five high-intensity innings in the span of five days he wouldn’t use his imposing right-hander in that evening’s matchup.
He called instead on right-hander Yennier Cano, a pitcher with his own breakout campaign earning an All-Star nomination. But Cano cracked, allowing two runs in the ninth inning that pushed the Philadelphia Phillies to a walk-off victory.
“Cano’s in his first full year, and Bautista’s in his second,” Hyde said. “They love to pitch. They like to pitch in big moments. It’s a tough balance because you want them on the mound in big spots, but you also have to realize we’re going to be playing for a lot longer, hopefully.”
Bautista is on pace to throw nearly 78 innings. And, with Baltimore leading the American League East — and, at minimum, a wild-card spot there for the taking — Bautista will need to remain ready for the postseason beyond the 162-game gauntlet.
At the end of last season, for instance, the heavy usage that amounted to 65 2/3 innings led to shoulder fatigue. He spent much of his offseason rehabbing and slowly built back to full strength during spring training. To ensure that sort of setback doesn’t occur again, Bautista said, he continues “working out, doing my exercises. Staying within my routine, whatever the trainers have programmed for me. Getting massages, doing hot and cold treatments, all those sorts of things.”
And, as the closer, Bautista has the ability to head for the bullpen later than his colleagues. Bautista tends to make the walk from the clubhouse into the dugout and out to the bullpen by the third inning.
“Doing that just allows me to prepare myself better for when it’s time to go out there for the game,” Bautista said. “Whether that allows me to have more time in the training room, doing those treatments that I mentioned earlier, or just getting myself mentally locked in better, just allows me to feel more fresh and prepared when I do go out to the bullpen.”
It all factors into how Bautista holds a 0.92 ERA with a 0.857 WHIP. Bautista has closed an American League-leading 28 saves, and he’s averaging nearly two strikeouts per inning.
The penchant for the pressure situations is something Hyde discovered shortly after Baltimore traded closer Jorge López to the Minnesota Twins at last year’s deadline. The Orioles needed someone to help continue a surge toward the postseason that ultimately fell just short, and Bautista rose to the occasion.
“I just keep throwing him out there, and he’s learned on the fly,” Hyde said. “He didn’t need any special coaching tips or anything. It’s: Here’s the ball. Let’s go see if you can get three outs.”
And, more times than not, Bautista has gotten them — three, four, five, maybe even six outs. Whether Bautista embraces it or not, that frequency has led him to the Cy Young discussion.