HOUSTON — It was here, one year ago, when everything first seemed to click for Kyle Bradish.
In a rookie season full of ups and downs, the Orioles right-hander had wowed early on with 11 strikeouts against the St. Louis Cardinals. He also left much to be desired, such as when he failed to complete five innings for five straight starts prior to a midseason stint on the injured list.
But entering the final month of the 2022 regular season, Bradish’s first trip to Minute Maid Park seemed to lay the groundwork for what has turned out to be a breakout second campaign in Baltimore’s rotation.
The lack of offensive support and a severely beleaguered bullpen wound up costing the Orioles a sweep Wednesday, with Houston walking off Baltimore in a 2-1 victory. The Orioles’ magic number to clinch the division fell to seven later Wednesday when the Rays lost to the Angels 8-3.
The loss, however, didn’t take away from Bradish’s outing.
“He pitches well against good teams because he has big-time stuff,” manager Brandon Hyde said.
In late August 2022, Bradish threw eight scoreless innings against Houston with just two hits against him. He faced the Astros again in September 2022 and twirled 8 2/3 scoreless innings, striking out 10 while allowing just two more hits. And, in Bradish’s third attempt Wednesday against the reigning World Series champions, the 27-year-old spun six scoreless innings with two hits and nine strikeouts.
The totality of Bradish’s efforts against one of the best offenses in the American League — reaching 22 2/3 scoreless innings in his career against Houston — makes a strong case for Bradish’s place among the best starting pitchers in baseball.
And it solidifies the belief that, when the moment is largest, Bradish will take the ball in Baltimore’s first playoff series since 2016 next month.
“Just locking in a little bit more,” Bradish said. “I know they have really good players one through nine, so just got to focus that much more. They have a lot of righties, so able to use my weapons there.”
With Wednesday’s display, Bradish lowered his ERA to 3.01 with a 1.07 WHIP. Across the American League, Bradish has vaulted into Cy Young Award conversations, although he’s still on the outside looking in at front-runners Gerrit Cole, Sonny Gray and Luis Castillo. Still, Bradish’s ERA is the third best in the AL, and while he’s thrown fewer innings than some of his competitors, his 17 quality starts plant him firmly among the league leaders.
Bradish found his success Wednesday with his slider. He threw it with half of his 100 pitches, and 40% of those sliders resulted in called strikes or swings and misses. Only one Astros hitter put a slider in play, and it resulted in an out.
“He’s mixing up four, five different pitches up there,” infielder Adam Frazier said. “They’re all hard; they’re all plus pitches. Makes it tough on opposing hitters, and I think he’s shown that throughout the season. So we’re glad he’s on our side and look forward to him taking the mound every time he does.”
Bradish had an immediate lead to work with, and he made the most of that advantage.
Adley Rutschman doubled and Anthony Santander drove him in with a single but, apart from that breakthrough, Astros right-hander Cristian Javier mowed through Baltimore’s order. He struck out 11 batters, including seven of the first 10 he faced, in just five innings.
The high swing-and-miss numbers for both starters chased them earlier than their managers might have otherwise wanted. Baltimore, having used 17 relievers in the last three games, needed all of Bradish’s 100 pitches.
With two outs in the sixth, Hyde walked to the mound to conference with Bradish. There were two runners on, putting Bradish under more pressure than he had all day. There were two relievers warming in the bullpen. But Hyde stuck by Bradish, and the right-hander forced Kyle Tucker — one of Houston’s most imposing hitters — to ground out.
“A big out against Tucker there to end that inning,” Hyde said. “He was really good. Pitched a 1-0 game and deserved a win.”
Bradish handed over a narrow lead to a bullpen that would soon relinquish it. Right-hander Shintaro Fujinami walked two batters and Jeremy Peña barreled an elevated slider from right-hander Mike Baumann to tie the score.
An inning later, left-hander Danny Coulombe allowed a leadoff double to Yainer Diaz, and the Astros salvaged one game from the series when Mauricio Dubón lined an RBI single into the outfield. As the Astros spilled onto the diamond to celebrate, the Orioles slinked off to fly to Cleveland.
The walk-off loss spoiled another strong start from Bradish. But, as Bradish gears up for the postseason, performances like this bolster the belief in a second-year big leaguer for an even bigger stage.
“I feel locked in,” Bradish said. “I’ve kind of felt that way all year.”