WASHINGTON — All of a sudden, Dean Kremer looked like the pitcher the Orioles expected him to be this season. It took the form of a third-inning jam Tuesday night, when the right-handed pitcher abandoned all else except his highest heat, and then he left the mound with the energy that has come to accompany his best moments.
In this instance, Kremer’s bent-double scream came after three consecutive strikeouts. He stranded two runners in scoring position on the back of his sinker and four-seam fastball, which, at 97.4 mph, tied for the second-fastest pitch of his career.
Kremer was pitching with that juice to earn the Orioles a 1-0 win against the Washington Nationals on Tuesday, but in a wider scope, he was pitching to prove that the first three games of his season — when he allowed 13 runs in 12 1/3 innings — were an anomaly. Perhaps in an even wider scope, Kremer was pitching to ensure he wouldn’t follow left-hander Cole Irvin to Triple-A Norfolk.
“It definitely helps add to the confidence to kind of continue what I did last year,” Kremer said. “Any time you come out on the bottom side and you see your ERA blow up, it kind of hurts. But [try] not to lose faith in where you’re going.”
Baltimore’s starting pitching struggles have been widespread to begin the season. Beyond Kremer, who allowed at least four runs in his previous three starts, Irvin was unexpectedly demoted after 15 runs scored against him in three lackluster starts. Right-hander Kyle Bradish, who’s expected to be activated off the injured list for Wednesday’s game, pitched only 1 2/3 innings before a comebacker injured his foot.
Right-handers Tyler Wells and Kyle Gibson were the only two starters to record an out in the sixth inning before Kremer bucked that trend Tuesday. And Tuesday marked the fourth game where a starter completed six or more innings.
Kremer began the season with five runs against him in three innings in Boston. He allowed four runs each against the Yankees and Athletics, but he rebounded with his longest outing this year.
“He did a great job of separating, moving on, showed some maturity in that way,” manager Brandon Hyde said.
It came against the Nationals, a team that entered play Tuesday with the fourth-worst wRC+ measure in baseball (wRC+ is a statistic that weighs runs created against factors such as an opposing starter’s ERA or ballpark dimensions). But no matter the opposition, Kremer needed a bounce-back outing and got it.
Kremer was one of Baltimore’s most consistent pitchers last year. He compiled a 3.23 ERA in 125 1/3 innings, the best mark of any of the Orioles’ starters. And while he excelled for Israel in one start during the World Baseball Classic and closed spring training in passable — if not standout — form, the lack of command to begin this year was puzzling.
The third inning was most evident of a change, when Kremer didn’t unravel despite runners reaching second and third with no outs after Gunnar Henderson’s throwing error. He threw three sinkers past Lane Thomas, struck out Dominic Smith with his hardest four-seamer of the night, and yelled as he left the mound following a seven-pitch punchout of Joey Meneses.
“It was all dictated based on swings,” Kremer said of the decision to stick with his sinker and four-seam exclusively for those three strikeouts. “If they were late to that, throwing anything slower in the zone would be doing them a favor. So kind of stuck to it, and it worked out.”
Kremer went on to retire 11 batters in order, beginning in the fourth and running into the seventh. He dominated the strike zone and didn’t allow a walk while throwing first-pitch strikes to 22 of the 25 batters he faced.
“Worked ahead in the count the entire game,” Hyde said. “No walks. Huge. No walks, working ahead.”
Baltimore didn’t provide much offensive support behind Kremer or the bullpen, but the pitching staff didn’t require it this time, with Danny Coulombe, Yennier Cano and Félix Bautista following Kremer. Against Nationals right-hander Josiah Gray, Austin Hays’ RBI single in the fourth to score Ryan Mountcastle was the extent of the scoring.
Hyde has admitted his concern for the pitching staff early this season, from the shortened starts to how it impacts a taxed bullpen. But he also preached a belief in this group, that they’d bounce back with more than five months between this series and the postseason.
It was one start against a subpar opponent. But it was the one Kremer — and Baltimore — required. So the emotion as Kremer left the mound, particularly in the third, was well-warranted, a shout that signaled a return to his peak.
“This is one of the best,” Hyde said. “I remember the complete-game shutout against Houston. That was a pretty good one, too. He’s had some good starts, but this was up there.”