WASHINGTON — Bryan Baker watched his changeup fall in for strike three against Lane Thomas, then kept watching the plate as he backpedaled off the mound and toward the dugout. The Orioles right-handed reliever practically moonwalked his way from the field to end the seventh inning, filled with the swagger that can only come out in the midst of a lengthy scoreless streak.
Earlier this year, Baltimore’s pitching staff might not have gotten away with such joy in the moment. The starting pitchers left early, the bullpen was labored and the offense had to hack its way to wins, covering the shaky outings from the hurlers.
But now, during a scoreless stretch that has reached 26 innings, the strut in their step is suddenly justified — even encouraged. It’s behind that pitching staff the Orioles won a two-game series (and didn’t give up a run) against the Washington Nationals, including Wednesday’s 4-0 victory with right-hander Kyle Bradish starting on the mound.
“We have a lot of really good arms on this team, and everyone’s kind of putting it together,” Bradish said. “I think going forward, you’re going to see a lot more of this.”
The latest result came behind six standout innings from Bradish, who made his return from the injured list to strike out six batters. He pitched as if he hadn’t missed two weeks of major league action, carving through the Nationals’ lineup with his full arsenal of pitches. His curveball and slider particularly stood out, inducing whiffs on nine of the 16 swings against them.
But as the Orioles welcomed back one key member of the squad, they will worry about the health of another.
Early in the series finale, shortstop Jorge Mateo’s normally rapid run appeared stunted. He limped as he passed through first base on a groundout and made his way slowly to the dugout, met partway by manager Brandon Hyde and head trainer Brian Ebel. While Mateo has dealt with ankle soreness this season, the Orioles announced his injury as right hip discomfort.
Hyde described Mateo as day-to-day and noted how Thursday’s day off is beneficial, hoping it gives Mateo time to rest. Without Mateo, Adam Frazier entered in his place, and he clubbed his second homer of the year after rushing to put his jersey on between innings.
“Hopefully Jorge’s all right,” Frazier said. “He’s been such a big impact on our team the past few weeks, but to be able to come up and have a good impact on the game is fun.”
For as worrisome as that development was, the suddenly stout pitching effort for a third straight game was heartening. It has come in conjunction with right-hander Yennier Cano’s breakout, in which the reliever has retired all 12 batters he’s faced.
The most difficult of those situations came Wednesday, when he inherited two runners from left-hander Cionel Pérez with one out in the eighth inning, but a flyout and groundout maintained the scoreless run. And an inning before, Baker’s second strikeout to end a 1-2-3 frame spurred his backpedal off the mound.
“I feel like I’m always ending up in that position, because I rotate when I pitch,” Baker said. “So I’m always looking back that way, and it was kind of a weird pitch that I didn’t expect to be a strike, so once it got called, I was like, ‘OK, I’m done with my inning. I’m just going to get out of here as quickly as possible.’”
The starting rotation was a concern for Hyde, he said earlier this season, given the brevity of outings. Then a two-game series against the Nationals arrived, and some of those hardships vanished against one of the league’s lowest-ranked offenses.
In the final four innings of right-hander Grayson Rodriguez’s start on Sunday, he held the Chicago White Sox scoreless. Right-hander Dean Kremer turned his season around with 6 2/3 scoreless innings that the bullpen supported in a shutout.
And with Bradish on the mound for his return, he rolled through six scoreless innings, forcing Washington to hit 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position against him. He struck out six batters and allowed five hits and one walk among his 92 pitches.
“You saw what we could be, of Kremer and Bradish, what they did the last couple games,” Hyde said. “Fun to watch young guys kind of come into their own, but they both have great stuff and two really well-pitched games.”
While Kremer dealt with a one-run lead Tuesday, Bradish and the relievers behind him enjoyed more breathing room.
Adley Rutschman walked with the bases loaded against left-hander MacKenzie Gore, bringing home one run (although the Orioles missed out on a bigger inning, stranding those bases loaded despite having no outs).
And later, Frazier lashed a two-run home run, jumping on a curveball left in the heart of the zone despite looking for a fastball from Gore. Frazier said he “got lucky,” but the ball still sailed into the home bullpen beyond the right-field wall. Gunnar Henderson added on with an RBI single in the ninth.
Those breakthroughs were enough to support a pitching staff that has suddenly found its form. It came against the lowly Nationals, but after a difficult start to the season, 26 scoreless innings is worth a moonwalk.