Maintaining the heights that Tyler Wells reached during the first half of this season was always going to be a challenge for the Orioles right-hander, and three starts hardly write off the impression Wells left over the previous 18.

But the downward trend that continued in Saturday’s 8-3 loss to the New York Yankees could point toward something more worrisome. Wells has already pitched more innings than he did last season. It’s his most innings since 2018, before Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery kept him out of games for two years.

So when manager Brandon Hyde walked to the mound and took the ball from a reluctant Wells midway through the third inning at Camden Yards, there might’ve been more at play than just two Yankees runners on base behind the pitcher.

The long-term consideration revolving around Wells’ rising innings could have played as much a role as anything, especially amid a taxing 24-pitch third inning that already included outfielder Aaron Judge’s first home run since returning from the injured list.

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Wells said “physically, I feel fine.” And Hyde said the decision to pull Wells was because “he didn’t look like he had his best stuff.”

The 442-foot two-run blast from Judge gave New York a lead it didn’t surrender the rest of the way, setting up a rubber match on “Sunday Night Baseball.” It’s the first time in five years ESPN’s prime time MLB showcase comes to Camden Yards, and the broadcast will focus on an American League East matchup that’s the inverse of what it has been in recent years — that is, the Yankees are in last place in the division and the Orioles are in first.

But as the trade deadline nears, another short outing from Wells would seem to add pressure to executive vice president and general manager Mike Elias’ search for a pitching addition.

As innings rise across the staff, there could be an opportunity to piggyback starters, skip starts altogether or use a six-man rotation. In that way, Baltimore could alleviate pressure on its arms before the demands of October.

Hyde said the Orioles are going to be “talking about a lot of things” regarding Wells’ next start and the path forward. “Obviously, we’re in a weird week, and he’s had a tough time these last few starts,” Hyde continued, “so there’s going to be some discussions going on.”

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Hyde reiterated what Elias said Friday when asked about the mounting innings for several starters. Wells isn’t alone in this. Kyle Bradish and Dean Kremer are also approaching career-high innings counts.

“I think we’re trying to be mindful of indicators … that might be reason to pull back, other than just sort of the academic concept of like, ‘Oh hey, look at how many innings this guy’s thrown. Let’s back that off,’” Elias said Friday. “There’s really not a ton of science, or any science, there. We try to use common sense. We try to use our expertise. And, also, I don’t know that a single member of our rotation right now wants to go leave the rotation in some way, shape or form, so there’s that, too. I mean, they’re having the seasons of their lives. They’re competing. The team’s in first. They’ve got their whole careers ahead of them.”

Wells has performed at a higher level than ever before. Entering Saturday, his 0.991 WHIP led all starting pitchers. He completed at least five innings in each of his first 18 appearances, doing so with a 3.18 ERA.

In his three most recent outings, Wells has lasted two innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers, in which he surrendered five runs. He gave up only one hit to the Tampa Bay Rays but conceded three runs and walked four in 4 1/3 innings.

On Saturday, Wells allowed three hits for three runs. He walked three batters and hit another. Giancarlo Stanton joined Judge in leaving the ballpark — and, by extension, forced Wells to prematurely leave the mound.

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“Each start has been a different goal, and I made some progress in what I was trying to accomplish between last start and this start,” Wells said. “Other things I need to sort out and get back to the drawing board on, but if there’s anyone who’s going to work really hard on it, it’s going to be me. And I’m not going to let it discourage me.”

“If the guy’s stuff doesn’t look like Tyler Wells, and he’s walking people and hitting [Anthony] Rizzo with a curveball, that’s not who he is,” Hyde said.

Still, the outing hadn’t completely spiraled on Wells. After Judge’s long ball, the Orioles trailed by one. His command was worrisome, as it has been of late, and Hyde noted before the game how a mechanical issue could be playing a role in Wells’ uncharacteristic misses.

Orioles designated hitter Ryan Mountcastle rounds third after hitting a home Saturday night. (Dylan Thiessen/The Baltimore Banner)

Even then, though, Baltimore remained close until the sixth. Ryan Mountcastle continued his resurgence since returning from a vertigo-induced injured list stint by knocking an opposite-field homer. An infield single from Ramón Urías and a groundout from Anthony Santander also plated runs.

The Yankees broke away with their four-run sixth against left-hander Cole Irvin and right-hander Bryan Baker, highlighted by Isiah Kiner-Falefa’s three-run double. The production ensured Baltimore finished a game decided by more than three runs for the first time in 10 attempts.

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The first signs of that slip came when Wells couldn’t complete the third inning. At just 63 pitches, his night was done. He hasn’t thrown more than 86 pitches since June 27. It’s a different level than Wells has pitched at for much of the season, and with three such outings in a row, the bigger picture becomes murkier.

“It’s a long season, and you’re going to have some rough starts,” Wells said. “That’s part of the job. We all have tough days at work. But, like I said, it’s still a long season. We have a lot of baseball left to play. And, right now, that’s all I’m focused on, continuing every turn of the rotation, just making sure that I’m improving.”

Andy Kostka is an Orioles beat writer for The Baltimore Banner. He previously covered the Orioles for The Baltimore Sun. Kostka graduated from the University of Maryland and grew up in Rockville.

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