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Undermanned and overworked, Birds' bullpen beginning to buckle

BALTIMORE – They’ve secretly replaced the Baltimore Orioles' bullpen with Folgers crystals, and people are starting to notice.

On Tuesday night at Camden Yards, despite taking a 6-3 lead into the seventh inning, the first-place O’s wound up losing 10-7 to the last-place San Diego Padres. It was an uncharacteristic collapse for a relief corps that has been one of the best in baseball for much of the season.

Thanks to a reeling rotation that has had trouble working deep into games, the O’s pen has been working overtime lately. Since the beginning of June, Baltimore’s relievers have worked 72 innings, most in the American League. Making matters worse, the increased workload has coincided with a decreased work force.

Veteran setup man Darren O’Day, an All-Star last season, has been out since June 3 with a strained hamstring. Versatile innings-eater Vance Worley went on the disabled list a week ago with a groin issue. As if that weren’t enough, O’s starters have been especially ineffective lately, averaging just 4 2/3 innings over their past nine outings. But wait, there’s more: A grueling stretch of 28 games in 30 days turned into 29 games in 30 days thanks to a one-off make-up in Texas on Monday night, a trying trip from which the Orioles returned not long before sunrise on Tuesday morning.

As you’d expect, the Birds looked beat in the opener of a two-game set against San Diego, committing two errors and whiffing 14 times. But as pooped as the position players seemed, the bullpen made them look positively peppy.

Right-hander Mychal Givens faced five batters in the seventh and went double, single, single, walk, walk. Fellow righty Oliver Drake, just called up to provide reinforcements, replaced Givens with the bases loaded and promptly uncorked a wild pitch on his first offering of the season. Closer Zach Britton – who has been as unhittable as any hurler in baseball this year – pitched more like Zac Efron, allowing three runs in two-thirds of an inning. Things got so bad that when Odrisamer Despaigne subbed in for Britton with two down in the ninth and proceeded to retire the Padres, the thinned-out crowd at Camden Yards offered sarcastic applause.

By the time the smoke cleared, the O’s had blown a three-run cushion that, against one of the weakest teams in the majors, seemed more like 30 runs. It was the first time this season that they’d lost when leading by three or more runs after six innings (they were 12-0 previously). After posting a 2.69 ERA during the first two months of the season (fourth best in the majors), the overburdened Birds’ bullpen has now worked to a 4.17 ERA in June.

After the game, Britton acknowledged that the grind has been grating.

“It's not easy,” the veteran lefty said. “There's been a couple guys that are probably pretty tired, and we're not even halfway through the season.”

As adept as Buck Showalter is at spreading the load – the O’s don’t have a single reliever in the top 40 in appearances – there’s only so much a manager can do.

“There are some guys that have thrown some innings, and some stressful innings too,” Britton said. “Going out there in big situations and doing a good job. But it's part of the gig when you're a reliever and we understand that. Hopefully we'll get through a stretch where we can give some guys a breather.”

Given their fatigue, a cup of Folgers might not hurt either.