O's rebuild bridge from starters to closer

BALTIMORE -- Hang around the Baltimore Orioles bullpen for an evening and you'll hear a wide range of topics discussed -- from opposing lineups to white-tailed deer hunting to favorite fishing tales. It's like a cross between a Jeff Foxworthy rerun and a Southeastern Conference football tailgate party.

"We all get along good," says submariner Chad Bradford, a Mississippi native. "It's a group of rednecks and hillbillies."

Lefty Jamie Walker, a Tennessean, says the group likes to "drink beer together, cut up and shoot the bull." Walker makes that observation in front of his locker, where a sign reads, "Mess With Me and You Mess With the Whole Trailer Park."

Of course, the Baltimore pitchers confine their beer drinking to after games. That's in stark contrast to Orioles fans, who habitually lined up at the taps around the sixth inning last season in a pre-emptive strike to dull the pain.

The Baltimore bullpen was an ongoing source of despair, demoralization and stomach upset in 2006, when Orioles relievers went 19-25 with a 5.25 ERA and surrendered a major league high 86 homers. Oakland's bullpen, in contrast, gave up a mere 37.

The Baltimore staff allowed 321 runs in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings, second-highest total in the majors behind Kansas City. The San Diego Padres, in contrast, gave up 226 runs in that span.

The problem, in hindsight, was a surplus of suspect arms. As Baltimore Sun columnist John Eisenberg recently pointed out, more than half the team's bullpen innings in 2006 went to pitchers who aren't even in the major leagues today. Yes, that means you, Todd Williams, Sendy Rleal, Kurt Birkins, Jim Brower and Julio Manon.

Mike Flanagan and Jim Duquette, Baltimore's co-general manager tandem, analyzed the problem in the offseason and decided to address it the old-fashioned way -- by throwing money at it.

In a 10-day span in November, the Orioles signed Danys Baez, Walker and Bradford to three-year deals worth $19 million, $12 million and $10 million, respectively. They took a $900,000 flyer on the often-injured Scott Williamson, and signed veteran Paul Shuey to a minor league contract.

Five months later, the bridge from the starters to Baltimore's talented young closer, Chris Ray, doesn't look so rickety anymore. Despite a tough early schedule and three straight losses this week, the Orioles are 11-10 and rank second in the American League to Boston with a bullpen ERA of 2.79.

Baltimore's bullpen flunked a test Wednesday night, turning a 1-1 seventh-inning tie with the Red Sox into a 6-1 loss at Camden Yards. But for the most part, the Orioles relievers have pitched well enough to give the team a fighting chance in the late innings.

"You can just feel it," Flanagan says. "Right now we feel like something good is going to happen when the relievers come into a game. Last year, I don't care who it was, you felt like something bad was going to happen."

Duquette, while popular with his colleagues, is aware there was some industry backlash when he shelled out $42 million to upgrade his bullpen. But he's not exactly the lone ranger. The Cubs spent $23 million on multiyear deals for Scott Eyre and Bob Howry in November 2005, and the Angels established the market for righty relievers last winter when they signed Justin Speier for four years and $18 million.

Life is different in the new, reliever-deprived world. Consider the Phillies, who were unable to acquire a decent relief pitcher for starter Jon Lieber and ultimately addressed their bullpen void by shifting frontline starter Brett Myers to a setup role.

"Everyone has to do what they have to do," Duquette says. "[One team's spending] can affect everybody in the industry, but if you're trying to play good citizen, you can come up empty-handed every year on the free-agent market.

"Until you live it, it's a difficult thing to understand. We sat through empty ballparks and bad blown games the whole season and we said, 'We're not going to do that anymore.' It makes for too painful a summer."

The revamped Baltimore bullpen is long on variety -- with righties and lefties, power pitchers and finesse types -- and manager Sam Perlozzo has gotten some productive innings out of John Parrish, Brian Burres and Jeremy Guthrie as well as the free-agent acquisitions.

In Baltimore, a reliable bullpen is vital for both development purposes and team morale. The Orioles have tied their future to the maturation of young starters Daniel Cabrera, Erik Bedard and Adam Loewen, and the last thing the team wants is a shaky bullpen undermining each step forward.

"You're trying to get these kids to move along as fast as you can," Perlozzo says. "The addition of someone who can hold a lead and get a win and build their confidence can only help expedite their progress."

Looking for early red flags? Baltimore's starters rank 10th in the American League in innings pitched, while the bullpen has logged more innings than any AL club with the exception of the Yankees. Perlozzo better be vigilant if he doesn't want to burn these guys out by the All-Star break.

And it remains to be seen how Baltimore's recent additions will fare against the division's biggest challenges. David Ortiz is a career 6-for-10 against Walker, while Manny Ramirez is 8-for-13 against Bradford. Ortiz and Ramirez both contributed big hits in Boston's victory Wednesday.

As the Baltimore relievers bond in the pen with huntin' and fishin' talk, they're also making a shared statement through facial hair. Club policy prohibits beards or goatees, but neatly trimmed mustaches are permissible, and the bullpen bunch is growing them en masse.

According to Williamson, the idea caught on after the pitchers assessed Bradford's mustache on the cover of a preseason publication.

"It looked like a porn 'stache from the 1970s," Williamson says. "We got together as a group and said, 'Let's all grown one.' "

The early results are not promising. Williamson gazes around the clubhouse and acknowledges that some of the mustaches should come with a learner's permit. With the exception of Baez and Burres, they might all be lost causes.

"We all look ugly," Williamson says. "There ain't no doubt about it."

Walker, asked how his wife feels about the new addition to his upper lip, just shrugs.

"She doesn't have to throw a 3-2 curveball with the bases loaded, so she can't really say much," Walker says.

Mrs. Walker might feel better when she sees her husband's new paycheck. After Walker threw 48 innings as a lefty specialist in front of Joel Zumaya and Fernando Rodney for Detroit's pennant-winning club in 2006, his agent Phil Tannenbaum lived up to his word and got him three years and $12 million in free agency.

"When he first told me I could get that, I thought he was blowing smoke up my butt," Walker says. "It blew my mind. I ain't going to lie."

With a contract that substantial, a man can set himself up in beer and fishing bait for life. The Orioles will settle for the peace of mind.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" has been published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.