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How much further can the Orioles push Dylan Bundy?

BALTIMORE -- Give Dylan Bundy some credit. In his first full big league season, he has done everything the Baltimore Orioles have asked of him -- and then some.

They asked him to learn on the job because he was out of minor league options, and he did that. They asked him to pitch out of the bullpen for the first time in his professional life, and he did that. They asked him to transition from short relief to long relief, and he did that.

They asked him to go back to being a starting pitcher because their rotation was in shambles, and he did that. They asked him to throw a whole lot more innings this season than they originally said he would, and he did that. They asked him to start meaningful pennant race games against veteran pitchers on playoff-caliber teams, and he did that.

But lately, it appears as though the Orioles have been asking a little too much of Bundy. Like on Monday night, when they asked him to go tete-a-tete with Cy Young favorite Rick Porcello in the opener of a critical four-game series against the heavy-hitting, AL East-leading Boston Red Sox. Bundy did it, but it didn’t go well.

The 23-year-old right-hander labored through five innings, allowing five earned runs on six hits (including two homers) in a 5-2 loss that dropped Baltimore to four games behind Boston. In a vacuum, there’s not a whole lot of shame in getting roughed up by a stacked BoSox offense that has scored over 100 runs more than the next closest American League team. But baseball isn’t played in a vacuum. Instead, it’s played on a baseball field, which is where Dylan Bundy has been a vastly different pitcher over the past five weeks. And not in a good way.

Prior to the season, the Orioles intended to limit Bundy -- who had thrown just 167 minor league innings in four injury-plagued years since being drafted fourth overall in 2011 -- to about 70 innings. Those 70 innings (70 2/3 to be exact) carried him through August 12th, during which time he posted a 2.93 ERA, a 1.22 WHIP, and a 3.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Since August 12th, he has a 6.68 ERA, a 1.81 WHIP, and 1.5 K-to-BB ratio. Granted, three of his seven most recent starts have come against the Red Sox. But he has also gotten shelled by the Yankees and Rays during that stretch, so it’s not like Boston is solely to blame, as much as manager Buck Showalter would like everyone to believe that it is.

“I think it’s about the Boston Red Sox,” said the O’s skipper when asked why his rookie hurler struggled. “Dylan’s doing well. I’m real proud of him. He’s going to be a good major league pitcher. If he stays healthy, like you say about any young pitcher, it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch him pitch in the future.”

If he stays healthy. That’s a mighty big “if” considering that Bundy’s a Tommy John survivor whose workload this season is already 50 percent more than the Orioles had planned. And that’s with two starts still to come, plus the potential for more in the postseason.

“Physically, great,” said Bundy after the game when asked how he’s holding up 100-plus innings into his rookie season. “My arm’s feeling great. Still doing my workouts, my sides in between starts. So there’s no issue there.”

Still, it’s hard to watch Bundy’s progression over the past month-plus and think that fatigue hasn’t been a factor. After joining the rotation at the All-Star break, over his first five starts, he fanned 33 and walked just six. In his last seven outings, he has 31 strikeouts against 22 walks. Then there’s the velocity.

According to Brooks Baseball, Bundy’s average fastball velocity was above 95 in each of his first four starts, including 96.2 in his first one. In his past seven starts prior to Tuesday, his average gas reading was above 95 just once, and the difference between his first start and his most recent start was nearly 2 mph.

Add it all up, and it’s hard not to think that Bundy’s hit the wall. Which begs the question, just how far should the Orioles push their prized possession? On the one hand, with ace Chris Tillman back from the disabled list, former first-rounder Kevin Gausman coming into his own and forgotten-man Ubaldo Jimenez on a roll, maybe the Orioles -- who currently hold one of the AL wild cards -- can get where they want to go without Bundy in the rotation. On the other hand, the back end of Baltimore’s rotation (Wade Miley and Yovani Gallardo) has been brutal, and there’s no telling when Jimenez will turn into a pumpkin.

Even if the O’s do make it to the postseason, how realistic is it to think that they could get past the Red Sox and/or Nationals and/or Dodgers and/or Cubs to nab their first World Series title in over 30 years? According to FanGraphs -- which gives Baltimore a 3 percent chance of winning it all -- not very. Baseball Prospectus has them as an even longer shot, at 2.4 percent.

That being the case, maybe the Orioles are better off playing it safe with Bundy. Maybe they’re better off asking him to do a little less -- and then some.