Randy Wolf won 13 games last season, more than a few of which were preserved by a stellar Milwaukee Brewers bullpen.
The veteran left-hander experienced the opposite earlier this season as Brewers relief pitchers John Axford, Francisco Rodriguez, Kameron Loe and Jose Veras combined to blow eight saves for Wolf, whom Milwaukee released on Aug. 22 after the 36-year-old posted a 3-10 record and 5.69 earned-run average in 24 starts.
Wolf signed on with the Baltimore Orioles nine days later as a free agent, saying he believed the surprising American League team gave him the best chance to win a World Series this season. He was so confident that he turned down offers from other interested clubs to remain a starter and is now a full-time relief pitcher for the first time in 13-plus major league seasons.
'They like the fact that they’ve been playing as underdogs most of the time. To be in that role and try to prove people wrong is sometimes a lot of fun.'— Pitcher Randy Wolf on joining the successful Orioles
Entering play Monday, Baltimore (78-62) held down the second AL wild-card playoff spot with a one-game lead over Tampa Bay (77-63).
"The attitude is similar to the Brewers during their playoff run a year ago," Wolf said in an interview during a recent visit to Toronto. "There is definitely a belief that this team is good. … They like the fact that they’ve been playing as underdogs most of the time. To be in that role and try to prove people wrong is sometimes a lot of fun."
The Orioles certainly are having fun when leading after seven innings with a 62-0 mark. And they’re just as impressive in one-run games, going 25-7 while boasting a winning percentage of greater than .630 in such situations since manager Buck Showalter took over midway through the 2010 season.
Wolf, who previously spent his entire major league career in the National League with Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Diego, Houston and Milwaukee, attributes the Orioles’ success in close games to the performance of the bullpen.
Closer Jim Johnson has converted 42 of 45 save chances, setup man Pedro Strop has a 2.26 ERA, has held opponents to a .204 batting average and earlier this season had a run of 17 consecutive scoreless appearances. Others like Darren O’Day (seven wins, 2.22, .205 BAA), Troy Patton (2.58) and Luis Ayala (4-4, 2.62) have provided stability.
"The first thing I heard from guys in the bullpen, which is really rare, is that Buck [Showalter] knows how to deal with them," Wolf said. "A lot of times bullpen guys will say, ‘I got up three times [to warm up earlier in a game] and now I’m up again.’ They said he’s great with [managing the bullpen] and that’s great because it keeps our bullpen fresh.
'When you don’t feel you’re ever going to give [up] a lead you usually don’t.'— Randy Wolf on the Orioles bullpen's success
"I think when you manage your bullpen well you’re going to come out on the winning side, more often than not, in those one-run games. Those games are really dictated by the bullpen."
Wolf remembers similar strong play by the Brewers during their 96-win regular season of a year ago when they were 30-18 in one-run contests. Milwaukee is only 23-29 this season.
"This year, all those one-run games [with the Brewers] seemed to flip-flop and we didn’t win those games," he said. "It’s also contagious, too. When you don’t feel you’re ever going to give [up] a lead you usually don’t.
"When you get to a point, like with the Brewers this year, you feel like every time you have a lead late in the game you think, ‘How is it going to [fall apart] this time?’ And it finds a way to happen."
Some believe credit for the Orioles’ turnaround — they’re on track for their first winning record in 15 seasons — goes to GM Dan Duquette, who returned to the majors this season after a 10-year absence to overhaul Baltimore’s player development system.
He started with starting pitching, signing Taiwanese left-hander Wei-Yin Chen, who has won 12 games and pitched 168 1/3 innings in 28 starts. Prior to spring training, he traded Jeremy Guthrie to Colorado for fellow starter Jason Hammel, who returned to the mound last week after missing nearly two months following knee surgery. Hammel, who is 8-6 with a 3.46 ERA in 19 starts, was the Orioles’ best pitcher before the injury.
Five days before acquiring Wolf, Duquette picked up veteran lefty Joe Saunders in a trade from Arizona. Dealing from strength, he sent relief pitcher Matt Lindstrom and a player to be named later to the Diamondbacks. In all, the GM has added five players via trade, claimed one on waivers and signed one free agent.
Wolf said this season’s additions such as Saunders, relief pitcher J.C. Romero (trade), designated hitter Jim Thome (trade) and outfielder Nate McLouth — a free-agent signing on June 5 — give the young Orioles a balance on the mental side of the game.
"A lot of times the older you are," Wolf said, "you have a better idea of keeping things in perspective. You’ve been through a bit more, been through the highs and lows of the game, seen different teams, but I think the calming influence of some guys in the bullpen like Kevin Gregg [offers] a good mix of personalities and experience that really helps [to have success]."
McLouth, who was released by the Pittsburgh Pirates on May 31, feels Wolf’s calming presence on the mound will trickle down to the defence and into the dugout.
While noting the Orioles’ strong mental makeup, the outfielder added the more players a team can have in September with experience handling the pressures of a playoff race the better.
"Everybody stays level," the eighth-year major leaguer said of the Orioles. "Whether we have a tough game or good game, it’s back to work the next day and I think that’s important in the sport we play."
For Wolf, he’s just trying to fit in with a "laid-back, relaxed and confident" group of teammates and help where possible.
"They’re the best team that’s now starting to get talked about," said Wolf. "I knew it was going to be a different role [converting from starter to reliever] but I felt with the other options I had, this was the best one as far as going to a team that I feel has a legitimate chance to win this year."
All that stands in the way is notching the biggest save of the season and helping the Orioles keep their playoff position over the final 22 games.