With expanded roster, innings have added value for Tides

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During a 4-1 win over Durham on June 15, the Norfolk Tides got five innings from one pitcher, three from another and one from a third.

It was pretty much how Tides manager Gary Kendall and the parent Baltimore Orioles drew it up. But within that box score brings issues unique to the strange 2021 minor league season.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused the 2020 season to be canceled in the minors, which were reduced to an alternate site in Bowie, Maryland, that housed major league-ready backups for the Orioles. That alternate site has essentially been moved to Norfolk, where the Tides have spent the first month and a half of the season with extra players serving as the Orioles’ de facto taxi squad.

Triple-A teams, usually limited to 25 active players, are allowed to have as many as 33 on their rosters this season. Most of the extra players are pitchers, battling for innings of work as they stand by for a call to the big leagues.

“We’ve had to be really creative,” Kendall said. “The roster size is a challenge, but all the guys have been really understanding. They know what’s going on.”

The Orioles have combated the personnel situation by using what amounts to a 10-man rotation in Norfolk. For most of the season, each of the Tides’ five starters has been paired with a corresponding piggyback pitcher, one capable of coming in first out of the bullpen and turning in multiple innings in relief.

It enables more pitchers to have longer outings while keeping pitch counts down — a goal in the wake of the year off for most players. But that leaves a bullpen full of guys — as many as eight of them at times — long on desire, but short on steady work.

It’s why the June 15 victory was somewhat deceptive in terms of player development: Alex Wells worked five shutout innings, the piggybacking Konner Wade allowed a run in three innings and Isaac Mattson threw a scoreless ninth for his first save. That left nothing for the rest of the bullpen to do but watch.

Not that anyone is complaining.

“It’s been tough, just with the amount of innings that we cover with the starters,” said Cody Carroll, a right-handed reliever. “I know they have to get their innings in. Having two (starters) a day was what they planned on doing, which is fine. Getting to cover maybe an inning or two a night, it’s hard to get eight, nine guys innings that they need or want. But it’s part of the game, and you just kind of roll with it.”

In Sunday’s 4-2 win over Gwinnett at Harbor Park, there was no shortage of work for Norfolk’s bullpen. Four relievers each recorded four outs or fewer to combine for 4 ⅓ scoreless innings.

Seth Mejias-Brean hit a three-run homer for the Tides (20-26), who took five of six in the series.

As Sunday’s game indicated, things have trended closer to normal lately for the pitching staff. Wells, Wade and Mattson were all summoned by the Orioles this week, leaving more innings in Norfolk for other pitchers.

But as it always is at the Triple-A level, the roster stability was fleeting. Wade was optioned to Norfolk on Sunday, shortly before knuckleballer Mickey Jannis cleared waivers and was outrighted to the Tides. Also on Sunday, Baltimore recalled outfielder Ryan McKenna and infielders Domingo Leyba and Ramon Urias and optioned utilityman Stevie Wilkerson.

The Orioles can bring up as many as five players from Norfolk to serve as extra bodies on a major league road trip. The players don’t have to be placed on the roster, and they don’t earn service time unless they are.

Baltimore will visit Houston and the Los Angeles Angels this week.

The Tides entered Sunday’s game having weathered 89 transactions this season, including 49 in June. Many more are sure to come.

As the Orioles struggle at the major league level, opportunity abounds in Norfolk. So does juggling.

“It’s a little bit of a challenge on the calendar keeping it all together,” Tides pitching coach Kennie Steenstra said. “But it’s kind of calmed down a little bit here lately, and I’m sure we’ll have some more shuttles back and forth between here and the big leagues. That’s just something you get in Triple-A, especially with where we are right now in the Orioles organization. We’re going to have some movement, so just roll with it and try to keep guys in there as much as you can.”

At a level that perpetually keeps managers on their toes, even in a normal season, the new wrinkles have created new job skills.

“It’s challenging,” Kendall said. “Actually, it’s learning because none of us have had this situation ever occur before. So it’s always a learning thing.

“It challenges you to kind of be creative and try to do what’s best for the team and try to win a game, but also develop the players in the process.”

Sunday’s game

Gwinnett 100 100 000 — 2 7 0

Norfolk 040 000 00x — 4 7 0

W-Phillips (1-0). L-Rodriguez (0-2). S-Knight (2).

2B-Jarrett (4), Nevin (6). HR-Mejias-Brean (3). SB-Waters (11), Arcia (5). CS-Jones (1).

T-2:40. A-3,242.

David Hall, david.hall@pilotonline.com

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