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O's Find Bullpen Success with Britton and Birkins

July 25, 2006

By Staci Wolfson

With a pitching staff that rivals other teams in giving up the most hits, home runs and earned runs, Orioles fans are left searching for bright spots among the team's arms.

However, they don't have far to look. Between left-hander Erik Bedard's stellar starts and Chris Ray's lights-out saves, middle relievers Kurt Birkins and Chris Britton are quietly eating innings and piling up the outs.

Britton has a 2.87 ERA over 37.2 innings pitched and has seen action in 33 games so far this season.
When Britton and Birkins made their debuts in April and May respectively, fans paid little attention, accustomed to the revolving door that the O's bullpen has become over the past few years. But Britton and Birkins quickly made cases for themselves, anchoring the bullpen and securing their roster spots.

"They have been great," said fellow bullpen pitcher Bruce Chen. "Birkins has been great against left-handers and great pitching overall. And Britton has been doing the job, early in the game, late in the game, giving some innings. They are very quiet, good young guys and they have a bright future."

Britton, a 6-foot-3, 280-pound right-hander was an eighth-round draft pick in 2001 and has since moved up through the farm system. He made the jump from Double-A Bowie to the big leagues just a few weeks into this season.

"I just did what I always do, just try to throw strikes and not walk people and try to give the team a chance to win," Britton said.

Like Britton, Birkins also made short work of the minor leagues after signing in 2001. But unlike his counterpart, the Californian said this season was different.

"At the beginning of the season it was the first time in a few years that I actually came into the year with a little confidence because I thought I had a pretty good year last year," said Birkins, who finished second on the 2005 Baysox staff in starts and innings pitched. "So I think just being able to build off of last year's season helped a lot."

Last year, the Orioles struggled to find a southpaw for their bullpen that could dominate left-handed opponents. This year, Birkins has filled that hole; in 30 games he has posted a 1.26 ERA against lefties, holding them to a .245 batting average.

"It's funny because in the minor leagues I wasn't really very successful getting lefties out," Birkins said. "They always hit me pretty well. But here I've been able to get them out on a consistent basis and I think that's what brings the most to the team."

Catcher Ramon Hernandez said Birkins is using that success to give the team a chance to win.

"I think his main key is, he's throwing a lot of strikes," Hernandez said. "Now he's coming in in tough situations and I think he's really been talented. He's coming in with good concentration and trying to get the job done the best he can. He's a kid that works really hard and is really young and is trying to help the team."

Both pitchers said the source of their success has been being aggressively throwing strikes.

Between the two of them, they have struck out 58 batters in 67.1 innings, walking 23.

"You have to throw a first-pitch strike," Birkins said. "Just attack the hitters. Early in the year I was kind of nipping at the corners instead of just throwing right after them, but now I just go right after them."

Britton said his strategy is the same. Manager Sam Perlozzo said in recent appearances this approach has made Britton an asset to the team.

"He's been a big plus for us as long as he pitches like that," Perlozzo said.

With the pair's solid pitching, the Orioles are optimistic about their bullpen.

"They're young guys and they have a very important role in the bullpen and I can only see them getting better, so it's up to them to see what will happen in the future," Chen said. "But right now, they have legit stuff. There's no reason why they shouldn't have success in the big leagues."

And from within the bullpen the duo said they see potential for the team.

"I think we've got a lot," Birkins said. "We have a good mix of youth and veteran guys. Chris Ray is one of the best closers in the league and it's only his second year. I think we've got a lot going, especially now that we're starting to sink into our roles, we're starting to guess each other's roles, when we're going to throw, so now that we're comfortable with that, we're going to keep being successful."

Britton agreed, saying the bullpen is one part of the team Orioles fans should continue to keep watching.

"I think we've got a lot of young talent which is going to be here for a while," Britton said. "Hopefully we'll just keep on getting better."

Issue 1.14: July 27, 2006