Last year, the Baltimore Oriole bullpen was the best in the American League. This year, it’s a contender for the league’s worst. Bad relief pitching has been an early-season epidemic throughout baseball, largely due to strike-shortened training camps, but the Orioles’ problem may last long after other teams shake off their short-spring hangovers.

The Bird brain trust took the bullpen with a league-best 3.75 earned run average last year and ripped it apart. Mix in the misfortune of an injury to stalwart Mark Eichhorn, and the Oriole relief staff is missing three-quarters of last year’s 288 1/3 innings and 35 of its 37 saves. That’s a lot to expect new relievers Mike Oquist, Doug Jones, Jesse Orosco, and Armando Benitez (the next Brad Pennington?) to deliver.

The most obvious difference is the lack of a go-to guy for the critical task of closing out the game. The Birds’ front office struck gold signing free agent Lee Smith—who had a major-league-leading 33 saves in 1994—but reportedly wouldn’t give the all-time career save leader the guaranteed two-year deal he wanted. Flush with the Smith success, General Manager Roland Hemond and company reopened the unwanted-veteran-closer-with-a-sleazy-motel-register-name file and came up with Doug Jones.

With the soon-to-be-38 Jones, the Birds lost six months in age and about at least that many miles per hour off the fastball of its closer. Jones, whose out pitch is the changeup, joined the relief elite late in life. After a nine-and-a-half-year minor-league apprenticeship, interrupted by 15 major-league appearances, Jones strung together three fabulous years for the Cleveland Indians starting in 1988. Since then, he’s alternated good years with awful ones. As his early-season work for the Orioles suggests, last year Jones had a stellar campaign with the Philadelphia Phillies.

The front office sent feathers flying in the relief corps in the name of fiscal responsibility—from the folks who brought you Sid Fernandez for three years at $3 million per. Middle relief is an easy place to pare the payroll, and it’s the place the Orioles are hurting the worst. Veteran middle-relief pitchers have become the game’s latest class of gypsies. As a breed, they are mainly anonymous, they don’t draw fans, and their 60-to-80 innings seem easy to replace. But the contributions of middle relievers show subtly in the clubhouse and the win column.

Everyday players glance at the lineup cards, review their impressions of the opponent’s starting pitcher, and, until batting practice, tune in to the “little broads and a jazz band” that former Detroit Tiger Manager Mayo Smith insists are found inside players’ heads. Starting pitchers are on a strict five-day cycle, which leaves four days for the jazz. Closers often sit in with the band until the seventh inning.

Middle relievers, on the other hand, are actually required to pay attention to the game. They may be called upon to pitch at any time, from a first-inning knockout to sudden ninth-inning jam, depending on the situation. As a result, they are among the closest observers of their team (and opponents) and often understand what’s happening with a team better than anyone in the clubhouse.

Take Mark Williamson, who was made an occasional emergency start, but spent his eight seasons with the O’s working mainly in middle relief. Before leaving the club last winter, he and Cal Ripken were the only Orioles left from the 0-21 start of 1988. Williamson was a key contributor to the Orioles’ remarkable 1989 Why Not? pennant chase; his 6-0 run with three saves from mid-May to mid-July that season helped confirm the Birds as legitimate contenders and put them on a roll that continued into the final Saturday of the season. He was 11 games over .500 as an Oriole (18 over in relief) and didn’t post a losing record in any season after ’88.

In modern baseball, where accountants are the chief architects of rosters, consistency like that will get a middle reliever released. Those numbers make a compelling arbitration case for a seven-figure contract, which looks like a bad value for a plain old middle reliever. The Orioles actually showed Williamson the door twice before, deciding not to offer him contracts for the ’93 and ’94 seasons. In those years, Williamson accepted minor-league deals and pitched his way back onto the big-league roster during spring training. It wasn’t personal, he understood, just business: Baseball Economics 101.

Williamson typifies the middle-relief breed. After five years in the minors without a sniff of the majors, he finally caught on, so every day he collected big-league meal money, he beat the odds, He battled back from the elbow surgery that cost him nearly all of the ’92 season, driving the trainers crazy by charting his progress in terms of how many more degrees he could bend the joint from day to day and how many more single pounds of weight he could lift. The surgery might have robbed him of velocity, but like most other middle relievers, he had little to lose.

Year after year, Williamson took the ball, and plenty of lumps, to save the more talented arms from abuse in lost causes. He knew his place in the pecking order and understood the game. Quiet and modest with a sense of humor as flat as an Arthur Rhodes slider, Williamson often correctly analyzed what was right or wrong with the club and could find the right word for a struggling teammate. Last winter, the Orioles again didn’t offer Williamson a contract, so he signed with the Texas Rangers.

The front office did the same thing the year before with Todd Frohwirth, who’s more boisterous than Williamson but another “gimme the ball and I’ll figure something out” battler. The O’s haven’t replaced those innings on the mound, or those personalities in the clubhouse. The loss has expressed itself with depressing regularity in the team’s horrible start.

Management’s parsimony would have been less noticeable if Eichhorn hadn’t injured his arm. Eichhorn pitched nearly a third of the Orioles’ bullpen innings last season. But now the right-handed sidewinder is done, perhaps for the entire season. True to his middle-relief ethic, you can find Eichhorn seated behind home plate at Camden Yards, charting pitches and deepening his understanding of the game. It’s a safe bet that he doesn’t much like what he sees.