SARASOTA, Fla. - We’ve concluded the latest countdown in baseball’s offseason.
Orioles pitchers and catchers are required today to report to the Ed Smith Stadium complex. A couple of stragglers will show up later - after the Orioles figure out how to plug the holes in their rotation.
The clubhouse opens to the media from 8-9 a.m. and manager Buck Showalter will be available before heading to the eighth annual OriolesREACH Birdland Golf Classic that benefits the Miracle League of Manasota. The first official workout is held the following morning, with players taking the field after their physicals are completed.
This is how we ease into spring training. A few interviews at lockers and with the manager, and a head count of position players who showed up early.
Closer Zach Britton was expected to board a flight after Friday morning’s checkup in Los Angeles. His Achilles surgery has forced the club to place him on a separate workout schedule.
“Every week has been a drastic change,” Britton said last week on 105.7 The Fan. “You go from walking and not thinking that you’re not going to be able to walk again to all of a sudden you’re walking normal and putting 100 percent body weight on it.
“I’ll talk to the doctor and get his gauge on what I’m allowed to do. You start driving again. Those are big moments. And then from there it’s kind of, what have we got to do to strengthen the calf and make sure that’s strong again and how long is that going to take me? And getting back into baseball shape.
“I’ve been doing upper body stuff and things like that, so I’m not behind the curve by any means that way. But enough to where I’m confident I can play catch on my foot and not worry about anything going on. We want to make sure my body’s completely ready to throw and I think early in spring that’s going to be the focus is getting myself ready to do some long-tossing and things like that.”
Brian Ebel, promoted from assistant to head athletic trainer following Richie Bancells’ retirement, already has visited Britton to check on the left-hander’s recovery and will map out a plan designed to get him back on a mound without risking any setbacks.
“No pressure, no pressure,” Britton said, laughing.
“I’ll tell you something about Brian Ebel, it meant a lot to me that he took the time to fly out here. I understand that’s his job description, but not too many trainers will come out there and see a guy and do all the research he has on Achilles ruptures. This doesn’t happen that much in baseball.
“He’s a guy who went and did a lot of research on how we can do this the right way and get me back pitching and it kind of gave me some peace of mind. He’s one of those guys that maybe doesn’t get enough credit for putting that time in and the stress I’ve put on him by getting hurt and I feel bad. But he’s going to do a great job and I’m lucky to have him as my athletic trainer and he’s going to do a good job taking over for Richie.”
Britton knows that his participation in pitchers’ fielding practice will be an important step in his progression. Anything to cut through the monotony.
“I think that they’re tedious intentionally,” said left-hander Richard Bleier, “so it’s second nature to make those plays and you know what to do so when things speed up on you during a game, it’s like, ‘Oh, wow, I did 100,000 ground balls in spring training, so I know what to do with this regardless of the game situation.’
“Usually we’ll go and stretch and we’ll do our throwing program and then guys who are going to throw off the mound will throw and the rest of us will go to one of the fields in the back there behind the stadium and cover first, bunt plays, comebackers. Just the basic stuff. You can only throw so much as a pitcher and we have to be there longer than 10 minutes, so it’s nice. We get our work in and when a play needs to be made in a crucial situation, we’ve done it so many times that it’s second nature.
“We do the bunt plays over and over and over for the one time you actually have to do it in the season, but we do it right and it becomes a really important play where we get that guy out at third and then we get out of the inning with no runs or limiting the damage. And all of a sudden, all the times in spring training that we did those bunt plays just paid off right there on that one play.”
No wonder Britton is eager to join his teammates.
Brad Brach is expected to get the early save opportunities - and yes, I’m assuming that the Orioles will take leads into the ninth inning - but Showalter has indicated that others could share the responsibility. Bleier has been mentioned for possible matchup situations, though he has no saves in 80 major league appearances and only eight in 249 minor league games.
“I just think that whenever they bring me into the game, I need to be ready to get people out, and whatever that situation is, I just need to pitch accordingly to that situation and be ready. Whether that’s the ninth ...” Bleier said.
“I know Buck’s going to put guys in the game when they have the most chance to be successful. He does a really good job. Everybody says he manages the bullpen well and I think that’s part of it. If there’s three lefties up I think he’ll use me over - I’m not saying in a save situation, but I think if it’s like the seventh inning or whatever the situation is, I think that he does a really good job of picking who goes into the game.”
Bleier won’t adjust his routine based on the slight possibility that he’s handed a slim lead in the ninth. His hopes won’t be raised. This is a guy who’s just happy to be in the majors, posting sub-2.00 ERAs in his two major league seasons while barely gaining notice outside his organization.
“My role last year was be ready from the first to the ninth, really,” he said. “I’d come in early or I’d pitch in the ninth if we were up by a few or down by a few. Or I guess more than a few. Up by more than three or down by a few.
“I enjoy pitching and I like helping the team and doing whatever they need me to do, whatever role they need me to do. And I think guys earn their back end roles. Brach or whoever is going to close until Britton gets back, I think he’s earned that role and I think that I need to put in my time. And I think everybody kind of starts first guy out of the bullpen for the most part and they work up to that setup role or closer role or whatever it may be.
“I embrace that role of being ready whenever and I do enjoy pitching in extended periods of time or in a close game in the eighth inning. I think it really does suit me well.”