In mid-May, Zach Britton was 5-2 with an ERA of 2.14 over his first nine major league starts.
No one could have predicted then that less than two months later he would be back in the minor leagues.
His time at Double-A Bowie could soon be coming to an end, though, as Britton gets set to make his third start for the Baysox at home tonight against Harrisburg.
He still has fresh in his mind the memory of that start July 8 at Boston, where he gave up six hits and eight runs over just 2/3 of an inning to fall to 6-7 with a 4.05 ERA.
“Boston was the worst start I’ve ever had of my career,” Britton said Sunday afternoon in Bowie. “I just wasn’t throwing strikes, but the starts before that I felt like I was getting into the sixth inning a lot, but I wasn’t able to finish that inning. That is a crucial inning to help the ‘pen. I look back now and feel I’ve had three pretty bad starts there and the others were good to pretty good. There are adjustments you have to make.
“Buck (Showalter) says, ‘When a situation backs you into a corner, will you crumble or fight back?’ I feel like I’ve been fighting back, which is good.”
The day after that Fenway Park start, Britton was sent to the minors in a move that surprised him.
“It was very disappointing, it kind of threw me off guard,” he said outside the Baysox clubhouse. “I think the best thing that happened, though, was I came down here with a plan. (Bowie pitching coach) Kennie Steenstra is here and he’s been with me throughout my minor league career. Gary Kendall, Denny Hocking, Einar (Diaz) - great staff here and they’ve made it really easy for me, though at times it is hard to mentally stay focused when you want to be in the big leagues.
“I feel like there is a fine line where you have to understand their perspective and I think they understand my perspective. They made the decision, whether I liked it or not - I didn’t - but at the end of the day, I still need to get better here for when they do call me up.”
I asked Britton if he thought service time issues factored into the decision to send him to Bowie.
“I can only say what I think. I think it did and there were a couple of other factors, too. But you have to put yourself in their shoes. I know they are looking out for me. I have a good relationship with Buck and (pitching coach) Rick Adair and I know they are looking out for me and want the best for me,” he said.
There is speculation that Britton could return to the majors to pitch one of the games of a doubleheader on Saturday at New York.
“I know they have a tentative scheduled planned,” Britton said. “As fas as I know, the schedule was for me to have three starts here and then after that, kind of to be determined. I’m preparing myself for the start tomorrow (today against Harrisburg) and then I’m sure Rick will let me know.”
Britton went three innings in his first Baysox start and four in the next. Tonight, he will likely throw between 80 and 90 pitches and maybe go five or six innings.
In those first two Bowie outings, he gave up six hits and three runs in seven frames, with two walks and six strikeouts.
“They didn’t tell me there was necessarily just one thing to work on. I knew the (limiting of my) innings were a big factor and just kind of giving me a mental breather,” he said. “Just kind of clear everything out and have some fun down here. They didn’t specifically say ‘do this or that.’
“I wanted to work on fastball command and improve on that. Throwing inside to hitters and then improving some on my offspeed pitches.”
Britton said being in the minors became even tougher as some of the other young pitchers and the entire rotation had its struggles.
“You appreciate the success you have more when you are struggling,” Britton said. “I don’t think anyone ever went to the big leagues without some of that. Me and Jake (Arrieta), kind of the last two young guys to come up, we leaned on each other. We understood facing teams like the Yankees, Rays, Jays and Red Sox, you will have some bumps in the road. It’s about making adjustments and we are starting to do that.”
Counting his time with Bowie, Britton has now pitched 111 innings and he knows when he returns to the majors that the club will still be closely monitoring his season innings load.
“I know (me pitching in) September is a big thing for Buck. They asked me would I rather throw my innings all the way and maybe not reach September, or throw in September. They know more about that than I do,” he said.
“I knew we would skip a start and we did that one time. If there is a chance to do that again, they will probably do it. They haven’t put a number on it to me. I’ve heard 175, 180 (innings for the year), so just kind of play it by ear.”