Now out of options, 2014 could be make-or-break year for Zach Britton

After a 2013 season where he made 19 starts in Triple-A and just seven for the Orioles, 25-year-old lefty Zach Britton knows he may be running out of chances.

Next spring, he will head to Sarasota, Fla., as a pitcher out of options and maybe running out of time to impress the O’s brass.

Over the last three years, Britton is 18-17 with a 4.77 ERA over 46 big league starts. Since he pitched so well early during the 2011 season for the Orioles, he has dealt with some shoulder issues and inconsistency, and his big league chances have been limited.

This year, he went 2-3 with a 4.95 ERA in 40 innings for the Orioles and was 6-5 with an ERA of 4.27 in 19 starts for Norfolk.

“I think you can look at it two ways,” Britton said of his 2013 season. “From a positive side, I was healthy the whole year and I hadn’t been healthy really since 2011. Arm felt great.

“But performance-wise, not so good up here. Down in the minors, I had a pretty good year. There were two starts after I had gotten sent down from here that I struggled, but if you take those away, I did well. I feel like my stuff came back to where it was a little bit. I’m healthy and that was the big key.”

Twice in 2013, Britton made a start for the Orioles and didn’t get a second one. He knows that is how it is when you are a pitcher on that line between Triple-A and the majors.

“You have to make the best of your opportunities you are given and I want to do better with whatever chances I get, but I haven’t really had a stretch like 10 starts to show what you can do. There is some stress, but you have to believe you’ll have a good outing and make the best of any chance you are given,” he said.

Britton would love to regain the form he showed early in the 2011 season when he was 5-2 with a 2.14 ERA in mid-May after nine starts and took an ERA of 2.93 into June.

He is a pitcher with a good sinker that has always been a key for him. At Norfolk this season, he had a stunning 2.98 ground-to-air out ratio and it was 1.61 in the majors. Still good, but the big league hitters don’t beat as many sinkers into the ground as minor league hitters do.

“Guys here (in the majors) are stronger and can lift the pitch down in the zone,” he said. “But if I command it better, you’ll get more chases. That is something I have to find. Up here, they are not as prone to chase pitches out of the zone.”

Britton was once part of a group of young pitchers with potential and promise that included guys like Jake Arrieta, Brad Bergesen, Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman. Now, only Tillman is a mainstay in the O’s rotation.

Britton would like to prove some doubters wrong as Tillman did, and next year could be his last chance, with the O’s as a pitcher out of options.

“You understand that you have an opportunity where you are not necessarily worried about getting optioned, but at the same time it is a big opportunity,” Britton said.

“You have to pitch well. Just because you are out of options doesn’t mean you are in the big leagues. You have to go in and earn the spot. That’s my goal and my mindset.”

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