SARASOTA, Fla. - The few fans that were on hand today for the Orioles’ minor league games got to see a rare sight. Not only did All-Star closer Zach Britton pitch in a Single-A game, but he stayed on the mound longer than he does for most of his save situations.
Pitching for Single-A Frederick, Britton was the starting pitcher and buzzed through several Minnesota Twins batters. He got seven outs over two scoreless innings, allowing just two infield hits. He fanned two throwing 28 pitches, 20 for strikes.
“It was good,” Britton said after his outing at the Buck O’Neil Baseball Complex at Twin Lakes Park. “I needed to get a two-inning outing in, that was big. Get the pitch count up. Sit down and get back out there. I actually think I found my stuff a little more in that second inning, even though the first one was pretty good. A lot of weak ground balls and that is what I’m looking for.”
Britton’s longest big league outing last season, when he went 4-1 with a 1.92 ERA and 36 saves, was 2 1/3 innings. He doesn’t expect to have another two-inning spring appearance.
“No, this is it,” he said. “Last year, we just did one in spring. (Manager Buck Showalter) wants me to stay fresh. He didn’t want to do it in a big league game. This is more controlled. We could end an inning if my pitch count got too high.
“Coming down here can test you a little bit. You grind it out and need to stay mentally focused. Got to throw to (catcher) Jonah (Heim). He does a good job back there and is going to be a good one. Someone familiar to throw to, which is nice.”
In the first inning, Britton got two groundouts, allowed two infield hits and recorded a strikeout. In his second frame, he got three quick groundball outs. Then Orioles bullpen coach Dom Chiti, who was here to watch Britton, told him to stay out for one more batter and Britton got a seventh out on a strikeout.
Even though he is a major league All-Star and some of the kids he faced today may never see a day in the big leagues, Britton gave his young opponents respect.
“You can’t sell these kids short. These kids are where I used to be. Regardless of where you are, the talent is good. It’s just the experience and these guys don’t have it yet. It was good to get the work in. Really just working on fastball command today. For me, the results are the same. If I’m getting weak contact, that will translate to the big leagues,” he said.
* Meanwhile today was the first day of minor league spring training games. The O’s 2015 first-round pick, outfielder DJ Stewart, showed off his new more upright stance and lined a single to center in his first at-bat.
Left-hander Brian Gonzalez, the Orioles’ third-round pick in 2014, had a strong outing in the Frederick game with three scoreless innings on just 43 pitches. The 20-year-old lefty was so efficient that he went to the bullpen to throw a few more pitches.
“I felt good and my arm felt good,” Gonzalez said. “I just wanted to keep the ball down and pound the zone. Go after the hitters. If you keep the ball down and throw strikes you can have success.”
* Orioles director of player development Brian Graham said it was an exciting day for the minor league players to finally play games.
“Yeah, it is always fun to play that first game and the kids get to face opposing teams,” he said.
Have there been any specific points of emphasis in minor league camp?
“The points of emphasis come down from the major league team: to be a good defensive team, to be fundamentally sound,” he said. “You really want to make a name for yourself as baserunners. We want to be a baserunning organization. The pitchers and the offense, they are going to be what they are going to be. But as far as the discipline, playing good defense, being a good baserunning team - you have control over what you do there.”
In addition to being excited to see his players on the field, Graham could be a proud dad too today. His son, Jack, played at second base and got two hits. The younger Graham was drafted by the Orioles in round 38 last June.
* Last July the Orioles signed Xu Guiyuan, a 20-year-old left-handed-hitting first baseman who is trying to become the first player from mainland China to make it to the big leagues. He is the first player signed from one of Major League Baseball’s three youth developmental centers in China.
Today he played his first spring game. I saw him single in one at-bat and play a few innings at first base.
“He’s doing great,” Brian Graham said. “But there are so many areas that he needs to improve and just learn the game. Defensively, offensively, baserunning. He’s going to be fine. I would guess he will stay at extended spring and in the Gulf Coast League and just continue to get better.
“Fundamentally, he needs to understand how to play defense. The game is very fast for him because he hasn’t played against this level of competition. Offensively he hasn’t seen this kind of velocity. He needs to learn the fundamentals and mechanics at this level. But he is a smart kid with a good work ethic and he is doing everything he needs to do,” he said.
* Tomorrow, the Orioles’ Triple-A and Double-A teams play at home against Boston at 1 p.m. The two Single-A teams play the Red Sox in Fort Myers. The scheduled starting pitchers for Thursday are Greg Ross (Norfolk), John Means (Bowie), Lucas Long (Frederick) and Gray Fenter (Delmarva).