Britton’s epic failures in back-to-back starts a distant memory

SAN FRANCISCO - How does a manager display confidence in his closer besides the obvious move of letting him protect a slim lead in the ninth inning?

Orioles manager Buck Showalter did it again yesterday in San Francisco, ordering an intentional walk to pinch-hitter Buster Posey with a runner on second base and two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. A runner who represented the tying run.

Math allows us to deduce that Posey represented the winning run on a ball hit into the gap.

The majority of fans at sold-out AT&T Park were whipped into a frenzy when Posey strolled to the plate. He was a late scratch from the lineup with back tightness, but he made a dramatic turn.

Showalter didn’t play along. The intentional walk by Zach Britton, met with a chorus of boos, allowed Denard Span to bat. Span ran the count full and bounced into a force, with J.J. Hardy beating pinch-runner Conor Gillaspie to the bag.

That’s a special kind of trust that’s been demonstrated in the past.

It wasn’t always this way. Not when Britton was a starter riding the shuttle between the majors and minors. Not when he was an early cut in spring training, a pitcher running out of options on a team running out of patience.

This is the same Zach Britton who registered the worst back-to-back starts ever recorded, but in name only. He allowed seven earned runs and eight total in only two-thirds of an inning as a rookie on July 8, 2011 in Boston, was optioned to Double-A Bowie, returned to the Orioles and allowed six earned runs and nine total in only one-third of an inning on July 30 in New York.

Jason Berken replaced Britton as the Yankees completed a 12-run first inning in a 17-3 win. I can promise you that nobody at that moment was touting Britton as a future closer and certainly not an All-Star closer who’s in the center of the Cy Young talk with his 0.54 ERA and 37 straight converted saves.

britton-pitching-orange-front-sidebar.jpg“I don’t ever really look back on those, to be honest with you,” he said last week. “I was throwing really well up to that point. Like two starts before the All-Star break. I had a lot of wins, good ERA, I was throwing the ball really well as a starter in the big leagues. And then I had that bad outing in Boston and getting sent down, and from there it was a lot of getting sent down after bad starts, good starts, just kind of a roller coaster.

“It got to the point where I finally got out options, and I knew if I threw well, I was going to be in the big leagues with somebody. That was my mindset, whether it was here or someplace else. And I think it helped me relax a little bit and just really focus on pitching and not worry anymore about getting sent down or any of that other stuff that goes along with it.”

Britton threw a sinker then and he throws it now, only it’s practically unhittable. It’s a swing-and-miss-by-a-mile pitch. The similarities end after the name.

Britton honed it, made it nastier than a Detroit winter, in spring training bullpen sessions with pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti. Strings running across the plate, Britton forced to keep the ball down.

“The command of it is a lot better, I think,” he said. “The one thing that Dave and Dom helped me focus on was the command of it. When I was starting, I threw my four-seamer probably just as much as I did my sinker. That was something in hindsight that maybe if I had focused on the command of the sinker right away or even in the minors a little more, maybe that would have helped. But I think that’s the biggest change.”

No bigger than the changes made to Showalter’s coaching staff.

“Dave and Dom have been great for me,” Britton said. “I think it’s more like we’re in tune, we’re on the same page more often than maybe pitching coaches I’ve had in the past. And that’s not to say anything. I worked real well with Kennie Steenstra and Griff (Mike Griffin) when I was in the minors. I felt like they taught me a lot. And then I went through a period ...”

This is where it gets a little awkward, with Britton again trying to take the high road and not throw anyone under the bus with the same violent downward action as his best pitch.

“There’s just some people, their philosophies you don’t agree with or just the way that they’re teaching you doesn’t sit well or doesn’t sink in, I guess,” Britton said. “It’s not necessarily one person’s fault over the others. I just work well with Dave and Dom.

“Seems like everything they tell me or try to help me with kind of goes with my mentality. Yeah, it would have been great to work with them initially, but that’s not to say I would have been a great starter. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into that, not just who you’re working with, but I feel a lot more comfortable working with Dave and Dom than I have really with anyone else.”

Showalter repeated yesterday that he never takes for granted what Britton is doing.

“Nobody does,” he said. “At some point, it’s not going to work out that way and some chopper’s going to find a hole. But Zach’s been a rock. I’ve run out of ways to describe him.

“The other team is playing with house money. Everybody’s expecting them not to score, so they’re going up there pretty reckless. Zach’s kind of like the guy always defending the heavyweight title. Somebody’s always trying to get a knockout punch.”

They’re catching a lot of air.

You’d think by now that Britton wouldn’t be asked about a desire to start again, especially while in the midst of this historic season, with no earned runs allowed in a record 41 consecutive relief appearances dating to May 5. He never suggests that he wants to do it and the process would take a considerable amount of time since he’s been closing since May 2014.

“I feel like a few times a week somebody will ask,” he said, countering all logic.

“I don’t know. You never know how things would have worked out. Maybe after ‘14, if they had asked me to start, then maybe you would have kind of looked into it. But now, being three years removed, I know how hard it is to build up those innings. It’s not just something you can go right back into it. Throwing every few days compared to every fifth day is different, but the innings total is really what you’re looking at.

“The ups and downs and stuff like that, it would be a challenge and I don’t really think about it anymore.”

While I’m flying home today, with an hour layover in Chicago, you can think about Jonathan Schoop now owning two go-ahead home runs in the ninth inning, the first coming on July 10, 2015 against the Nationals’ Tanner Roark.

You can think about Mark Trumbo’s 34 home runs equaling his career high set in 2013 with the Angels. And how Hyun Soo Kim now ranks first among American League rookies with six three-plus hit games.

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