Zach Britton couldn’t attend Saturday’s FanFest at the Baltimore Convention Center, an excused absence based on his Achilles surgery and rehab in California. But the Orioles closer was a presence at the annual event, spreading positive updates about his recovery in an online Q&A and conference call with the media. He also maintained a humorous dialogue through his Twitter account while referenced in the season ticket holders’ session with executive vice president Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter.
Britton underwent the procedure on Dec. 21 and already is out of his walking boot and anticipating when he’ll be cleared to throw at the Ed Smith Stadium complex. He’s going to arrive in Sarasota ahead of the Feb. 13 report date for pitchers and catchers.
“I’m feeling really good,” Britton said in his conference call, media members converging on a small speaker set up in the third-floor workroom. “Saw the doctor again for my second follow-up of the three follow-ups that I have and he was really happy with where I’m at. Maybe a little ahead of schedule.
“Not skipping any steps, but just picking up the pace on things that I’m doing now. More walking, getting comfortable in a tennis shoe again and things like that. So that will probably be a week’s worth of therapy right there just getting used to walking in a shoe again and making sure my calf muscle is strong enough to kind of allow me to step on a curb awkwardly and things like that without having any issues. So that’s our focus. But things are going really well.”
The last of Britton’s three checkups is slated for Feb. 9 and he’ll immediately board a flight to Sarasota.
“I’ll be walking, I’ll be back into throwing,” he said. “I think I can throw next week, but I think we’ll just hold off until I get to spring. Brian Ebel, the head trainer now, he was out here the last three days with me speaking with the doctors, speaking with the physical therapist out here in California, so we’ve got a really good baseline on what we’re going to do and what we can accomplish in spring. And hopefully before spring’s over for the most part I’ll look like a healthy player minus some of the things.
Caution is always the recommended course. Embrace the progress, but don’t be foolish.
“We have to make sure the ligament’s completely healed before I start covering first base and making contact with the bag and things like that,” he said. “But from a throwing standpoint and even pitching off the mound, at some point in spring training, middle to the end, I’m sure that will start happening. But we’ve got a little ways to go until then. But right now the progress has been really good. I haven’t had any setbacks. I’m a little ahead of schedule, which is nothing but good news.”
Britton certainly could use it. He was distraught after the injury, which occurred while running sprints at agent Scott Boras’ training facility. A freakish accident that was so cruel in nature, especially given how hard he worked to come back from oblique soreness in spring training and a left forearm strain that twice put him on the disabled list. He received a stem-cell injection in his left knee in September.
“Mentally, I’m in a lot better place now,” he said. “Once I started physical therapy, I talked to Jerome Williams, who pitched for the Angels for a while. He actually had an Achilles rupture last year and I got to talk to him about the process and everything like that, hearing how quickly he came back and kind of just lifted my spirits a little bit.
“Every week I’ve been doing physical therapy now - it’s been over a month - we’ve made some really big strides and I’ve gotten nothing but good feedback from the doctors and the therapists. And the guy I’m doing physical therapy with does this all the time. He works with the hockey teams, football teams, so he sees this all the time and he does a good job, so he’s been lifting my spirits, too, and keeping a positive mindset, which is big through this process.
“I can see the light at the end of the tunnel now that I’m able to walk. It’s maybe something you take for granted every day, being able to stand up and shift your weight, but I’ve been a lot more uplifted with the things I’ve heard from other people and obviously with the physical therapy.”
While the industry has become obsessed with pace of play, Britton must focus on pace of recovery. He’s been guilty of rushing back and won’t make the same mistake this year.
The most optimistic projections have Britton with a possible May return. Others say it could be June or after the All-Star break.
“Unfortunately, I had those injuries, so I kind of have at least a baseline on what I know that I need to get done,” he said. “I feel like sometimes in those rehab outings last year that I didn’t really get as much out of them as I wanted to, so I think now going into this year, obviously I’ve never had surgery, so this is different. I’m fortunate it wasn’t anything to my arm. These are things that since I play baseball are normally pretty reasonable to come back from. But it will be a different rehab process. It’s not going to be exactly like last year.
“Last year, those things were more inflammation, so it’s kind of just waiting for those things to get out. This is surgery. I’m not really sure how it’s going to be or how I can compare it to last year, but at least I know that ... I know it’s going to suck watching the team play and not be there, so mentally I’m prepared to be on the sideline watching and maybe I’ll be able to motivate myself a little bit more and not feel bad for myself.
“I think last year a lot mentally I kind of was just down in the dumps a little bit and I think this year I can use it as a positive motivation to get back and get back to where I was. Maybe that will be a little bit different, just the mentality of it.”
Removing Britton from the bullpen creates a shift in roles, with Brad Brach likely to get most of the early closing opportunities. Darren O’Day and Mychal Givens also are candidates to handle the ninth inning, depending on availability, and Showalter has mentioned left-hander Richard Bleier in potential late-game matchups.
“My first reaction is I just felt sorry for him,” O’Day said. “He had a tough year last year and I know how frustrating injuries are. As far as I know, he’s just working out trying to prepare for the season. Just a freak thing that happens. That’s why you’ve got to be grateful every day for your health and the ability to play this game, because a ruptured Achilles is no joke. Yeah, I feel terrible for him personally as a friend and it’s not good for his career, obviously.
“It’s going to make our job a little tougher this year in the bullpen. I don’t think you could ask for a better Plan B than Brad as a closer. I’m ready to do it if I’m asked to do it and I’ve done it a handful of times, so we’ve got some options. Mychal can do it if he puts his mind to it, so I think we’ve got a good Plan B, but we’d love for him to be in action helping us out. Hopefully, that will happen sooner rather than later.”
Brach said he’s proceeding with his usual offseason workouts and not letting Britton’s injury and the ripple effect influence it.
“I’m hoping that I get a shot to close,” he said. “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hope I’d get a shot. But it’s not up to me. As I always say, Buck is the one who makes the calls and whenever he asks me to pitch, I’ll be ready. So that’s all I’m really focusing on. Just trying to get all my pitches and everything as healthy and as good as I can and be ready to go.”
Called upon first in 2017 as Britton’s replacement, Brach was 18-for-24 in save opportunities. He knows more than anyone how Britton is an incredibly tough act to follow.
“I thought I did all right,” Brach said. “Obviously, I blew a few saves, which I would like not to have done that and that’s my goal this year is not to do that. So I think I just got caught up in being the closer for a little bit there and worried about when Zach was coming back and what my role was going to be as opposed to just going out there and pitching.”
Brach converted save chances in three consecutive days, retiring all nine batters he faced, and was 4-for-4 before the Yankees scored three runs off him in the bottom of the ninth inning on April 28 to tie the game 11-11. Starlin Castro’s two-run shot knotted the score and Matt Holliday hit a three-run walk-off homer against Jayson Aquino in the 10th.
Four more successful conversions followed, though Brach twice allowed a run. The season took a nasty turn on May 10 after a 6-4 lead in the ninth inning in D.C. turned into a 7-6 loss, with the Nationals handing Brach his second blown save. The Orioles were three outs away from improving to 23-10. They lost six of seven games and 13 of 16.
“My first few outings when I was a closer just kind of felt normal,” Brach said, “and then I started thinking about it. And then I blew that first one up in New York and I was like, ‘Oh, man, this is not going to be good,’ and just kind of got in my own head about it, and what I’m hoping to do this year is not do that. So, yeah, I think I did all right and hopefully I get another chance to do that.”
Britton and Brach can file for free agency after the season. They agreed to terms earlier this month to avoid arbitration hearings, with Britton signing for $12 million and Brach for $5.165 million.
Britton’s case was unusual due to the surgery and how the injury occurred while working out, eliminating any possibility that the Orioles might release him. The sides were far apart past the 1 p.m. deadline.
“(Negotiations) weren’t smooth by any means,” he said. “The last few years, we’ve had pretty lengthy discussions and kind of taken it right to the deadline. This year was a unique situation. Had I not gotten injured in the offseason, I think it would have been pretty smooth sailing, but both sides were kind of in a unique position.
“There wasn’t a lot of reference for what I had done and I think as a player I was looking out for every player in the future who might get injured in the offseason. There was a precedent that could have been set and I didn’t want to be the guy to set it, so we kind of drew a hard line where we were going to start negotiations. And the Orioles were really professional about it, obviously, like they’ve always been. They’re hard negotiators, though, and I think anybody in baseball will tell you that. But at the end of the day, I think we found something I was comfortable with and they thought was fair and we got it done.
“It wasn’t really that I thought we were going to a hearing. I think we both knew that none of us wanted to do that just based on the situation. But Scott Boras and Dan Duquette were able to get something done. I’m happy with it. I’m injured and I’m under contract. The salary stuff is more than enough money. So I think more so for me and my family, it was knowing that I was under contract and getting my rehab going.”
Britton’s extended absence hurts the pitcher and the team, as he acknowledged over the weekend. At least he’s now able to find some humor in it.
“I feel like more so for me because I have to do the rehab, but if Dan wants to come and help me out, he can,” Britton said. “But I think going forward, it was good just to get it over with and I’m happy we got something done.”