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Great find and terrible loss have buoyed Orioles' Britton

Long before Zach Britton was a major league baseball player, and well before the left-handed pitcher used his devastating power sinker to emerge as one of the few bright spots for the Orioles in an already-challenging 2011 season, he was a California teenager who nearly paralyzed himself running full speed into a stadium light support because he refused to stop chasing a meaningless batting-practice foul ball.

The Britton family could tell countless stories about Zach's hyper-competitive nature growing up. As the youngest of three brothers, Britton grew to hate losing so much, he would occasionally storm into the house on the verge of tears, vowing to his parents that his elder siblings, Clay and Buck, would never beat him at anything again. Ever. He didn't care that they were older, stronger and faster. Losing - it didn't matter whether it was in basketball, baseball, football or motorcycle racing - drove him a little bit insane.

But the day he smashed into that light support during an otherwise forgettable baseball practice in Santa Clarita, Calif., is probably the most telling example of why Britton made it to the big leagues. Along the way, there were other kids who might have had more talent, but none was quite as fearless or competitive as Britton.

"It was really one of the worst days of our lives," said Greg Britton, Zach's father. "When we were in the hospital, the doctors showed us his scans, and he had a bubble on his brain about the size of a quarter. They told us: 'If this doesn't go down in a day or so, we're going to have to drill through his skull to relieve the pressure. And if we do that, it may affect his motor skills.' At that point, you just drop to your knees and start praying."

To this day, Britton, 23, remembers very little about what happened, but he does have a very specific memory of lying in his hospital bed and overhearing the doctors tell his parents that his brain was bleeding.

"When you're young like that, you really have no idea how serious things are," Britton said. "I just wanted to get out of the [intensive care unit] so I could play that next week."

When the swelling subsided after a day and Britton was allowed to go home, he waited a few days, then told his baseball coaches he had been medically cleared to play - something that was not true - and he expected to see action again. His family was not amused when his coaches called to verify what he was saying.

"He's scared us a few times with his intensity," Greg Britton said.

Without that intensity, though, Britton isn't sure what kind of pitcher he would be. He certainly wouldn't be the guy who is 3-1 with a 3.16 ERA as a rookie. He's scheduled to take the mound tonight against the Boston Red Sox, trying to help the Orioles halt a three-game losing streak.

"Kennie Steenstra, my pitching coach [at Double-A Bowie], he always told me that what made me successful on the mound is that I really wanted it more than anyone," Britton said. "I wasn't going to stand for anything other than being successful."

Explaining Britton's success, however, requires a technical explanation as well as an emotional one. Because as far as he's concerned, it has a lot to do with both. If you want to understand why Britton looks like the kind of pitcher who could anchor the Orioles' staff for years to come, you need to hear the story of the accidental sinker, and also the one about Sandi Stephens.
   
Fortuitous find

From the technical side of things, Britton was obviously a good pitcher in high school, especially when you consider how rare it is to find a left-hander who can hit the mid-90s on the radar gun.

His family moved from California to Texas when he was 16, and, in time, he fit right in on the Weatherford High baseball team, one of the state's best programs. But it's probably a stretch to say he was a great pitcher. All he really knew how to throw was a fastball. He was actually a better outfielder, and that's what he planned to primarily play at Texas A&M, which offered him a scholarship his senior year.

"I don't think anybody expected me to be in the big leagues early on," Britton said. "There's no chance. I was just playing to get a scholarship."

The Orioles decided to roll the dice with Britton, grabbing him in the third round of the 2006 draft and handing him a $435,000 signing bonus to keep him from playing for the Aggies. But it initially didn't look like the wisest investment when Britton got smacked around in Rookie ball, going 0-4 with a 5.29 ERA in 11 starts for Bluefield.

He acknowledges now that he didn't handle it well. His anger got the best of him. He wanted to smash water coolers after every bad start. Even when he did rein in his temper, he sulked instead.

By the time he got to short-season Single-A Aberdeen the following year, his confidence was a little shaken, to say the least. But one day during a bullpen session, while experimenting with a cut fastball, one of baseball's great accidents just happened to unfold. IronBirds pitching coach Calvin Maduro noticed that instead of cutting, Britton's pitches were sinking like an anchor tossed into the ocean. Britton had just stumbled into throwing a power sinker, one of the toughest pitches to hit.

"Obviously I had no idea how to throw one," Britton said. "At the time, I was just looking for a something that, as a pitcher, gave me confidence. Something I could throw in situations where, in the past, if I had guys on base, I would give up those runs. That pitch was able to get me out of those situations."

Even though he has been throwing it for years, Britton still isn't sure why it works for him. When he throws the pitch, he grips it almost as if he's throwing a curveball. He tries to put as much pressure on his middle finger as possible and lets his pointer finger serve only as a guide. Experimenting with different pressure points was a bit like playing with a chemistry set and creating a new element more or less on instinct.

"Is it really as good as people say it is? I don't know," Britton said. "I throw it, and I don't see it move or anything. I just go by what people tell me. I just feel like I can get out of any situation. ... I really think it was a fluke. I've tried to show other people the grip, and they can't throw it."

As Britton's velocity increased, and as he added a slider and a changeup to his arsenal, he became a gigantic headache for hitters. In the minor leagues, nearly 65 percent of the balls put into play against him were ground balls, a percentage that's almost unheard-of. That, combined with being left-handed and able to throw in the mid-90s consistently, makes Britton unlike anyone else in baseball.

"I asked all our coaches the question in spring training: 'Who is he comparable to?' " Orioles pitching coach Mark Connor said. "No one could remember one. The only guy who comes close is Mike Hampton, but I don't think he threw with that velocity. If Zach gets the ball anywhere below the belt, more times than not, you're going to hit the top of the ball and it's going to be a ground ball.

"If I could sit here and tell you I could teach that pitch, I could make a lot of money. When he gets control of his sinker and can throw it when he's behind in the count, you're not going to see too many balls hit hard off him."

Even when Britton doesn't have total control of his sinker - which he didn't in his major league debut against the Tampa Bay Rays on April 3 - it often doesn't matter.

"He wasn't able to locate his sinker for strikes, but [Tampa Bay] still had to respect it," catcher Matt Wieters said. "It still had good movement. ... I've been really impressed with his preparation and just being able to calm the nerves out there. You like to see the fire out there. Fire is not a bad thing. I don't mind a guy getting [ticked] off when he makes a bad pitch out there, that's for sure. He does it in a way where he's not taking away from pitches later in the game."

There's a reason Britton is calmer in the heat of the moment than he once was, and it's also a story about an accident. But not the good kind. It's the story of Sandi Stephens, and the day she died.  

Calming presence

The Stephens and Britton families were so tight when Britton was growing up, he more or less considered Sandi Stephens a sister. Their families went to the same church in California, they were close in age, she also had two brothers, and she, too, was fearless, eager to keep up with the large pack of boys when they were pretending to be soldiers or playing cowboys and Indians. Sandi liked show horses and cheerleading, but what she loved most was people.

"She was really outgoing, and as we got older, she really liked helping people in the community," Britton said. "She loved kids. She was just a really good person from a good Christian family."

Even when the Brittons moved to Texas and the Stephenses moved to Oklahoma, they kept in touch. When Britton was drafted by the Orioles, he joked that when he made it to the majors, he already had plans to leave tickets for Sandi and her family to come to his first game.

On Memorial Day in 2007, Britton was at extended spring training with the Orioles, learning a pitch that would alter the course of his career. Sandi and her fiance were coming home from a going-away party in Tulsa, Okla., for Sandi's younger brother, a soldier who was headed to Iraq. Sandi was six months' pregnant with a girl.

When Britton's mother, Martha, called him the next morning to tell him that Sandi had been killed by a drunken driver, and that her unborn child had also died, he was in shock. It took several hours for it to sink in, and when it did, he was devastated.

"I think that's probably the first experience with loss that Zach really went through," Greg Britton said. "It was the first time I think he began to understand that life is not permanent."

Drawing has always helped Britton clear his head. He owns an easel, and he likes to sketch versions of pictures he finds in books or on the Internet. He drew a picture of Sandi riding a horse not long after she died, then took it to a business in Dallas that put the picture, along with Sandi's name, birth date and the day she died, on an Under Armour T-shirt. He wears it under his jersey every time he pitches.

The day Britton made his first major league start against Tampa Bay - an outing in which he would give up just three hits and one run over six innings - he texted his mom a few hours before the first pitch. She was already at the ballpark with the rest of the family, taking pictures.
    'This is for Sandi'

"This is for Sandi, Mom. She's on my back today."

"I cried," Martha Britton said. "Here it is, his big day, and he's thinking of Sandi. I'm more proud of his character than I am of the fact that he's in the major leagues."

There are moments, even now, when Britton still gets angry with himself. When he gave up a homer to the Cleveland Indians' Travis Hafner in his third start, his only loss, he wanted to scream. And there will likely be rough patches this year for him, regardless of how nasty his stuff can be.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter has been quick to remind people how young Britton is, and how quickly things can change in the big leagues.

But when he's on the mound and struggling to calm himself, Britton thinks about Sandi Stephens a lot.

"In a weird way, or a spiritual way, she was there with me [in Tampa]," Britton said.

"Ever since I've worn that shirt, I've had success. There have been times on the mound when I've thought about everything. I feel like I have a connection there. I'm able to calm down in certain situations because of her. It's kind of unique when I'm out there. I don't feel it anywhere else."

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com
twitter.com/KVanValkenburg

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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