SEATTLE — The Orioles had a pretty good sense as to what they were going to see against former teammate Joe Saunders on Monday night. They had no idea what they could expect from their own starting pitcher.
Lefty Zach Britton, making his first start of the season for the Orioles after a solid beginning in the minors, was hoping that his rediscovered sinker would translate to the big leagues.
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With the exception of a home run surrendered to Michael Saunders, the first batter he faced, Britton didn’t give up many scorchers. But the seeing-eye and broken-bat singles can hurt, too.
“It wasn’t a great day. A lot of hits, but a lot of ground balls that kind of got through when guys got on base,” said Britton, who allowed six runs on 10 hits and two walks in six innings. “When you are trying to get ground balls, sometimes they sneak through the hole and the next outing they can find guys. It’s frustrating, but it wasn’t all bad. There [were] some good spots.”
There was also an incredibly weird moment in the Mariners’ three-run sixth. After the inning started with Justin Smoak's single that left fielder Nolan Reimold allowed to drop in front of him, Britton was rubbing the baseball on the mound when something struck his left shoulder.
Home plate umpire Alan Porter thought Britton had signaled for a new baseball and hummed one back to the pitcher, who had his head down.
“Yeah, the umpire smoked me. I had no idea, I was looking down at the ball and all of a sudden another ball hit me,” Britton said. “I had no idea what was going on, but it didn’t feel great. … Just [hit me] right on top of the shoulder, kind of hit a nerve so it kind of tingled for a second.”
Britton took a few minutes to regroup and threw a warm-up pitch before staying in the game.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “I turned when the ball was headed about halfway to the mound and I could tell it was about to square him up.”
It was that kind of night for Britton and the Orioles (15-11) – things were just a little out of sync.
On his second big league pitch since last October, Britton permitted the homer to Michael Saunders, who had been on the disabled list since April 9 with a strained shoulder. It was Saunders’ second of the season and the first leadoff shot of his career.
Britton retired nine of the next 11 batters he faced before running into some trouble in the fourth. He allowed a single and a walk to start the inning, then Jason Bay doubled down the left-field line to tie the score at 2-2.
The Mariners (12-16) never trailed again.
“I don’t look at it as a gloom-and doom, that bad of a start [for Britton],” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “The problem was tonight we didn’t do anything off their starter. That’s a whole different ballgame if we can put a little more pressure on him.”
Joe Saunders, who was the starting and victorious pitcher last year in the Orioles’ first postseason game in 15 years – at Texas in the American League wild-card game – was excellent on Monday. He allowed four hits on two earned runs while striking out two in his seventh career complete game.
Not many saw it live, though. The announced attendance was 9,818, the lowest in Safeco’s history.
“We knew what Joe was going to do. Everyone sort of knows what Joe is going to do,” said Wieters, whose two-run homer in the fourth gave the Orioles their only lead. “That’s why he’s good and that’s why he’s pitched for so long. He’s able to make the ball move late and get ground balls and get weak contact.”
Saunders picked up 19 of his 27 outs on ground balls. The lefty from Northern Virginia, who spent a month-plus with the Orioles last year after an August trade from Arizona, never was really in trouble against his old club.
“I enjoyed my time there a lot. We did some great things over there, but I’m here now. It’s time to beat them,” Saunders said. “That’s my job. I knew them a little bit, but you still have to watch video and see what they’re doing. I tried to keep this as Plain Jane as I could and keep my normal routine.”
Saunders (2-3) is now an incredible 8-0 with a 1.75 ERA in 12 career starts at Safeco Field. One of those gems was last September for the Orioles, so the club knew what Saunders could accomplish Monday night.
“We are aware of it,” Showalter said. “It’s something you are constantly looking at. It doesn’t surprise you any by what he is doing. It’s frustrating that you have a good idea of what he is doing and still he can do it, but that’s major league pitchers.”
After the game, the Orioles optioned catcher Luis Exposito, who did not play in two days with the club, back to Triple-A Norfolk. They will activate newly acquired reserve catcher Chris Snyder on Tuesday.
The more interesting roster question, however, is whether Britton will get a chance to make his next turn in the rotation Saturday in Los Angeles. Showalter wasn’t confirming that one Monday night.
“We’ll see where we are. We want to see how his shoulder is. He took a right-on-the-button blow from the throw [from the umpire],” Showalter said. “I think he is fine. He felt good. But like always we’ll see how we best present ourselves in the next start and Zach is certainly a good option.”