OK, let’s start with the official comments.
Buck Showalter said after Thursday's 2-1 win versus the Kansas City Royals that using left-hander Zach Britton in the ninth inning instead of previous closer Tommy Hunter — or anyone else, for that matter — does not mean that Britton is the closer or that Hunter is not.
"We’re going to use whatever gives us the best chance to win, the best chance to put guys in the best spot to be successful and to be healthy,” Showalter said. “That’s the way we are looking at it.”
Britton said he enjoyed the experience, and that he is ready for it anytime it comes. But three times in a three-minute interview, he said he’ll do the job “whenever Tommy needs a break.”
And when Showalter was asked, point-blank, whether his decision in the ninth provided some clarity regarding the closer situation, the manager said: “No.”
That may be the case. Showalter is exceptionally loyal to his players, and maybe he isn’t ready to ride Britton in every ninth inning with Hunter still there as an option.
But his decision Thursday spoke volumes. Because, as good as Britton has been this year, that was not a good matchup for him in the ninth.
The first batter was Alex Gordon, a left-hander. So, at first blush, you’d think Britton would be the guy. But in eight previous at-bats against Britton in his career, the Royals left fielder was 6-for-8 with a double and a homer; he was 3-for-11 with all singles against Hunter.
Showalter was well aware of Gordon’s history with Britton — he recited the numbers back to reporters after the game. But then Showalter said this: “Sometimes, that is [against] the old Zach. If you get bogged down on that stuff, you’d never have anybody pitch and you’d have one guy try to pitch to 30 guys. If you dwell on [the numbers], you’re going to have a lot of people hurt because you’d be running the same people out there.”
OK, so Britton faced the lefty and got a ground ball.
The next batter was former Orioles teammate Danny Valencia. And we all know what the right-handed hitter does to lefties. Coming in, he had a .329 average against left-handers in 426 at-bats. And he nearly won the game with one swing in the fourth, when he missed a grand slam against Wei-Yin Chen by just a few feet. Valencia was 2-for-5 in his career versus Britton and hitless in four at-bats versus Hunter.
And Britton faced Valencia, too, and induced another groundout. He then got right-hander Johnny Giavotella to hit a game-ending grounder for the save.
Britton basically pitched as he has all season, pounding the strike zone with sinkers. He threw 12 pitches, all sinkers, all at 94 or 95 mph.
And it worked.
It’s impossible to think he won’t get the call again the next time this comes up — assuming, I suppose, that he is not needed earlier in a game.
The bottom line is that the ninth did not set up well, numbers-wise, for Britton, Showalter called on him, and he had no trouble at all.
And if Britton is going to be used in that situation, it’s hard for me to believe he won’t be used again and again in the ninth, until he proves he can’t do it.