Zach Britton's ninth-inning breakdown forces Orioles into extra innings again

Zach Britton is in his third week back from the disabled list, but he still doesn’t feel like himself yet.

And the result has been some very un-Britton-like performances from the Orioles closer, including his first blown save of the season in Wednesday night’s 8-7 loss to the Seattle Mariners in 11 innings at Camden Yards.

For the second time this week, a ninth-inning breakdown by Britton forced the Orioles into extra innings.

“I don’t think there’s been a game yet where I’ve felt, ‘OK, that’s it from every pitch,’ so you’ve just got to find a way to get to that point,” said Britton, who has a 7.04 ERA in eight relief appearances. “Whatever it is, playing catch before games and every time I get in the game, really trying and be consistent with the delivery and not overthrow, which has kind of been an issue. I’m just going to work at it. That’s all I can do. Just get better. Just have to be better.”

Britton entered Wednesday night’s game against the Seattle Mariners to open the ninth inning with a 7-5 cushion after Chris Davis hit a three-run homer in the eighth to give the Orioles a lead. But just two batters into the inning, the game was tied after Kyle Seager’s two-run homer to right field. Britton retired the next three batters he faced, but the damage was already done. Seager’s homer forced Wednesday’s game into extra innings, where the Orioles lost in the 11th after Denard Span’s sacrifice fly in the top half of the inning.

“Just no execution,” Britton said. “It’s been off and on the two weeks I’ve been here, I’ve been back. It’s just been kind of a battle to just be consistent delivery, let alone making good pitches to good hitters. Yeah, it’s been a grind, so I’ve got to make some adjustments and make the next two weeks better than these two weeks. That’s all I can really do right now.”

Pitching for the fourth time in the Orioles’ past six games, Britton allowed a leadoff single to Mitch Haniger, then hung a 94-mph 2-0 sinker over the inner half of the plate that Seager turned on to tie the game.

Seager’s homer was indicative of Britton’s struggles. When he was one of the game’s most dominant closers, it was because of his heavy sinker — a pitch that induced swings and misses and weak ground balls because of its late downhill break. Britton’s still trying to regain his velocity — his average sinker velocity is down two miles per hour from 96 to 94 — and its too often been flat and elevated, as was the home-run ball to Seager.

On Friday, Britton was given a 7-3 lead in a non-save situation in Atlanta, but allowed four runs in the ninth, allowing six of the seven batters he faced to reach base. The Orioles eventually won that game, but not until the 15th inning.

“Both times I felt kind of out of whack with my delivery, and that’s kind of been kind of the main culprit is just trying to get consistent now and repeat my delivery,” Britton said. “It just hasn’t been there for me these last two weeks. I’m just going to continue to work. That’s really all I can do, try to get back to myself. It’s going to take repetition and finding the delivery that I need to do to get the sink consistent, the command consistent, and that’s just what I’m going to have to do to get back to myself. Long time off so…I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I didn’t want it to be like this, but it is what it is and I’ve just got to push through it.”

In many ways, Britton’s return is a dress rehearsal for potential trade suitors with the nonwaiver trade deadline approaching at the end of next month.

Opponents are hitting .285 off Britton in his eight appearances this season, and he’s allowed six walks for a .429 on-base percentage. While his early struggles could hurt Britton’s trade value, especially since he was hurt for most of last season with forearm and knee injuries, Orioles manager Buck Showalter said he has faith Britton will show his old form before long.

“He’s just inconsistent with some of the things that he spoiled us with for a long time here,” Showalter said. “He’s still one of the best relief pitchers in baseball and he’s shown that. Not necessarily flashes. He’s shown extended periods in those eight outings. It’s just going to take a little while for him to find his step, but he will.”

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