Orioles' Britton unsinkable in major league debut

There were moments Sunday when Zach Britton reminded everybody why he's considered one of the top pitching prospects in baseball.

He froze the second batter he faced, Elliot Johnson, with a 92 mph sinker at the knees for his first career strikeout. In the second, he threw a fastball right by Sean Rodriguez for a third strike and fanned the next batter, Dan Johnson, on a changeup to end the inning.

But by the far the most impressive aspect of Britton's major league debut was this: The 23-year-old left-hander allowed just one run and three hits against the Tampa Bay Rays while barely throwing his best pitch.

All but shelving his sinking fastball after he had problems controlling it early, Britton struck out six in six strong innings and the Orioles beat the Rays, 5-1, to finish a season-opening three-game sweep and finalize a dominant series by their rotation.

"Maybe tomorrow when I wake up, I'll be able to take a step back and remember today," said Britton, who was pitching in front of about 30 friends and family members. "I was just excited. We've been playing great baseball, and I think this is what everyone expected, just bringing in the guys that we did. It's Orioles baseball. It's putting runs together, guys getting people over, getting good pitching. Hopefully, we can take this over into the next series and continue it."

Instead of taking in the remainder of the game from a clubhouse television while icing his prized left arm, Britton stayed in the dugout after his 96-pitch outing and watched the Orioles score three runs in the seventh against Rays starter Wade Davis, with Mark Reynolds lining a tie-breaking RBI double and J.J. Hardy bringing in two runs with a double of his own.

The Orioles added an insurance run in the ninth, thanks to another RBI double from Reynolds. Jason Berken, Jim Johnson and Josh Rupe got the final nine outs as the Orioles improved to 3-0 for the first time since they won the first four games of the 1997 season. It was their first sweep of the Rays at Tropicana Field for the since Sept. 30-Oct. 2, 2005.

While the Rays lamented their first 0-3 start in franchise history and the loss of star third baseman Evan Longoria to the disabled list because of an oblique injury sustained Saturday, the Orioles headed back to Baltimore on Sunday night, ready to make their home debut amid ideal circumstances. It has been a long time since Orioles fans have been this excited about a baseball team.

"I expect a good turnout tomorrow," said catcher Matt Wieters, who played a huge role in Sunday's win by going 2-for-4 with an RBI and throwing out B.J. Upton trying to steal third in Britton's rocky third inning. "Baltimore is a great city. If you are winning, they are going to come out and support you. Hopefully, they can get behind this team and we'll be able to keep winning."

The key will be the starting pitching, which dominated a sluggish and depleted Rays lineup over three days here. The Orioles' starters -- Jeremy Guthrie, Chris Tillman and Britton -- combined to allow just one earned run, six hits and seven walks while striking out 17 in 20 innings. The Rays wound up with one run and four hits in each of the first three games, prompting Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon to say: "We're on pace to score 162 runs this year. It might be a major league record."

First-year Orioles pitching coach Mark Connor credited Wieters for shepherding the starters through the series saying, "For three nights, I sat there and just marveled at the way he called the ballgame."

Wieters did some of his best work Sunday, turning to Britton's secondary pitches when it became clear that the young lefty wasn't getting his sinker over for strikes. Britton's struggles with the pitch weren't necessarily because he was nervous, despite the fact that he predicted he would be in the days leading up to the start, recalling the anxiety he felt in his Grapefruit League debut just over a month ago.

Hardy looked to the bullpen while Britton was warming up before the game and said: "He looked like he's been doing it for years. That was a good sign to see that."

However, Britton was a little pumped up, and the result was his overthrowing the sinker, understandable considering that he found out he would make his debut just 48 hours earlier when Brian Matusz went on the disabled list. Matusz's injury forced the Orioles to reconsider Britton's status as they had originally planned to not call him up until late April so they wouldn't expend a year of his service time.

"After that first inning, I started to get a lot more comfortable out on the mound, but at the same time, I was really excited," Britton said. "We canned the sinker. We were throwing [four-seam fastballs] all day, and they hit some balls hard. But I think I was too amped up today to throw the sinker, so I wasn't able to get the ground balls that I wanted to. … I was disappointed that I didn't have the sinker, but the guys were like: 'Think about it. You can pitch here without your best pitch.' And that's something I'll take out of today."

Britton was truly in trouble only once, when he started the third by issuing back-to-back leadoff walks to the Rays' eighth and ninth hitters, Matt Joyce and Sam Fuld. The Rays parlayed that into a run when Elliot Johnson dropped down a safety-squeeze bunt and beat it out at first base. However, with men on first and second and just one out and Ben Zobrist at the plate, Wieters nailed Upton trying to steal third. Britton kept the score tied by striking out Zobrist to end the inning.

Settling in, Britton retired 10 of the final 12 batters he faced and watched from the dugout as his teammates turned a memorable afternoon for him into his first major league victory.

"He was good, but he's got a chance to get better," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He was pretty excited. I know he watched the last inning from the dugout. I was thinking about the pressure -- well, not pressure. He probably doesn't know what pressure is yet. You pull as much for him as you do for the Orioles."

jeff.zrebiec@baltsun.com

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