Closer Zach Britton has obviously evolved as a major league pitcher in the past few years, going from an inconsistent but talented starter to an imposing closer who saved 37 games last season.
But perhaps the biggest difference in Britton over the past two years is how well he is defending his position – key for a reliever whose whole game is getting ground balls.
"That's something I wasn't really that great at," Britton said after he picked up his second save of the season Tuesday in a 4-3 win over the New York Yankees. "Maybe last year [pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti] said, 'Hey, being a reliever, you are going to come into a situation where it is big to make those plays.' Especially now, closing games, with a one-run lead. I don't want to give free bases to anybody, so I'm really focused on making those tough plays."
Britton was called on for the first four-out save of his closing career Tuesday. And the final out of the eighth was a tough one. Brian McCann hit a ball into the right-side shift, but first baseman Steve Pearce committed on it, drawing him off the bag.
Britton darted to first and caught a sharp throw from Jonathan Schoop for the out. Had Britton hesitated off the mound for a moment, McCann probably would have beaten him to the bag.
"I make sure I know where the fielders are because I know we do a lot of shifts," Britton said. "Getting a lot of ground balls, I want to know where Pearcey or [Chris Davis] is."
After third baseman Manny Machado made a good play on a grounder for the first out of the ninth, Chris Young topped a sinker in front of the plate. That's usually the catcher's play, but Britton pounced off the mound. He grabbed the roller and threw a strike to Pearce for the out.
"That's a big play in a high pressure situation for a pitcher. He came at it so hard, I just backed off," catcher Caleb Joseph said. "I think probably 70 percent of the time, I probably go after that ball, but he was off the mound quick, and so I just kind of let him go, and he made a really good play."
Britton then induced another grounder – this time by maligned superstar Alex Rodriguez – to end the game. Britton has allowed just two hits and one run in 4 1/3 innings while striking out six so far this season.
But it was his improved glove that really stood out Tuesday. And it didn't go unnoticed by manager Buck Showalter.
"I'm not sure if two years ago he could have made those two plays," Showalter said. Defense "is something every team stresses in the spring, but Zach really knew it's something that he can [do to help his cause]. … He's already made two or three plays that he wouldn't have made two or three years ago. You can tell he's very confident going after a ball now."