Orioles closer Zach Britton had to rush to get himself game-ready this spring, and left Sarasota, Fla., not terribly comfortable with his delivery. His two scoreless innings of relief on Opening Day against the Toronto Blue Jays weren't the easiest he ever completed, but Britton said it's a good start to getting back to the 2016 form that helped him turn in one of the game's best relief seasons ever.
"I threw a bullpen yesterday and I felt a little bit better," Britton said. "I felt pretty good out there. I think some of my misses were still a little bit over the plate. The more innings I get, I think — two innings actually was really good for me today. I actually was hoping he'd give me that third, but I knew my pitch count. He wasn't going to do it this early on. But I felt much better going out for that second inning. That's only good for me going forward."
This spring wasn't a typical one for Britton, who only pitched in five Grapefruit League games after soreness in his left side delayed him from starting to throw when the rest of his teammates did.
He was sour about his control when he last pitched on March 29, and had a minor league game and a bullpen session over the weekend to fix it before Opening Day.
Britton entered with the game tied at 2 in the ninth inning. After striking out pinch hitter Darwin Barney, he allowed ground-ball singles to second baseman Devon Travis and third baseman Josh Donaldson before a 5-4-3 double play off the bat of outfielder Jose Bautista.
It took just nine pitches, so he came out for the 10th inning. Britton got two quick ground outs in his second frame, too, before he walked catcher Russell Martin and allowed a single on a high sinker to former teammate Steve Pearce. But teammate Manny Machado made one of his several impressive defensive plays, this time cutting off a chopper toward shortstop, to end the inning.
Manager Buck Showalter said some of the improvement between Britton in spring training and on Monday can be attributed to the familiar surroundings.
"It's funny, when I was talking to him in the outfield during BP," Showalter said, "it's funny how comfortable guys are here and when they get in their environment. They played flat-ground catch. They have a routine all of them go through. He said, 'Everything kind of clicked as I was playing catch — the environment, the culture of being back home, being comfortable.' Those are things that you can't quantify. How do you teach that in Sarasota? Just the feel, and a lot of times, the mind, memories of good things here, how comfortable you feel, it kind of takes over the physical part of the body. But he felt good today. He had [nine] pitches in the first inning, so we ran him out there again."
Overall, it was a 23-pitch outing for Britton, one where he faced nine batters but got plenty of familiar results. The same story applied to the rest of the bullpen. Mychal Givens allowed a runner inherited from starter Kevin Gausman to score, but after that the Orioles bullpen kept the Blue Jays off the board and didn't allow a run in 5 2/3 innings.
"Anytime we give the ball to those guys, as we saw today, they shut the door pretty quickly, too," Gausman said. "We always feel confident giving them the ball. Zach Britton, it's unbelievable. Every time he goes out there, it's just ground ball, ground ball, ground ball, strikeout. It's exciting, a lot of fun guys to watch out there for sure."