TORONTO — The Orioles will be without their all-star closer for the immediate future, placing Zach Britton on the 10-day disabled list Sunday with what the team is calling a left forearm strain.
Britton – 5-for-5 in save opportunities this season and tied for the second longest consecutive save streak all time with 54 straight – last pitched Friday, allowing one run in the ninth inning but still recording a save.
He first experienced discomfort after throwing the second of two breaking balls in that outing. After making that pitch, Britton threw only his heavy mid-90s sinking fastball and felt no discomfort but felt he lacked finish on his pitches the rest of the game. Afterwards, Britton said he had difficulty squeezing his hand.
"We feel like we have a good idea of what it is and we can kind of go from there," Britton said. "Hopefully it's not anything that can keep me out too long."
Orioles manager Buck Showalter was optimistic Britton won't miss much time – he is eligible to return on April 26 against Tampa Bay – saying that the focus of the move is ensuring Britton can get the discomfort entirely resolved and remain healthy for the rest of the season.
"It's too early [in the season]," Showalter said. "We don't want to take any chances with it and try to get it taken care of. … You're always concerned when somebody has discomfort. Everybody on the team has something you could talk about if you wanted to. We just don't choose to like every other team does. We think it will manage itself if we take the right precautions."
Even though Britton last pitched Friday, the move wasn't backdated because the corresponding move to recall right-handed reliever Stefan Crichton had to be made at least one day after he was formally optioned.
Crichton was optioned to Triple-A Norfolk before Saturday's game, but Orioles were able to recall Crichton without him having to fulfill the mandatory 10 days in the minors before returning to the majors because his return is part of a DL move.
Even though Showalter said Britton is already feeling better, making that DL date could prove to be a challenge. At this point, Britton likely wouldn't pick up a ball until the club returns home from their three-game series in Cincinnati at the earliest. How much rehab work Britton would have to do before returning – whether he'd have to show he could physically endure work on consecutive days or need a minor league appearance before being activated – is unclear.
"…The arm strength is already there," Britton said. "The velo wasn't down or anything. … But from a buildup standpoint, I don't think that's really going to be an issue. I just think it will be about getting all the tightness or pain or whatever out of there and then I'll be ready to go in no time."
This marks the first time Britton has gone on the DL since becoming the Orioles' closer in the second month of the 2014 season. Last year, he sprained his left ankle fielding a ball but avoided a DL stint. This season he rolled his other ankle in a game but returned the next game.
"It's too soon to know, but we're confident it shouldn't be long term," Showalter said. "If he continues to progress like he had the last two days. But he's also going to have to take a couple bullpen days to make sure he can throw and come back the next day."
Anytime the forearm is called into question, it immediately prompts concerns about a pitcher's elbow, and sometimes it is a precursor to Tommy John surgery. Britton made it clear that his elbow is sound and the soreness is closer to his wrist than his elbow.
"This is new territory for me, but talking to the medical people it seems like it's just maybe a forearm strain," Britton said. "All the other tests are showing pretty good. I've still got some good strength in the joint. There's no issue down and in the elbow. … I think everybody thinks elbow initially, but it's definitely [just the] forearm. The elbow stuff looks good. It looks strong. There's no issues in there."
Britton has endured challenging outings this season, averaging 17.7 pitches per appearance through six outings compared to last year's 14.9 pitch mark. He pitched in each of the Orioles' first four games, even though those games were separated by two off days.
Going on the DL could also allow him to work out any mechanical issues that have led him into some uncharacteristically stressful outings in the season's first two weeks, Britton said.
"Hopefully we can just treat it and knock it out and get my delivery a little bit in order as well, use the 10 days to fine tune some things I want to fine tune anyway and then be ready to go for the rest of year," Britton said.
Britton apparently felt discomfort Friday on a first-pitch slider to second baseman Devon Travis with two outs in the ninth inning, but carried his typical velocity through the outing.
"That's why it gives us come hope for it being not a long period," Showalter said. "He was throwing 96, 97 [mph] after that breaking ball. But you have so much adrenaline going at that time. He was sore. He's still sore, but he's not as sore as he was, so we feel like it's progressing."
Britton's spring debut was delayed by an oblique issue and even though he has converted all five save opportunities this season, he hasn't been as dominant as he was last year, when he posted a 0.54 ERA and was 47-for-47 on save attempts.
He has allowed 13 baserunners over seven innings this season, opponents are hitting .345 against him and he allowed his first run in 20 appearances in his last outing on Friday.
Britton could receive additional tests once the club leaves Canada , but he said there were no immediate plans for an MRI. He will remain with the club on their interleague trip to Cincinnati.
Showalter said he will have several options in save situations while Britton is out and will decide those roles on a case-by-case basis. But it appears that set-up man Brad Brach would be the next man up for the ninth inning.
Brach has thrown six scoreless inning in the set-up role and would have pitched in a closing situation on Saturday had there been one. Showalter can also consider Mychal Givens and Darren O'Day as closing options as well. Neither was available on Saturday as the Orioles' lost 2-1 on Kendry Morales' ninth-inning walk-off homer off right-hander Tyler Wilson.
"We have good options and we'll kind of play it accordingly," Showalter said. "I had three guys down yesterday in the bullpen, as you can tell by the way the game went. But we were also why were able to win the games Thursday and Friday. We do that a lot. We have guys down that we don't talk about.
"I'm not going to broadcast it to the other team because it could change [something]. I know it changes our batting order sometimes when I know who is available and not available in their bullpen for other teams."