Orioles closer Zach Britton hadn't pitched in a competitive game in nearly seven weeks, so when he was warming up in Ripken Stadium's home bullpen Tuesday night preparing for his first minor league rehabilitation outing with the Short-A Aberdeen IronBirds, he caught himself getting some pregame jitters.
He turned to his former Orioles teammate Mark Hendrickson, now the pitching coach at Aberdeen.
"I was telling him, 'I'm kind of surprised that I'm kind of nervous to get back out there and compete,' " Britton said. "The last time I pitched was over a month ago in Boston. That was the last bit of competition I had, so no matter what level you go to, you're competing, and it's fun to do that, so I was excited to get back on the mound."
Britton started the IronBirds' home opener Tuesday – an outing that was delayed one day by a rainout in Aberdeen the previous day – and pitched a 12-pitch scoreless first inning in his first game competition since his last appearance with the Orioles on May 4.
Britton pitched just nine innings before landing on the disabled list for the second time this season. He resumed throwing more than a month ago with a light catch session down in Sarasota, Fla., so his path to Aberdeen was meticulous. And Tuesday's first game competition was mainly about ensuring he was fine physically.
"I was almost testing it a little bit to see if it was going to come back and bite me, so it felt great," Britton said. "It felt normal, and that's what the doctors told me, that once it heals, it's not something I'm going to have to deal with, so a lot of that was the mental hurdle of getting over it today."
Pitching against the Hudson Valley Renegades, a short-season affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays, Britton struck out the first hitter he faced on five pitches, getting the hitter to chase a sinker in the dirt for strike three. He walked the next hitter on six pitches, but then induced a first-pitch 4-6-3 double-play ball to end the inning.
"I actually felt pretty good," Britton said. "Surprisingly I had a little adrenaline going. It's nice to get back into some competition, so I was overthrowing a little bit. But I had really, really good movement, which was kind of the issue I had been fighting when I was dealing with the injury, so that was a really big positive. Obviously, getting the ground ball, [at] any level, the ground ball plays, so that just shows the action was good. And physically it feels good, so now it's about maybe getting the command better as I go up the levels and getting back to Baltimore."
Britton threw his two-seam sinking fastball exclusively in the game – he worked on his breaking ball in his warmup session in the bullpen – and he sat around 91-92 mph on the stadium radar gun, reaching 94 mph.
"Today was really about getting into a game, getting the juices flowing a little bit and competing," Britton said. "So got over that hurdle, feel great, so now just moving on. It's kind of [like] the approach you take in spring training. The first time you get off the mound, it's more so making sure everything is working and then you start getting into honing the pitches, making sure you're commanding the ball. I was missing arm-side today, which was OK. It was running off the plate, which is good. I just need to hone in that movement and command the ball a little bit better, but as I go better, that will be my focus."
Britton's next rehab outing will come on Thursday at Low-A Delmarva, where he is scheduled to pitch just one inning again. He will make two appearances with the Shorebirds before moving to Double-A Bowie, where he should make back-to-back outings before returning to the Orioles.
Shortly before pitching Tuesday, Britton was transferred to the 60-day disabled list, which means the Orioles can't activate him until July 4, which will extend his rehab by a few days. Britton said he could see pitching in an additional minor league game, but could also throw a simulated outing on the road with the team in Milwaukee that week.
"It was a little different than initially when we looked at the schedule, but not too far off," Britton said. "They felt like that was the best thing and the two extra days or possibly three that I have to spend on the DL now because of that move might not be the worst thing. Actually [executive vice president of baseball operations] Dan Duquette just texted me before I went out there and asked if I was OK with that. Obviously, not really in my control anyway, but it was kind of a courtesy text. I just want to come back healthy and help the team as quick as I can, but now we know [when]."