As Zach Britton achieved one of the most efficient stretches of any closer in major league history, Orioles manager Buck Showalter constantly reminded those around him to take note because that level of dominance wouldn’t likely be seen again.
And while the closer’s season hasn’t nearly been as seamless as last year — he spent most of the first half on the disabled list with a left forearm strain — he still continued to add to his American League-record consecutive-saves streak.
But that streak ended Wednesday as Oakland Athletics outfielder Matt Joyce’s sacrifice fly to center field scored the game-tying run in the ninth inning, handing Britton his first blown save in nearly two years, dating to Sept. 20, 2015.
Since then, Britton had converted 60 straight save opportunities, breaking former Boston Red Sox closer Tom Gordon’s AL record of 55 straight last month. He was still 24 saves short of former Los Angeles Dodgers closer Eric Gagne’s major league record, though Showalter has contended that Britton should own the record because Gagne is an admitted performance-enhancing-drug user.
“It’s a reminder how hard it is to do,” Showalter said. “I just called him in my office and congratulated him. You won’t see it again. And he does hold the record in my mind, OK? It’s historical. That’s as good as you’ll ever see in any of our lifetimes. It’s special and it’s been an honor to watch him do it. I think days like today, the skill level of the teams he’s facing, it’s unbelievable to dominate in a role like that. It just doesn’t happen.”
The Orioles won Wednesday’s game, 8-7, on Manny Machado’s walk-off homer in the 12th inning, not before the Orioles bullpen blew a five-run seventh-inning lead, including two runs that were scored off Britton in the ninth.
The victory was key, especially given that the Orioles are on the fringe of the playoff race, and losing two of three to a lowly A’s team that entered the day 16 games under .500 and owns the worst road record in the AL would have been a gut punch.
“I don’t know,” Britton said, when asked to reflect on the streak — and its end. “Maybe I’ll think about it tomorrow. But I was pretty disappointed. Just wasn’t very good at all today. Where we are right now, you want to win those games. … It ended well. But, I wish I did my job today. It would’ve been nice.”
Showalter had to dig five men deep into his six-man bullpen. The only reliever left when the game ended was right-hander Darren O’Day, who had worked three consecutive days. And besides right-hander Miguel Castro, who saved the day with 3 2/3 scoreless innings in relief of Britton, every performance had its warts.
But it was Britton’s that drew most notice, because it was so rare. Not only did Britton not convert the save, but he also was removed mid-inning after four of the five batters he faced reached base.
“It’s another reminder of how great he’s been and will be again,” Showalter said. “There’s a part of me that’s kind of glad he’s got it behind him and we won the game. That’s a heck of a thing to have to live up to every time you cock your arm. And he’s special. Like I said, it’s been an honor to watch him pitch. And I get to keep doing it. But we did a lot of things in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings that are not conducive to holding on to a lead.”
A new day — and an opportunity to start a new streak — will come in the Orioles’ next game Friday night at Fenway Park, but not before Britton undergoes an MRI on his sore left knee, an ailment Britton has pitched through since well before the streak began. He twisted the knee on the Rogers Centre’s artificial turf running to cover the first base bag in Toronto in 2014 and has worn a brace on the knee since then.
Britton said he felt new soreness in the knee while warming up Wednesday, but made sure he didn’t use it as an excuse for his outing. He said the discomfort is minor — that it might be just loose cartilage — and that he was scheduled to get the tests on the knee at the end of the season regardless. He added that the timing has more to do with getting ahead of it in case he might need a procedure to clean out the knee in the offseason.
“It’s more precaution than anything,” Britton said. ”Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to pitch through it if it was serious. Obviously, I haven’t had knee things, but I would assume that I wouldn’t be able to get in my delivery and make pitches if it was something serious. … It’s started creeping up maybe a couple of weeks ago. … Since it’s the back knee, it could affect command. I don’t think they want to get [in a situation] where obviously I’m over the arm injury so you don’t want it back to get affected again. Kind of where we are in the season, let’s get it looked at because if something needs to happen, get it over with going into next year. I’m not sure if that’s even the case.”
Showalter has limited Britton’s use – spreading him out for short outings — but that’s more been a product of Showalter patching up leaks in a thin six-man bullpen and just a lack of save opportunities. Britton entered Wednesday’s game having pitched just 3 2/3 innings over the past 16 days and four of his past six outings were less than an inning.
“[Team orthopedist Dr. Michael Jacobs] said, ‘Let’s just look at it,’ ” Britton said. “I’ll be going to Boston. It’s not something that’s going to prevent me from going with the team. He just wants to see where it’s at, if there’s anything that needs to get cleaned up, maybe. Use this there where we’re at to do that, but I won’t know. I don’t think it’s anything serious, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to pitch on it, but I’m going to do that and we’ll find out.”
On Wednesday, Orioles first baseman Chris Davis’s eighth-inning solo homer gave Britton a 7-5 cushion going into the top of the ninth, but Britton couldn’t hold that lead. Britton quickly ran into trouble in the ninth, allowing a single to Jed Lowrie and a double to Boog Powell.
Marcus Semien’s seeing-eye single through the left side of the infield scored Lowrie and Joyce’s sacrifice fly tied the game. Britton was pulled after walking the next hitter, outfielder Khris Davis, to a surprising sound of subtle boos.
“I knew that I didn’t have good command and I wasn’t making quality pitches, so it was going to be a battle,” Britton said. “That’s a team that they’re young and they got some veteran guys, too, but it seems like they put together good at-bats all the way through a game. Some credit to them, too, but I didn’t make quality pitches today and that’s the gist of it really. If you get beat with good pitches, I think it’s a different feeling. But, you know, today just wasn’t sharp at all from the get go.”
During his streak, Britton recorded a 1.14 ERA over 95 innings and despite missing significant time this year, his 60 saves over the stretch were third most in the majors. Last year, Britton converted all 47 save opportunities, posted a record 43 straight appearances without allowing an earned run and placed fourth in AL Cy Young Award voting.
Machado saved Wednesday’s game in the 12th, but after the game savored being a part of history playing behind Britton during his streak.
“It was unbelievable, something I’m going to tell my kids I was a part of that, a part of his history,” Machado said. “He’s done a hell of a job the last two years [and] since he’s become the closer. That’s why he’s one of the best in the game. I’m lucky and blessed I get to watch him and play behind him when he goes out there and gets on that mound.”