Orioles closer Zach Britton moved ever-closer to a return to the back of the major league bullpen with an inning of work Monday night for Double-A Bowie, officially passing the halfway point of his seven-outing rehabilitation plan after straining his left forearm.
That injury is no longer a concern, and he felt he had his “best stuff yet” despite allowing a run on two hits at Prince George’s Stadium in a 2-1 win over Altoona, but the next week of outings is important as he tries to get in step with a major league season that has mostly passed him by.
“I need to build those innings,” Britton said. “If you think about where I am innings-wise on the season. The hitters and everybody are in midseason form at this point. So it’s kind of a way for me to play catch-up, so to speak. But I definitely need them and it’s been good. This is my fourth one. I’ve still got three more innings left. I’m feeling really, really good right now.”
Britton pitched the eighth inning Monday after right-hander David Hess went seven shutout innings for the Baysox, and the one sinker he left up all day got him in trouble.
Altoona center fielder Elvis Escobar was down 0-2 when he took an outside sinker to left field, where DJ Stewart appeared to lose the ball in the lights and have it land on the warning track for a double before he could recover.
Escobar went to third on a ground ball to second base, and stood there after Britton pumped his fastball up to 96 mph for a swinging strikeout. But it was at that point that Britton had to make a decision that reflected where he is in his progress back.
“Breaking balls were kind of so-so, but I wanted to get those in,” he said. “Some situations, especially with a guy on third, I normally don’t go with that. I go to the sinker right away. But it was kind of like, do I want to strand the runner or do I need to throw some breaking balls? I needed to get it in. So, I fell behind.”
He ended up allowing an infield single that scored the run on a ball that second baseman Adrian Marin dived to his right to stop, but lost on the transfer. Another ground ball to second base ended the inning after 18 pitches.
Britton said minor league infield coordinator Dave Anderson has been at each of his previous four outings — scoreless innings June 20 at Short-A Aberdeen, plus June 22 and June 24 at Low-A Delmarva — and they agreed it was his best arsenal yet.
“Other than the fly ball, that was really good, sharp stuff,” Britton said. “And by far, the best sinker, we’ve had on the rehab. The velocity was up too, and command was good, too. A lot, a lot of positives. The worst line I’ve had, but by far the best stuff. It makes no sense.”
Britton’s return to the major league bullpen is scheduled for July 5, with back-to-back outings set for Thursday at Prince George’s Stadium and Friday at High-A Frederick, then one final outing set for Triple-A Norfolk before he is activated in Milwaukee.
His last two outings have been closer to max-effort after trying to get a feel for things in the first two. His back-to-back outings are customary to try to replicate what could happen to him once he’s back with the Orioles, and the trip to Norfolk will be about “facing maybe a little bit better competition and getting my mind ready to join the team in Milwaukee.”
But he’s happy to be able to let it go in the minors in the meantime, and more to the point, happy that his stuff is on its way back to last year’s All-Star form.
“I kind of just transitioned into that again tonight. I hadn’t thrown a lot of breaking balls and I felt the confidence to not think about it, just kind of throw it. I haven’t had that since the last one in Delmarva. It’s nice to just go out there and feel like you’re making good pitches, and I think it showed with the command. They command was a lot better than it was, even with the last one in Delmarva.”