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Orioles closer Zach Britton on pace for one of best seasons ever by a reliever

Orioles closer Zach Britton on pace for one of best seasons ever by a reliever
Baltimore Orioles reliever Zach Britton pitches during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays on Saturday, July 16, 2016, in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Orioles won, 2-1. (Rerinhold Matay / AP)

The role of closer holds little glory on an everyday basis. The spotlight usually shines brightest following failure, like after a blown save that turns victory into defeat.

So it usually takes a season like the one Orioles left-hander Zach Britton is having — one where he's going into the final two months flirting with perfection — for the baseball world to take notice of his success and to mention his name as a legitimate candidate for the American League Cy Young Award, which rarely goes to relievers.

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But inside the Orioles clubhouse, Britton's season isn't taken for granted. Britton entered Wednesday with 107 saves since becoming the team's closer in 2014, tied for fourth most in the majors over that span. He has been among the game's top closers and has All-Star nods each of the past two seasons to show for it.

Now, it's Britton's record-setting season — he is a perfect 34-for-34 in save opportunities — that is drawing notice.

"I don't take it for granted one bit," said Orioles starter Chris Tillman, who works out with Britton in the offseason and is his offseason neighbor in Florida. "I've been around him for so long, I know what the guy brings to the table day in and day out. Even when he doesn't pitch, he brings a lot to the table — to the team, to the dugout, to the bullpen, to the makeup of the clubhouse. He's solid all the way around. He doesn't have to be pitching for us to get the benefits of what he brings to the squad."

Britton's streak has already made baseball history. Last week, he passed former Detroit Tigers reliever Willie Hernandez's mark for the most consecutive saves by a left-hander to open a season. Hernandez started converted all 32 of his save opportunities in 1984 on his way to winning both AL MVP and the AL Cy Young Award.

Britton entered Wednesday holding the seventh-longest consecutive saves streak to start a season, but was still well shy of Los Angeles Dodgers closer Eric Gagne's perfect 55-save season in 2003, the last time a reliever won a Cy Young Award.

Now, Britton's name is in the Cy Young conversation as he continues his streak.

"It's got to be hard to do," Orioles setup man Darren O'Day said. "It shows you some mental toughness. It's got to be hard. It's got to be tempting to check. He's a guy that's very in tune with stats and that sort of stuff. I'm not sure. I haven't caught him checking or anything."

Britton went into Wednesday with a 0.58 ERA over 46 2/3 innings this season, and hadn't allowed an earned run since April 30, a span of 37 appearances. He hadn't allowed a run at all in seven weeks, a streak dating back to June 22. That would break the record for lowest ERA by a reliever (0.60) that Fernando Rodney set with the Tampa Bay Rays is 2012.

"I think he's consistent in his work ethic," Tillman said. "He's consistent, day in and day out. He's got a solid routine that he sticks to. It's impressive. It's as big of a mental challenge as it is physical, and to be able to overcome both is impressive. I can say that as much as I want to, but you can't really explain that. But it's fun to watch."

Britton revitalized his career as a reliever after the Orioles needed to find a role for him entering spring training in 2014 because he was out of minor league options. Under new pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti, Britton adjusted well to the nuances of pitching out of the bullpen. The Orioles quickly found that the closer spot was the perfect role for Britton.

Being a lefty, he neutralized left-handed bats coming off the bench in the late innings and his heavy, mid-90s sinker has made him a ground-ball machine who constantly induces weak contact.

"He's having a great season," O'Day said. "It's really just about him being consistent and throwing strikes in the bottom of the strike zone. Once you get past that, you see what happens when he stays in the strike zone with that sinker. He's worked really hard and made great strides as a relief pitcher, and I think the results are showing. It's pretty impressive."

Now, opposing hitters know the sinker is coming — he has thrown it 91.3 percent of the time this season — but they still can't hit it hard, playing into the hands of the Orioles' fine defense, which includes Britton himself.

"I get probably the most enjoyment out of seeing how difficult it is for the other team to attack what he's got going on," Orioles outfielder Mark Trumbo said. "You see guys take some different approaches from time to time, but it usually ends up the same. He's got that really tough combination of throwing strikes when he needs to and also having some pitches that look like strikes that end up outside the zone."

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Since 2014, Britton has induced a ground-ball rate of 77.6 percent, which comfortably leads the next highest reliever over that span — Brad Ziegler of the Boston Red Sox (67.0 percent) — and this season, his ground-ball rate has jumped to 79.6 percent.

"I think the ground-ball rate, he throws a pitch that nobody else in baseball throws," shortstop J.J. Hardy said. "It's not like people are seeing that consistently. They've got to face him in the ninth inning and it's a pitch they never get to see – a high-90s fastball that's got power sink.

"It's tough to get underneath it and hit a pop-up. It's tough to square it up. You talk about the ground balls and I still feel like even those ground balls aren't hit hard. They're just barely putting them in play most times. It speaks for how good of a pitch it is."

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Baltimore Sun reporter Jon Meoli contributed to this article.

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