After throwing more pitches than he has all season in Monday's 3-2 win over the Seattle Mariners, Orioles closer Zach Britton's arm was heavily wrapped in ice. Britton joked that he didn't have the power move from his locker as water dripped to the floor, and fellow reliever Darren O'Day deadpanned that Britton looked like the Michelin Man as he approached his neighboring locker.
Britton threw a season-high 36 pitches in recording a five-out save against the Mariners — an outing that was extended because of a rare J.J. Hardy error and a Caleb Joseph passed ball on a strikeout that would have ended the game but instead yielded an unearned run.
Britton still recorded his 28th save in 29 opportunities, and he has converted 24 straight save chances dating to May 3. But Monday's outing marked the first time this season that Britton has pitched multiple innings in back-to-back appearances. Granted, he had four days of rest between Monday's outing and throwing 2 1/3 scoreless innings to earn the win in the Orioles' 7-3 victory in Oakland on Wednesday.
Still, the Orioles bullpen has taken a different look that might call for the team's veteran back-end relievers — Britton in particular — to make more multi-inning appearances. Tommy Hunter, along with O'Day and right-hander Brad Brach, served as a bridge to Britton in the ninth. He's now gone, dealt to the Chicago Cubs at the nonwaiver trade deadline. Right-hander Chaz Roe is on the disabled list. And the Orioles have two rookies — right-hander Mychal Givens and Rule 5 pick Jason Garcia — who likely won't be asked to pitch in many high-leverage innings.
Britton said he was told by pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti that there might be more opportunities for four- or five-out saves when he has received at least three days of rest.
"We prepare for it in the spring," Britton said. "I think I had two two-innings just in case. I wanted those ones because I didn't want to experience it for the first time during the season. I understand with how our bullpen is now with the younger guys with Jason and Mychal — even though Mychal seemed like he can handle some tough situations right now, but he's still got to prove it to [manager] Buck [Showalter] and stuff. Especially with where we are in the standings, I think he wants guys who have been there a little bit.
"But yeah, we can pick up the slack a little bit for those guys. I wouldn't call it slack, but they don't have the experience yet. … With Tommy here, he had the experience. We're just a little more inexperienced down there, but it doesn't mean they're not as talented."
Showalter has been a master at using his bullpen pieces well, while giving them the rest to avoid fatigue, and he said he will continue to use his relievers by trying to win that night's game while keeping his arms fresh.
"We've got 51 games," Showalter said before Tuesday's game. "We're going to do what it takes to win that game. How would you like to hold him back and lose that game last night or not do it and there not be a situation that calls for it today? It's all going to be if he's got the proper rest. That's why we spend so much time mapping this out and keeping up with everything so that you can keep your pieces healthy.
"Sometimes more is not always better. I know he was going to feel well physically and throw hard. He had four days off. I think people love to ask why don't you use him more like that. Well, if you do, you pay a price. The only time you use him like that is when you have an [off-day], when he's had a bunch of days off before or on the back side. But the problem was when [Jim Johnson] was here, we had so many one-run games that he was pitching every night."
Britton, who was a starter before moving to the bullpen in 2014, said his experience starting has helped him adapt to the multi-inning stints.
"I think it helps when you're on the mound, being able to slow the game down, pace yourself and just get the outs knowing that it's an extended outing," Britton said. "I'll do it because we need it and we want to win some games. It just makes it harder to be available for the team the next day or even the day after that depending on how my body recovers this late in the season."
Both Britton and Showalter said that the longer outings allow the left-hander to utilize more of his pitches. Working in one-inning stints, Britton typically relies on his hard mid-90s sinker to induce quick contact. On Monday, he threw more sliders than normal, especially trying to retire Mariners hitter Franklin Gutierrez, who worked a 10-pitch at-bat that ended with a two-out double in the ninth.
"It's important when you get extended to throw that wrinkle a little bit," Britton said. "It helps me get back on track with the sinker if I miss with it a couple of times. It's a different feel. I haven't mixed in the changeup yet.
Showalter said Monday's outing should have been more like a 20-pitch stint if the Orioles didn't give away a couple of outs, but he has confidence that Britton can work out of those situations because he's typically so efficient. Britton has issued just nine walks in 46 innings this season. Take away his past two outings — he threw 21 pitches last Wednesday — and he has thrown more than 20 pitches just seven times in 44 appearances.
"That's one thing Dave and Dom told me going to the bullpen," Britton said. "They thought I was a guy who could be really efficient, which would allow me to be available more days and I've kind of had that mindset. Some guys like to go out there and get strikeouts. … I just try to be efficient, try to get groundouts. That's been my mindset; be efficient, get some ground balls. I know it's not the flashiest way to close games, but it works and it keeps me available more often."