ST. PETERSBURG, FLA. — Orioles closer Zach Britton is ready to start a minor league rehabilitation assignment this coming week after throwing a two-inning simulated game before Saturday’s game at the Tampa Bay Rays.
Britton, who had surgery to repair a ruptured right Achilles tendon in December, took his final step before a rehab assignment Saturday, pitching to hitters summoned from extended spring training as well as four infielders to offer the most game-like simulated game experience yet.
“It was good,” Britton said of his 32-pitch outing. “Two innings. We brought over some guys from Sarasota, so I had a whole defense behind me, a couple of hitters, so that was nice. I felt that was probably the best one I’ve had. I think maybe it seemed like more of a game situation with guys behind me that could field the ball and stuff like that, so I’m definitely ready to start a rehab assignment.”
Britton is scheduled to report to Triple-A Norfolk to begin his rehab assignment with his first appearance being a one-inning outing Wednesday, Orioles manager Buck Showalter said.
“Every time I’ve gotten on the mound, it’s gotten better,” Britton said. “Today was probably the sharpest that everything was. The breaking balls, sinkers, command, things like that. I definitely feel if I continue in that direction where I’m feeling really close to myself, it could be a shorter rehab assignment, but you never know until you get that first one in and get the adrenaline pumping. I could be sore and maybe need a couple more days. I try not to get too far ahead, but I think we’re leaning toward hopefully it being a little bit shorter.”
As Britton has progressed from live batting practice to simulated games and now to a rehab assignment, he’s gradually ramped up the intensity to make his outings as close to actual games as possible. Now that he’s getting into real games, it will present a new challenge, but Britton believes he’s done everything possible to be ready.
“I think the last couple we made that transition into just working on driving the sinker down in the zone, commanding pitches,” Britton sad. “Not hesitant at all to react on balls. There were a couple balls that were fouled off today that I ran off the mound either side and didn’t even think about it, so that’s good progress.”
Showalter said the Orioles have Britton’s entire rehab assignment schedule plotted out. It includes pitching on consecutive days and has space for an outing over two separate innings, but he wouldn’t specify how many outings Britton would need before he could be activated from the DL.
“It’s going to be an entirely different level though,” Showalter said. “If you throw eight balls in a row, you’ve got two people on base. It’s just a lot of things that are going to be more realistic as we go.”
Britton will begin his assignment just over five months since surgery to repair his Achilles tendon. At the time of the surgery — it was performed by Dr. Kenneth Jung at the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles — a mid-June return seemed optimistic. But Britton credited Orioles head athletic trainer Brian Ebel for coming to California in the offseason and working to get Britton back in a timely manner.
“The doctor had some time frames, but he had just done the surgery,” Britton said. “He told me you never know how the patient’s going to heal. Everyone’s different. And things have gone great. Ebel coming out to California I think really jump-started the process. He really dug in and studied these injuries. They’re not very common in baseball, so a lot of credit goes to Ebel really stepping up on that, different techniques and equipment that we bought to really jump-start the healing.
“I think where we are so far is pretty impressive. Even the doctor that did the surgery said when he saw me in Anaheim he was blown away at the progress that we’ve made and a lot of that is because of what Ebel’s done.”