After saying goodbye to mentor Zach Britton, Orioles left with big hole in bullpen, clubhouse

When it was time for Orioles manager Buck Showalter and closer Zach Britton to say goodbye early Wednesday morning, they chose not to.

“I know at the end last night, it was getting close to 1 o’clock [a.m.], and it’s like you don’t know how to say goodbye,” Showalter said. “He was sitting there and I said, ‘Here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to get up and walk out that door, I’m going to walk back to the shower, and I’ll see you later.’ ”

But on Wednesday afternoon, the reality of Britton’s departure — he was traded to the New York Yankees for three pitching prospects — hit the Orioles clubhouse. His locker, between veteran reliever Brad Brach and rookie left-hander Tanner Scott, was empty, the nameplate removed.

“Everybody knew it was going to happen at that point, but definitely when we come in today and [his locker is] empty and he’s not here, it’s definitely different,” Brach said. “I think next week it’s going to be weird seeing him in a different uniform. First time we see him pitch in a different uniform is when I think it will kick in. It’s definitely weird.”

Britton was the longest-tenured player in the Orioles organization, drafted in 2006 out of a Texas high school. He was a part of the group of young pitchers that former manager Dave Trembley touted as “The Cavalry,” along with Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz and Jake Arrieta.

But Britton didn’t make his mark until the spring of 2014, when the Orioles converted him to a reliever because he was out of minor league options. He assumed the closer role by mid-May and recorded one of the best seasons of any reliever in 2016, setting an American League record with 60 straight converted save opportunities. He left the Orioles second on the team’s all-time saves list with 139, trailing only Gregg Olson’s 160.

“It’s like I told Manny [Machado], you have to embrace the change,” Showalter said. “It’s great to see different ways of doing things and to really appreciate something, you’ve got to have something to compare it to. But, there’s other people that have great presentation and have great ideas and it’s good for him to be around other pitching coaches and managers and what have you. They’re only going to grow and they have to embrace it. That’s ones of the things I told Zach.”

Britton asked Showalter, who cut his managerial teeth with the Yankees in the 1990s, for any advice on how to handle New York. Showalter told him, “Pitch well and it’ll go great.”

Even though most of Britton’s season was focused on his recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon suffered during offseason workouts in December, he also served as a mentor for Scott, who will pitch in more high-leverage situations because of Britton’s departure. Scott said there wasn’t a bullpen session he threw during spring training that Britton didn’t watch, and he always received valuable advice from his locker mate.

“[He] definitely [made] it a lot easier,” Scott said. “He’s a guy with great experience. He is one of the best closers in the game. It was awesome to have him here. It’s sad to see him go. Yeah, after [a rough outing], I’d be like, ‘Hey, Zach, what did you see?’ and he would be like, ‘Hey, just let it go. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.’ The first thing when we’d get here, we’d go over it. You try to flush it, re-evaluate it and see what I was doing and then work on it.

“It was just little things. He would always help out, telling me little things, telling me what to work on, what to do, how to approach hitters and how to go out there and pitch. It was great.”

Said Showalter: “I think Zach wanted to be next to him. That’s the type of guy Zach was. He wanted to be there.”

Without Britton, the Orioles must find a new ninth-inning anchor. Brach will likely receive most save opportunities, as he did Tuesday, but he could be traded in the coming days. Right-hander Mychal Givens, Scott and right-hander Mike Wright Jr. could also get save opportunities.

“I’ll look at our options that night, and go,” Showalter said. “I guess there’s a fluid non-fluidity. … I think one, we’d like to create a save situation. That’s our first challenge. Then, what we have to do to get there, it requires a lot of … like last night, that’s a tough game to manage. And you’ve always got to think about extra innings. I’ve got an idea I’d like to look at a little bit, but let’s see how it develops. I’d be better off telling you who it isn’t going to be. Sometimes, it’s last man standing too, right?”

Brach, who converted the save Tuesday despite allowing a run in the ninth, could be the next to go. Or it could be Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, who has been on the Orioles’ major league roster the longest. They are the two pending free agents remaining.

“It’s hard not to pay attention to [the trade rumors] nowadays,” Brach said. “You try to stay offline. But you have friends texting you and texting your wife. Last night, [my wife] Jenae got a text saying I was going to the Cubs. There’s so many people that write that kind of stuff that you can’t help but pay attention to it. It’s hard not to, but just knowing that Manny and Zach are gone, I’m sure they’re tinker with [trading me]. I saw [executive vice president] Dan [Duquette] said they’re going to try to at the least get rid of me and Jones. We’ll see. The next week will be interesting.”

As for saying goodbye to Britton, he left a door open for a potential return, saying he’d like to pitch in Baltimore again.

“Zach loved it here, and you never say never,” Showalter said.

eencina@baltsun.com

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