Zach Britton expected a warm reception from the Camden Yards crowd if summoned to pitch against the Orioles during this weekend’s series against the New York Yankees. But he was also in Baltimore long enough to know that generally speaking, Orioles fans cheering a player in a Yankees uniform might as well be like spotting a unicorn.
“I don’t know,” Britton said before Friday game, sitting in the visiting dugout at Camden Yards for the first time. “They’ve been great to me. I’m sure it’s going to be nice, but they obviously don’t like the Yankees either, so I’m sure it will be a mixtures of some boos or cheers I think.”
Brian Roberts was booed in his first trip to Camden Yards as a Yankee in 2014, and Mike Mussina received a mix of boos and cheers when he returned to Baltimore for the first time with New York in 2001.
But the difference is both those players signed with the Yankees as free agents, while Britton was traded to the Yankees two months before he became a free agent so the Orioles could rebuild for the future. When Britton was dealt after the Orioles’ game on July 24, it marked an emotional goodbye for a player who had been with the club since being drafted in 2006.
And when the Orioles ran a video tribute to Britton after the bottom of the fourth inning Friday — a highlight reel that included clips from his major league debut in 2011, his series-clinching save in the 2014 American League Division Series and his extraordinary 2016 season accompanied by his warmup song, AC/DC’s “For Those About to Rock” — he received a warm ovation from the Camden Yards crowd.
The video board then showed Britton sitting in the Yankees bullpen, flanked by his fellow New York relievers. He initially gave a subtle tip of his cap, and then took it off to salute the crowd after being urged by Yankees reliever Chad Green.
“That was neat,” Britton said of the tribute. “I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what they wanted me to do. So yeah, it’s kind of awkward when you get put on the spot.”
By the time Britton entered the game for the bottom of the 10th, the reception was muted. But the left-hander would end the night shaking hands with his new teammates, having notched his first save with the Yankees despite allowing one run in the 10th inning of the Orioles’ 7-5 extra-inning loss.
Britton gave up a solo homer to Chris Davis in the 10th, a blast the Orioles slugger hit to the deepest part of center field. Before then, he erased Adam Jones’ leadoff single with a 6-4-3 double-play ball when Trey Mancini hit Britton’s trademark sinker into the ground.
Britton didn’t pitch in the Orioles’ two-game series at Yankee Stadium from July 31 to Aug. 1. But with the teams playing four games in three days this weekend — and Britton potentially assuming more save opportunities with Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman going on the disabled list — he will almost certainly pitch against his former team this weekend.
“It’s going to be different,” Britton said. “The parts of seven or eight seasons here I had playing for the home team, so it’s going to be a little different pitching in a Yankee uniform here. I’m looking forward to it. I have a lot of great memories here, so I’m excited to be back and compete here again.”
When Britton arrived at Camden Yards for the first time as a visitor Friday, he ducked into the Orioles clubhouse to say hello to his former teammates and staff — he didn’t get to say goodbye to some the night he was traded because it happened so late — before continuing his walk to the road clubhouse.
“I had never been on the visiting side,” Britton said. “This is all new. … I remember the first time I came here, my first major league start, playoff games here. Just a lot of different memories, so it’s good to be back.”
During batting practice, he embraced right-hander Mychal Givens, who has assumed the few closing opportunities the Orioles have had. Britton received a warm welcome from his old teammates and coaches behind the batting cage while the Orioles took batting practice.
“He’s in a good place and as strong as a horse,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “He’s healthy. He’s going to be a real weapon for them as they go forward.”
After missing the first 2½ months of the season recovering from Achilles surgery, Britton arrived in New York thrown into the middle a pennant race — a much different situation from his final season with the Orioles, who are on pace for the worst season in club history.
“Going from the situation in Baltimore where you’re losing a lot of games to New York and being in the hunt again, there’s something about that that does get you excited and time does seem like it goes faster when you’re winning,” Britton said. “Just talking to those guys, it’s been a long season for them, and for me, it was nice to go to a team that was winning, get my mind off some injury stuff, getting back into a situation where each win was important and they continue to be. So I’m happy to be in the situation I’m in now. It was hard to leave the team, but I’m happy to be with the Yankees.”
Friday marked a month since the Orioles traded their All-Star closer, and because he was the longest-tenured player in the organization, Britton in a Yankees uniform seems misplaced. It’s been an adjustment for Britton as well. Most of his work has been in the seventh inning since joining the Yankees, and that’s been the earliest Britton’s pitched in games since the first month and a half of the 2014 season, before he took over the Orioles’ full-time closing duties.
“I don’t think anyone looks forward to Zach coming in against them,” Showalter said. “But they’ve got a lot of weapons down there.”
In a stacked Yankees bullpen rich with late-inning options — besides Chapman, Dellin Betances and David Robertson also have closing experience — Britton didn’t convert a save opportunity until Friday. He blew his first save chance Aug. 7 at the Chicago White Sox, and posted a 7.36 ERA in his first eight appearances with the Yankees. But he entered Friday having pitched three straight scoreless outings.
“I can be a lot better than what I’ve shown,” Britton said. “I think that’s the one thing. I’m not anywhere where I want to be right now. I think the Yankees knew that when they acquired me, that I still had a long way to go to get back from the surgery. But there’s been some flashes of good stuff, and when I left Baltimore, I was in a pretty good spot and I was just trying to get adjusted to my role in New York.
“The last three, four outings, I’ve felt a lot more like myself, a lot more comfortable, just getting comfortable wearing a new uniform, having new teammates and being in a new situation. I fully expect from here on out to get back on the horse a little bit and put up some good outings and help this team win and do what they traded [for] me to do.”
With Chapman out, Britton could see more save chances as well.
“That was the most comfortable role I’ve had,” Britton said. “That’s really the only role I’ve had in the bullpen. I went from starting to pretty much closing games. So yeah, that’s a comfortable place for me to fall back on, but if I need to throw where I’m throwing right now for Dellin or Robbie to get some save chances, I think the situation is going to dictate who gets in there.”