Orioles closer Zach Britton set an American League record for consecutive converted save opportunities with a scoreless ninth inning in Sunday's 9-7 win over the Houston Astros.
Britton's 55th consecutive save, which eclipsed Tom Gordon's mark set in 1998 and 1999, was his first since April 14. He had been out until July 5 with a left forearm strain but was dominant Sunday in his first save opportunity in more than 14 weeks.
Britton struck out the first two batters he faced, including getting Yuli Gurriel after falling behind him 3-0, and worked around a two-out walk to Marwin González to retire the middle of a dangerous lineup.
"It's so hard to simulate that type of emotional situation in a rehab start or even out of the 'pen in a nonsave situation," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "It's just completely different adrenaline. He looked like he was in element there, finally. You know, it's been a long haul to get back there. He was the last real piece for us to be able to get back and really be able to put [out there] what I think is just a really good bullpen if we can get deeper in games. It can be huge for us if that happens because I think the bullpen will be in really good shape. We'll be able to pass the load around, too."
Britton shook off some rust in his previous outings off the disabled list, including allowing two runs in his previous outing, Thursday night against the Texas Rangers.
"You never want to say that you lose focus in a situation where the game's out of hand," Britton said. "But I felt like today the focus was on making good pitches and not delivery. The last five outings I've had, I felt like at some point during the outing I was worried about what I was doing with my delivery and stuff. And today in that situation I just felt like I needed to make pitches and felt more like myself."
After falling behind Gurriel 3-0, Britton received two borderline strike calls to even the count — Gurriel started toward first base both times — and then got him swinging on a sinker down and away. Britton struck out Evan Gattis on three pitches, all sliders, which is a rarity for Britton. He walked González on five pitches before getting pinch hitter George Springer to bounce into a fielder's choice groundout.
"I mean, that was probably the first time I've actually felt like I did in '14, '15, '16, was today," Britton said. "[Catcher] Caleb [Joseph] was saying that was a big difference right there with what I felt like. And I knew it was just going to be a couple pitches in the bullpen. I kind of felt like I was finding it. I was hoping I didn't lose it in the game. But I felt really good, so hopefully I can continue doing that. Now it's about getting consistent. So hopefully next time I get out there I feel as good as I did today."
Showalter discussed the magnitude of Britton's record, which dates to Oct. 1, 2015.
"What I feel proud is that a lot of us were here to see all of them and realized how hard that is to do, especially over that long a period of time," Showalter said. "I told you before, you won't see another year like he had last year. You just won't. To see him continue — I think that's his 16th or 17th outing since the injury — so he was good today."
Britton has been the subject of trade rumors as the nonwaiver deadline for making deals approaches, and whether the club ultimately decides to either keep or deal him, pitching the way he did Sunday is the best case for the Orioles. Performances like Sunday's increase his trade value and quiet skeptics who might be concerned about the forearm injury that kept him out for much of this season after his dominant 2016 season.
And if the Orioles decide to keep him for the stretch run, they have back their ninth-inning anchor strong and fresh, restoring stability to a bullpen that needs to remain the club's greatest strength if the Orioles are to pull out of the sub-.500 hole they've dug.
The possibility of it being Britton's last outing at Camden Yards is real. The Orioles won't play another home game until next Monday's 4 p.m. nonwaiver trade deadline passes.
"Yeah, I guess if you are going to go out, that's a cool way to do it, in front of the home crowd, feeling good and getting a save and a win against a good team," Britton said. "Hopefully it's not the last, but if it is, that would be I guess a good way to go out."
Before right-hander Dylan Bundy allowed a season-high seven runs and needed a rally to avoid the loss, Showalter revealed part of the team's schedule to give Bundy additional rest in the second half of the season.
Showalter said Bundy won't start again until Aug. 1 against the Kansas City Royals, taking advantage of Thursday's day off to give him four days of extra rest while keeping the rest of the rotation on turn.
"We've got him mapped out through the start of September," Showalter said. "He'll pitch today and probably the fifth day after the off day, so we will be easing the throttle a little bit, so we can push it again if we need it. I know right about where I think he's going to end up if he stays on schedule."
Showalter also plans to use the team's days off next month — Aug. 17 and Aug. 24 — to give Bundy additional rest. He's said the Orioles have an idea in mind of how many innings the club has projected for Bundy this season in his first year as a full-time big league starter, but threw out the 180-inning mark for the first time Sunday, adding that expanded rosters in September can add wiggle room.
Bundy entered Sunday's start having pitched 114 innings in 19 starts after going 109 2/3 innings last year as a reliever and starter.
"Very happy with where he is right now physically and with the innings," Showalter said. "He feels about as good as he's felt in a long time for the whole year. So I hope we haven't jinxed it. I think if you look at the fifth day after the off days, that's pretty much what we're looking at. We can take him around 180, somewhere in there, if everything goes well, and you can still make adjustments in September if you need to. You're going to have more pitchers, more bodies."
Kim receives rare start
Showalter gave Hyun Soo Kim his first start in nine games since the All-Star break.
Kim has played in four games off the bench since the break, and had a pinch-hit double in a ninth-inning rally Friday night. On Sunday the outfielder made his first career start at designated hitter.
“I think Kimmy needs to get out there,” Showalter said before the game.
Kim reached base in each of his first two plate appearance against Astros starter Lance McCullers. Kim was hit by a pitch with the bases loaded in the second inning, then looped a leadoff single to open the fourth.
Showalter has often said he’s wanted to get Kim more playing time, and believed that more playing time is needed to help him find his form of last season, but there have been few opportunities for Kim now that rookie Trey Mancini has returned to his everyday left-field position with the return of first baseman Chris Davis from the disabled list.
Around the horn
Adam Jones passed Nick Markakis for sixth place on the Orioles’ all-time hit list after his four-hit day Sunday. Jones has 1,550 hits as an Oriole. Boog Powell is fifth with 1,574. … Mancini drove in runs in two at-bats Sunday, improving his average with runners in scoring position to .431 (25-for-58). … Showalter gave outfielder Seth Smith the afternoon off because he’s struggled against McCullers, going just 1-for-12 with seven strikeouts. … The Orioles’ RBI (Reviving Baseball In the Inner Cities) ages-16-18 team won the Mid-Atlantic regional by beating the Phillies RBI team and will advance to the RBI World Series in Cincinnati starting Aug. 3. This is the second straight year the Orioles’ team is going to the World Series after advancing for the first time last year.