Back in mid-May, while closer Zach Britton was stationed in Sarasota, Fla., working through the opening stages of a meticulous throwing program to begin his rehabilitation from a left forearm strain, the team's bullpen began showing signs of leaking oil. And Britton's phone started blowing up with text messages from his fellow pitchers and position players alike.
The consensus message was clear: "Hurry back, we need you."
Most realized that was wishful thinking, because the most optimistic timetables for Britton's return had him rejoining the club just before the All-Star break. The Orioles, along with renowned orthopedist Dr. Neal ElAttrache, laid out a conservative recovery plan to ensure the injury would not be a concern once he returned.
Now the Orioles are expected to finally get their top reliever back this week as Britton is scheduled to be activated Wednesday in Milwaukee after a seven-game minor league rehab assignment.
His return will be welcome. The Orioles bullpen has navigated through the first half of the season without a player who was the best late-inning reliever in baseball last season, and that journey included its share of ups and downs. But at every turn, the Orioles looked toward this week as a time when one of their greatest strengths — their bullpen — could get back to its past form for the stretch run. .
Britton put together one of the best seasons of any relievers in baseball history last season, converting all 47 of his save attempts while allowing just four earned runs in 67 innings and finishing with 4.3 wins above replacement, the highest total of any reliever since 2008.
"I've learned a lot through the rehab process, that not every year is going to be as smooth as maybe the last few have been," Britton said Friday. "It's just a new different challenge. I think you learn something about yourself when you're challenged and things are not going easy. I'm looking forward to getting back and finishing strong, because my first half has been one where there's not much to write home about. I barely have any innings, so I'm looking forward to coming back and having a really good second half of the season."
Now that Britton is ready to return, the Orioles bullpen — a vital part of the team's established success since 2012 — will finally have all of its late-inning pieces back.
"He's probably one of, if not the, best relievers in the game, so anytime you have a piece like that missing, it definitely hurts," said interim closer Brad Brach, who has converted 15 of 19 save opportunities in Britton's absence. "Having him back is going to be huge, and I just think everybody knows that when he gets back we can have the team back to full strength. It can only help us. I think it's one of those things where we've kind of kept our head above water here. And if we can get on a little bit of a roll, having Zach back will definitely help us."
The fact that the Orioles will have their four big late-inning relievers — Britton, Brach, Darren O'Day and Mychal Givens — together and healthy for the first time since April should be a boon for the club. Orioles manager Buck Showalter has steered his bullpen use this season with exactly this in mind, that if he could preserve the health of his back-end relievers for the second half, the bullpen would be back to being the rock it has been in the past — providing the Orioles give it leads going into the later innings.
Brach has done an admirable job filling in for Britton, so much so that he's a candidate for his second straight All-Star Game (teams will be announced Sunday). But Friday's 6-4 loss, in which Brach couldn't hold a one-run lead in the ninth despite having the Tampa Bay Rays down to their last strike twice before O'Day allowed a three-run homer in the 10th, shows how fickle late-inning success can be, especially when Britton was nearly automatic last season.
"You never assume how hard it is to do those jobs late in the game," Showalter said earlier this week. "We see failure all over baseball. It's hard to do. It's hard to piece together a chain for three or four innings. That's why it's still, for us to get in the direction we need to go, our starting pitching needs to be a little more consistent. … I always tell you, you can't use the same guy every night. And [Britton's return] kind of keeps you from having to do that, having another guy who is trustworthy and has some track record. So if nothing else, it gives you the ability to pass the load around."
Surviving without Britton wasn't easy, especially through May into June. Showalter was cryptic about the availability of his relievers during a stretch in May as Brach and O'Day worked through arm fatigue, forcing Givens to shoulder more of the late-inning load. Showalter picked his spots when to use them late, and it was often only with a lead, situations that were few and far between as the team started to slide from its first-place perch in the American League East.
All in all, those relievers avoided the disabled list, save for a brief stint for O'Day in June for a shoulder strain that he has seemingly recovered from.
"Having Zach back will definitely make us better," O'Day said. "It will allow us to push everybody back, assuming he's back closing games. It will help us push our legit setup guys back into the fifth and sixth inning, stuff like that. Buck will be able to go to the reliever sooner if he wants to."
Britton's absence created an opportunity to close games for Brach, who also filled the eighth-inning role when O'Day was limited to 31 innings last season. Givens has been the beneficiary of more high-leverage situations and has flourished. After left-hander Donnie Hart's addition helped last season, he has struggled this year, but has shown signs of coming around with three scoreless innings before Friday in his latest return from Triple-A Norfolk.
Taking Friday's late-inning unraveling out of the equation, the trio of Brach, O'Day and Givens have pitched well. After Brach received significant rest in mid-May — he pitched once over an eight-day stretch after blowing a save in Washington on May 10 — he allowed just one run over his next 15 1/3 innings going into Friday. O'Day had thrown three straight scoreless innings before Friday after returning from the DL. Givens also received some rest, pitching just once over a nine-day span in May. Since then, he held opponents to one run over 15 1/3 innings over 12 appearances before Saturday.
"We were really good last year. We were what, top three in ERA?" Britton said. "You can't really get better than what we were last year. I think Givens getting that experience is going to help him, but as for everybody else, they're pretty much doing what they normally do. But it will be nice to have more pieces down there I think when everybody gets back. We had a few times last year when Darren was out, too, so having a full healthy bullpen will help for sure as long as we continue to throw well. You're only as good as you continue to throw, so whether or not I come back or if other guys continue to throw well is the main thing. Obviously I want to come back being in my top shape and that's why I've being going through this rehab process."
Bridging the middle innings with some optionable relievers to provide length — especially after short starts — has been a challenge, and that experiment is still fluid. But the addition of Britton should shorten that bridge.
"Definitely it will shorten games for sure," Brach said. "I think with the way people have seen how Buck [has been] able to handle the bullpen. With me, Darren, Mychal, if Donnie can get it going again, he can kind of interchange us. It's not just for that day, but for the next day. It kind of gives everybody rest and kind of has the same back-end feel even if one of us is down that day. The last couple weeks, if one of us was down, it was kind of difficult to get that same feel. So I think having him back just kind of shortens the game and makes us that more effective."
Since the loss of Britton, the Orioles rotation has averaged just five innings per game, including a current stretch that includes just three starts of at least six innings in 20 games heading into Saturday.
The offense has been erratic, averaging 4.4 runs per game in June. Combine that with a rotation that has posted a major league-worst 6.32 ERA since Britton's last outing on May 4, and the Orioles' minus-62 run differential last month was the worst in baseball.
Given those numbers, it's remarkable the Orioles are still in the playoff mix. But the team's hope is that by solidifying the back end of the bullpen can spur both the offense and rotation to realize they don't have to try to do too much.
"I think more so than anything it helps the team chemistry of having guys back who you're familiar with and have been around a while," Britton said. "When you're kind of always having an influx of new talent coming up from the minors, especially as guys weren't pitching as well as they could have, yeah maybe it takes a toll on some of the other guys. They want familiar faces back there, guys who for the most part you know what you're going to get from them time in and time out. I think that's what you're looking for."
Britton's phone isn't buzzing as much as it was back in May, especially since flying north to Baltimore from Florida to start his rehab assignment, his teammates knowing his return was on the horizon.
"Everybody's going to have to continue to pitch well to get to where we want to go, but I think talking to some of the older position players, they've been reaching out to me a lot just hoping to get a familiar face back," Britton said. "I know it's something they're looking forward to."