Orioles left-hander Zach Britton is getting a stem cell injection in his sore left knee Thursday that is all but certain to end his season, with just nine games left.
Britton said his exit MRI, which the team typically conducts during its final homestand as part of season-ending physicals, revealed the MCL strain that caused him to miss some time in late August and has been bothering him for three seasons to some degree "had gotten a little bit worse, so that's why we're taking the steps we are now."
The two-time All-Star closer's assumption is that his season is over, based on the team doctor's emphasis that such an injection in late September is meant to speed up his recovery for the offseason. Surgery, he insisted, wasn't on the horizon. Manager Buck Showalter, however, said "in three to five days, we'll see where we are on a lot of different fronts and see where he is physically and where we are as a team."
Britton will remain physically and mentally ready to pitch, he said, but his priorities seem clear.
"I think the most important thing for me is being healthy going into next season," Britton said. "That's the thing that they kind of preached to me from an organization standpoint. Obviously, I've got the arm injury past me, I've started to feel pretty good out on the mound, managing the knee. We'd been pitching through pain for two months trying to help the team win, so they felt it was maybe in my best interests to try to calm that down, do the stem cell injection and start the recovery process now, so we're going to start that and kind of see where we are."
Coming off arguably the greatest season of any reliever ever, Britton's year has been full of injury frustration. An oblique problem in spring training delayed his throwing program in Sarasota, Fla., and a forearm strain cost him over two months of the season as he went on the disabled list twice.
In late August, the knee injury cropped up as the exacerbation of a previous soreness Britton had dealt with for years. He took a few days off before returning to action, but had two blown saves in the past month and acknowledged pitching on it made things more difficult.
"Nothing drastic, but obviously throwing on it for two months didn't help, so [Dr. Michael] Jacobs thought the best idea was to start the recovery process now with that injection," Britton said.
With the Orioles at 73-80 and their narrow playoff hopes only alive mathematically, Britton's focus is on preventing another year like this in 2018, which is his final season before free agency.
"I'm going to kind of get back to the drawing board this offseason with kind of my workouts. I think that's where it all stems from," he said. "Last season, the workouts that I did, go back and see what I did and what I didn't do the prior years and kind of get back to that. That's the approach I'm going to take. It starts in the offseason with how I prepare my body for the season."
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Britton has a 2.89 ERA with 15 saves in 17 chances.
The postgame assessment confirmed a fear Showalter alluded to before the game.
Showalter said he was waiting meet with Jacobs to discuss Britton's "rest of the season."
Obviously, one of the options will be to shut him down the rest of the way, especially now that there is no pressing reason to send him back to the mound.
"I think that he's felt it all along to some extent really the last three years, so it's nothing we think is going ot require any type of surgical procedure," Showalter said. "What's there should heal itself in the offseason."