WILMINGTON, DEL. — After Orioles All-Star closer Zach Britton made quick work of Vance Vizcaino, the unfortunate No. 9 hitter in Wilmington's lineup as Britton made his rehabilitation debut Wednesday night for High-A Frederick, his teammate in the on-deck circle asked about the man on the mound.
Vizcaino, who swung through three sinkers in a row for the first of three strikeouts in the inning, pointed down, his hand repeatedly darting toward the ground. It went down, and it was hard, and it was in the zone — all traits that Britton was glad to see in his first competitive situation back on the mound this year.
"I was pleasantly surprised today," Britton said. "Warming up in the bullpen, I was like, 'OK, I feel pretty close to what I would midseason.' Whether or not the velocity will come as I continue to go — I don't know what I was at today, but I was throwing a lot harder than what I was in any of the [simulated] games. But I'd say I was pretty surprised with where my stuff was overall today. It was a lot further ahead than it would normally be traditionally in spring, for the first outing. This was more like a back-end-of-spring game where you're pretty close to starting the season."
Even against a lower level of competition than he thought he'd be facing in what all parties expect to be a short rehab stint before his activation from the disabled list, Britton looked like a pitcher who was on his game.
He threw 17 pitches — 15 fastballs, ranging from 92-94 mph, as well as a pair of sliders, one of which got a swinging strikeout. The other two strikeouts were on fastballs, and the only batter to reach against him was third baseman D.J. Burt, who broke his bat and grounded to second base for an infield single off the glove of second baseman Preston Palmeiro.
"It had good movement, command was pretty good for the first time out, and I threw two good breaking balls, so the things I wanted to do, I did," Britton said. "Maybe faced a lot more lefties than I normally would, but sometimes a left-on-left matchup kind of gets you locked in. I can take that as a positive. Obviously, I want to face some more right-handed hitters and throw some breaking balls and sinkers to those guys."
Britton's appearance for the Keys was a last-minute adjustment to a rehab schedule that had been meticulously planned out by him and the Orioles. He's been throwing bullpen sessions and eventually, live batting practice, with the major league team as almost a simulation of spring training. Britton got to know the rehab process a bit last year on his way back from a forearm strain, and wanted a more controlled environment versus a more full minor league rehab schedule.
Once he got to this point, he knew he'd be close to ready to return. The threat of rain kept him from pitching at Triple-A Norfolk, but he still got plenty of benefit from the Carolina League foes he faced Wednesday.
"I think that was the biggest thing, getting on a mound and facing somebody that you didn't know," Britton said. "We were winning the game, too. I took that all into account when I was warming up — treat it like we're winning. It's a hold situation. Whatever it is, go out there and put a zero up, too. It got the focus away from worrying about how the Achilles or anything was feeling in the game and tried to throw as many pitches in the strike zone as I could."
Britton did that, and saw both the command and velocity ahead of where he expected it to be. Traditionally, he said, his fastball is in the 91-93-mph range his first outing of the spring. His seven total swinging strikes all came on pitches that likely would have been strikes anyway.
“It was impressive,” said Frederick pitching coach Blaine Beatty, who coached Britton in the minors as well. “The first pitch looked like it dropped a foot, even though it was thigh-high. And as he got deeper into counts, he got his ball down and he worked hitters — especially after a couple guys swung through a couple of his really off sinking fastballs. Impressive, that's what I saw tonight. … That's the Britton that I remember seeing, and the stuff was really sharp tonight.”
He's scheduled to make one more rehab appearance before meeting with the major league coaching and medical staff to figure out the last steps of his rehab before his early-June activation. He'll be in Norfolk on Saturday, the highest level of competition possible, but Britton said he can still get a read on where he is off an outing like Wednesday, and his early impression was that it won't be long before he's activated.
"Normally, in spring training, I face guys who are probably going to be Double-A a lot of the time and I found out if the stuff is there, it doesn't really matter the competition," Britton said. "I can kind of be a judge. I should know what plays and what doesn't at this stage. So, I think after Saturday, I need to do a back-to-back, more so for my arm, not the Achilles. It's more to get that soreness out of there that you would get from a back-to-back. Once I accomplish that, I should be good to go. I don't know what [Orioles manager Buck Showalter] wants to do to schedule that, but it won't be that much longer."