Out of options, Orioles left-hander Zach Britton has flourished in closer's role

After facing career crossroads, left-hander has received a fresh start this season

September 29, 2014|By Dan Connolly | The Baltimore Sun

Orioles left-hander Zach Britton won't lie about it.

Yes, in the past year, he considered what it would be like to wear a different uniform, to get a second chance elsewhere. Heading into last fall, Britton had struggled through consecutive rocky seasons in which a shoulder injury, lack of command and cracking confidence had thrust him into a career crossroads.

Once considered a future ace, Britton weathered a brutal final month last season, pitching poorly in a spot start against the Cleveland Indians before being jettisoned to instructional league while his teammates were fighting in a pennant race. He sensed that many in the Orioles organization — including sage veteran manager Buck Showalter — had lost faith in him.

"It was really hard. I had never seen him like that," said Britton's wife, Courtney. "He's always had a lot of confidence, and his confidence was definitely shaken at that point. He felt like he had done everything he could do to get back on track from the injury, and it wasn't working."

So getting away from Baltimore and the Orioles might have been a good thing. Yet something kept tugging at Britton, an intrinsic loyalty that has enveloped him since he was a child.

This is a guy who met his future wife in elementary school and kept in contact with her for years after he moved out of state. This is a guy who wears a T-shirt under his uniform to pay tribute to a family friend who was killed by a drunken driver. It has been seven years, but he still occasionally talks to his friend's parents and still gets choked up when he thinks about her death.

"If there's any one thing you can say about Zach, it's that he is loyal," said Britton's father, Greg. "You can make him mad and do things he doesn't like, but if you are his friend, that's forever. He won't quit on you."

And Britton didn't want to quit on the Orioles — or, worse, have the club that drafted him out of a Texas high school in 2006 quit on him. That was the reality facing Britton last winter and spring.

"Honestly, I really didn't want to go away," said Britton, who has excelled as the club's closer since taking over the role in May. "I enjoyed playing for Buck, even though at times I felt like he didn't have confidence in me. And I don't blame him, because he was trying to win. But I enjoyed playing for him, and I've enjoyed playing for the organization. This is all I've known."

Britton knew he was out of minor league options heading into 2014, meaning the Orioles had to keep him in the major leagues all season or place him on waivers before they could send him back to the minors. As a 26-year-old left-hander with a mid-90s sinking fastball, he surely would have been claimed.

"My mindset was to go out there and make myself available to all the teams, and pitch well," Britton said. "Make it very tough [on the Orioles]."

Working like a thoroughbred

Britton is no slacker when it comes to work ethic or intensity.

In high school he ran into a light pole while chasing a foul ball and was taken to the hospital with what his family initially feared might be a life-threatening head injury. As a preteen in a tournament in Orlando, Fla., he kept running through the outfield's orange temporary fencing while attempting to catch fly balls.

Greg Britton said he was so concerned about his son's reckless playing style that he sought out his own father for advice.

"My dad said, 'I'd rather have a thoroughbred to hold back than a donkey I have to kick in the butt to get going,'" Greg Britton said. "And that stuck with me."

This offseason, the thoroughbred was unleashed in Southern California.

Britton finally felt fully healthy for the first time since a left shoulder impingement in the spring of 2012 pushed him off track. He reinstituted a throwing program with weighted baseballs — they are as much as five times heavier than a traditional baseball — to rebuild his arm strength. He also worked out with club vice president and fitness guru Brady Anderson to get into better shape.

During a bullpen session over the winter, teammate Miguel Gonzalez commented that he never had seen Britton's pitches look so dynamic. When Britton arrived at spring training, catcher Matt Wieters declared that Britton's heavy sinker was back.

Part of it was improved health; part of it was an attitude change. Britton said he used to worry about which starters the Orioles signed in the offseason and how that would affect his future. This spring, because of his options situation, he didn't care.

There also was a coaching change. The Orioles brought in veteran pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti.

Britton embraced a fresh start with the new staff. And he really embraced Wallace's and Chiti's philosophy of concentrating on what he did well instead of trying to improve his inadequacies.

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