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

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.

In other words, Wallace and Chiti wanted Britton to throw the sinker continually. Throw it to the point where he could command it on both sides of the plate. They worked on a drill in which Britton attempted to throw through a target about the size of a baseball.

By the end of spring training, he won a bet with Wallace that he could pierce the target seven out of 10 times.

Learning to pitch in relief

The other mental hurdle was accepting a relief role. In his previous eight professional seasons, Britton had pitched out of the bullpen just four times. He had plenty to learn.

"I remember the first couple weeks he didn't know how to warm up," relief pitcher Darren O'Day said. "He would get up and throw too much, or not throw enough or was running out of the bullpen before he was called into the game. He went through a quick learning curve and, to his credit, he did amazing."

O'Day, a reliever his entire professional career, said he was curious to see how Britton would adjust mentally to no longer being a starter.

"You know, bullpens are where starters go to die," O'Day said. "But Zach asks a lot of questions. He wasn't too proud to ask the other guys, to ask coaches what he needs to do to be at his best. He has put all his energy into it, and he's been great."

Britton allowed just two earned runs in his first 16 relief appearances. He was throwing mainly two-seam fastballs in the mid-90s and opposing hitters couldn't touch him. In mid-May, with right-hander Tommy Hunter struggling to finish games, Showalter made Britton the closer.

"I didn't have any other choice," Showalter quipped. "No, if you look at his apprenticeship [in the bullpen], it worked out great, because we were able to put him in a come-to-the-rescue mode instead of an 'Oh, my God, you've got to do this' [mode]."

Britton saved 37 of 41 opportunities and didn't blow two in a row all season. According to Fangraphs.com, 89 percent of his pitches are sinkers, up from 39 percent in 2013. His fastball velocity is averaging 95.1 mph compared with 91.6 last year as a starter.

Showalter said Britton was the club's missing ingredient, because his presence allowed Hunter and O'Day to thrive in roles better suited for them. It's a turnaround from last season, though Showalter blanches at the idea that he had lost all confidence in Britton in 2013.

"That's not completely true," Showalter said. "Arm-wise and ability-wise, everybody had a lot of confidence. We were just trying to figure out how we were going to get it out of him."

'I actually really have it good'

During the rough periods of the past two years, Britton has leaned on his wife, his parents and his older brothers, including Buck, an infielder in the Orioles organization.

He also draws on experiences for inspiration, such as the death of childhood friend Sandi Stephens, who was struck and killed by a drunken driver in Oklahoma in 2007 at age 20.

A few years ago, Britton had T-shirts made with the silhouette of Stephens walking a horse — she loved owning and showing horses — as well as her name, date of birth and death. He wears one under his jersey every game.

"I just started wearing them as a reminder," he said. "Anytime I felt like my life was tough or I had a couple bad outings and my world was caving in. I actually really have it good. And that at any moment all of this can be taken away from us."

Britton also had plenty of long talks with Triple-A Norfolk pitching coach Mike Griffin, who kept preaching to Britton about his talent and work ethic.

"All we did was just instill to him that your stuff is well above major league average, just keep working on it," Griffin said. "Just let the process play out, just let it ride out. To his credit, he did let it ride out. He did let it play out. And look where he is at right now."

Britton's an integral member of an Orioles playoff team after not pitching in the 2012 postseason and barely being included in the club's plans last year.

"At the end of 2013 going into that offseason, I was thinking, 'Am I healthy?' Am I ever going to get back to where I was? Am I even going to be with this team next year?" Britton said. "So I think if you were to tell me that I'd still be here, not in a starting role, and I'd be closing games, I think that would have been the farthest thing from my mind."

So much is happening for Britton these days. He and his wife are expecting their first child, a boy, whose delivery could be induced on a scheduled postseason day off Oct. 9. Showalter has been ribbing Britton for months about his poor timing.

Before that, Britton likely will appear in his first playoff game. His teammates will be counting on him. His manager will be putting his faith in him. Britton might even have a chance to be on the mound to record the last out of a playoff clincher or, potentially, a World Series finale.

"2014 has been the best year for Zach and me, both of our lives," Courtney said. "Hopefully, professionally, they'll keep it going and get far in the postseason, and we'll have the baby. And we'll look back on this year and say, 'Wow, 2014 couldn't have gone any better.'"

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

twitter.com/danconnollysun

Zach Britton by the numbers

In four seasons in the major leagues, Zach Britton has pitched in 119 games. Before making 71 appearances out of the bullpen this year, he had pitched in relief only twice — once in 2012 and once last season. Here are his splits as a starter and as a reliever in the major leagues.

Starter: 18-17, 4.86 ERA, 46 games, 250.0 innings, 270 hits, 165 strikeouts, 1.524 WHIP

Reliever: 3-2, 1.56 ERA, 73 games, 81.0 innings, 37 saves, 51 hits, 65 strikeouts, 0.914 WHIP

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