If anyone benefited from Saturday’s postponement due to heavy rain, it was Orioles closer Zach Britton.
Second in the American League behind only Minnesota’s Glen Perkins with 22 saves, Britton pitched for the fifth time in seven days Friday to preserve a 4-3 win over the Cleveland Indians. As the Orioles have played their best baseball of the season with 16 wins in their last 21 games, Britton has earned the save in nine of those victories.
“Sometimes, his performance gets taken for granted,” manager Buck Showalter said. “It’s really hard to do what Zach’s doing.”
While no Oriole currently leads his position in AL All-Star voting, Britton’s performance all but demands an invitation to Cincinnati on July 14 at this point. If selected by Kansas City manager Ned Yost, Britton would become the 10th Orioles closer since 1979 to be named to the All-Star Game.
The lefty has pitched more innings (32 2/3) than any AL reliever with more than five saves and is 22-for-23 in save chances with his only blemish coming on April 25 when suspect defense contributed to a blown save in a game the Orioles won in extra innings. His ERA of 1.93 and 10.2 strikeouts per nine innings — he struck out just 7.3 per nine in 2014 — have squashed any lingering doubts that Britton could repeat what he did last season.
After transitioning from starter to long reliever to first-time closer last year, Britton has been asked to carry a heavier workload in his second year as the Orioles’ ninth-inning man. In an era when most closers are only asked to pitch one inning, Britton converted the two four-out saves of his career earlier this season and has twice secured five-out saves this month.
It’s no wonder Showalter made a point to recognize Britton’s heavy workload on Friday night after his fifth save in a week.
“It’s difficult. You physically have to make sure that you’re OK to go — you’re doing stuff in the gym or maintenance,” Britton said. “These are things that I’m learning. Last year, I don’t know if I had that many appearances in that [few] days. It’s just little things I’m learning, but it’s kind of the job title. I’m just adjusting to it.”
Because he doesn’t shy away from pitching to contact, the Orioles closer will go through spells in which he puts runners on base like he has in recent outings. Of his nine saves in the month of June, Britton has allowed at least one batter to reach eight times, but he continues to get that all-important 27th out to preserve victories.
As we saw in the clinching Game 3 of last year’s AL Division Series, Britton escaping trouble is typically only a ground ball away. On Friday, he worked around a leadoff single to convert his 18th consecutive save opportunity, matching his best stretch of 2014.
“It’s not always easy I guess,” Britton said. “The last couple, I’ve had some guys on and had to work out of it a little bit. The hitters up here are so good, and guys are starting to get aggressive on that sinker, so it is just about execution on that first hitter. The last couple times, it just hasn’t been there. It’s not easy; I learned that last year you go through times where you have guys on every time out there. It’s the times where things aren’t going your way all the time that you just got to battle.
“I’m just making pitches when those guys get on and getting out of those jams. I think the big thing is I know I’m one pitch away from getting that double-play ball.”
It may not be easy, but Britton has made it look that way, leaving him more than deserving of a trip to the All-Star Game.