Shortly after Orioles closer Zach Britton inadvertently was embroiled in controversy when he didn’t pitch in the club’s loss to the Toronto Blue Jays in the AL Wild Card game October 4, he and his wife sat down to view an American League Division Series game.
“I turned on the TV a couple days later to watch one of the playoff games and the first thing I hear about is how I didn’t get to pitch in that (Wild Card) game. It was still this huge deal,” Britton said during a phone interview with BaltimoreBaseball.com on Monday. “It was the talk of that game. And my wife and I, we just decided not to watch. Because I didn’t want to hear about it.”
It’s now been two weeks since Orioles manager Buck Showalter used seven pitchers – but not Britton — in an eventual 5-2, 11-inning loss at the Rogers Centre that ended the club’s season.
Britton said he’s had numerous requests for interviews since then, but he’s been awfully busy. His son turned 2 earlier this month and then the family moved from Southern California to a new home in Austin, Texas last week. His wife, Courtney, is due next month with the couple’s first daughter.
So, Britton says with a chuckle, he hasn’t given many second thoughts to not pitching in the club’s final game of 2016. He hasn’t had time.
“Exactly. There are so many other things going on. And it was never a situation where I was going to really overthink it anyway,” he said. “I trust Buck. He has always done things to put me into a situation that I could be successful. And he’s always made good decisions. He was a huge reason why our team got as far as it did.”
Britton said he has not talked to Showalter since the season ended, but didn’t expect that he would this early in the offseason.
“I never thought I needed to. I didn’t realize, even after the game, that it was this big of a deal. Obviously now, just with social media, I’ve been getting blown up on it about every single day. There are the jokes about it and stuff like that,” Britton said. “After a while, I don’t really get the (focus) about it. I mean, you’ve got to score more runs than the other team. There are only so many things that you can do as a manager to make that game turn in your favor. It’s not like you can go out there and hit for the guys or pitch for your players.”
Britton, who was a perfect 47-for-47 in save chances and is considered a frontrunner for the AL Cy Young Award this year, warmed up three times in the Orioles’ final game, but never entered. Although Showalter never fully detailed his decision, basically it was because the Orioles didn’t have a lead after the fifth inning and, on the road, Showalter prefers to use his closer when his club is leading.
It’s a philosophy that has been skewered this postseason, especially since several playoff teams have used their traditional closers in non-traditional roles, and the moves have paid off.
But Britton said he wasn’t surprised at all by Showalter’s decision to wait for a lead. It’s how he is usually used. It’s what the game plan was. And he trusted the rest of the bullpen to do its job, including enigmatic starter Ubaldo Jimenez, who served up the game-winning homer to Edwin Encarnacion.
“I knew being on the road, I was kind of biding my time to hopefully be in a situation where I was one of the last two guys down there. That’s just kind of the way it’s worked out the whole season. So it wasn’t surprising to me at all,” Britton said. “Ubaldo had been throwing well so … when the phone rang and they told him he was going into the game, it wasn’t something where I was like, ‘Oh, wow.’ It was just, ‘Ubaldo’s been throwing great.’ He deserved to be on the roster. He has pitched well recently there, and I expected him to at least give us a good inning and then possibly me coming in right after him.”
Before the game, Britton was told by bullpen coach Dom Chiti to prepare to pitch multiple innings – besides the traditional ninth — if the Orioles were ahead.
“If we had a lead in the seventh and it was a one- or two-run lead, my impression was, ‘Hey, be ready, we’ve got that lead in the seventh, maybe a situation comes up that you might throw two innings or two-and-a-third or one-and-change.’ That was my impression. It wasn’t something that they told me, ‘Hey, if the game is tied, you’re gonna go two innings.’ It was, ‘If we have the lead and the seventh inning comes up, be ready to go.’”
Britton said he was completely healthy and felt great while warming in the bullpen. He just didn’t get the call to pitch because of the way Showalter ran the game. But he’s not going to second guess Showalter, the manager who made him a closer in 2014. And any frustration he showed after the game, he said, was directed more at the result than the decision.
“It’s frustrating because I wanted to help the team. It’s not frustrating because Buck didn’t pitch me. It’s frustrating that the circumstances never came up to where it was a good spot for me — I guess, in Buck’s eyes — for me to come into the game,” Britton said. “If we were to have won the game and I didn’t pitch, it’s not like I would have cared … I wasn’t mad at Buck for not pitching me. I was just mad that we weren’t able to score more runs than they did.”
Britton said he’s not going to let it taint the tremendous season he had, either – his 0.54 ERA was the lowest in history for anyone with at least 60 innings pitched in a season.
“You don’t want it to overshadow the year that you had at all,” he said. “People were kind of taking my side on things and I don’t even know if there’s a side to take in this whole deal. I think if you look at Buck as a manager, he’s obviously one of the best guys in the game. And when it comes to bullpen management, over the course of a season, I don’t know if anybody does it better than he does.
“To me this isn’t a blemish, it’s just that the game happened and you make decisions. … Everything is cool when everything is working out your way. But as soon as one thing doesn’t go your way, everyone is (critical). It was the perfect time because it was the Wild Card game, national TV, it’s the only thing that’s on.
“So it just seems like people always want to rip you if they can.”