I’d written several times after impressive outings in Zach Britton’s brief major league career that I got the sense from the rookie that he felt his best was yet to come, whether talking about a need for sharper command, reducing his pitch count to go deeper into games, or simply making better pitches in key spots.
After nine shutout innings against the Mariners on Thursday in which he allowed three hits and didn’t allow a runner to reach second base, it won’t get much better than that.
Rookie or not, it was one of the most dominating performances by a Baltimore pitcher in recent memory.
“I was able to incorporate all three pitches today, whereas I haven’t been able to do that in the past,” Britton said. “I was able to get ahead of guys. Not walking guys is huge, too. That helps you go deep in the game.”
The only problem was Seattle’s Jason Vargas was nearly as good, pitching nine shutout innings of his own as neither pitcher factored in the decision of a thrilling 2-1 comeback victory for the Orioles thanks to J.J. Hardy’s two-run single in the bottom of the 12th inning.
“It would have been a tougher plane ride [with a loss], that’s for sure, to waste an effort like we got from Zach tonight,” manager Buck Showalter said.
The numbers speak for themselves as Britton struck out five without walking a batter. He faced 29 batters — two over the minimum — and retired the final 13 batters he faced. Britton also became the first Orioles pitcher to record nine scoreless innings without earning a decision since Mike Morgan did it on April 16, 1988 against the Cleveland Indians.
His sixth victory would have been nice, but the 23-year-old was his usual self after the game — upbeat and unfazed.
“Our guys were frustrated, obviously, but they’re not trying not to score me a run,” said Britton, who threw a career-high 108 pitches. “They’re frustrated with some of their at-bats, but like I said, you tip your cap to Vargas. He threw the ball really well. When is that going to happen again?”
Maybe he won’t encounter another pitching duel like that for quite some time, but as Britton continues to grow with every start, you like his chances to find himself on the mound late in the game on more than a few occasions in the future. He’s now allowed one run or less in five of his eight starts, a remarkable feat for a pitcher expected to start the year at Triple-A Norfolk before Brian Matusz was sidelined with a back injury before his schedule first start in 2011.
Yes, his masterful performance came against the Mariners, one of the worst offensive clubs in the American League. He’ll find pitching in the big leagues to be a far greater challenge as the opposition gets a second and third look at the left-handed sinkerballer. Britton will take his lumps — even if only small ones — at some point this season, but his calm, confident demeanor makes you think he’ll take it in stride like he has during his first six weeks in the major leagues.
He’s certainly won over his teammates, who were pleased with the extra-inning win to complete a three-game sweep to conclude a 3-3 homestand but regretted their inability to provide any kind of run support to get him the victory.
“Oh my God, he was unbelievable,” said Hardy, who provided the game-winning hit off Mariners closer Brandon League. “Those guys weren’t taking very many good swings, and he was mixing up his pitches well and hitting spots. He did really well tonight.”
As he walked off the Camden Yards mound after getting Chone Figgins to ground out to end the top of the ninth, he received a standing ovation from the announced 19,082 in an enthusiastic show of appreciation. Considered one of the more difficult parks in the American League in which to pitch, Britton now has a 1.85 earned run average in 34 innings in front of the home crowd.
“We had a lot of great fans out here, and they hung around the whole game, which was big. I was getting goosebumps out there with Figgins, that last pitch right there.”
He wasn’t the only one.
To hear more from Zach Britton as well as J.J. Hardy, Brian Roberts, and Buck Showalter following the Orioles’ dramatic 2-1 win, visit the BuyAToyota.com Audio Vault right here.