<
>

Zach Britton rewrites Orioles-Blue Jays rivalry

BALTIMORE -- What happened -- or didn't happen -- last October never crossed his mind, Zach Britton said. Seriously. Not while he was warming up, anyway.

Six months after that famous wild-card game he never pitched in, it was Opening Day of a brand new season. And the world had a beautiful way of spinning Britton, the Baltimore Orioles and the Toronto Blue Jays right back to "What If Land" on a memorable Monday afternoon. Thank you to whoever up there was responsible.

We’re not sure how the world comes up with these scripts. But there they all were Monday, reenacting wild-card history -- only backward.

As the late innings rolled around, it seemed all too familiar. Same teams. Same score (2-2). Same managers. Almost the same cast of characters. Even the same plate umpire (Gary Cederstrom). Just substitute that Baltimore dateline for last October's Toronto dateline, and it was totally perfect.

Except that this time, as the ninth inning rolled around, the closer for the Orioles managed to get his name in the box score. How about that?

This time, the guy who hit the walk-off home run in the 11th -- a fellow named Mark Trumbo -- played for the Orioles. So this time, after the Orioles finished winning a dramatic 3-2 Opening Day tussle against their favorite nemesis, their manager, William "Buck" Showalter, could actually grin and observe: "That was fun ... wasn't it?"

Well, it was a lot more fun for the manager than the last time these two teams met. In a related development, it was way more fun for his closer too.

Do we really need to recap Britton’s wild-card game saga one more time? Word of that has kind of gotten around. But if it somehow slipped your mind, the Orioles lost an intense, agonizing, 11-inning postseason baseball game that decided their season last October -- and the best closer in baseball never got to participate.

It has been mentioned to him several trillion times since. When that question came flying at him Monday -- after he’d thrown a scoreless ninth inning, followed by a scoreless 10th inning -- Britton was ready.

"I turned the page on that a long time ago," he said.

And that was that -- temporarily, at least. When the camera crews turned and traipsed away from his locker a minute later, he was darn proud of how he deflected the big issue of the day. Then he confessed the truth.

Did he think, after these momentous Opening Day developments, that he’d officially heard that question about that game for the last time?

"No way," he said with a knowing chuckle. "No way."

He looked around. The media throng was gone for good. So he kept confessing.

"I probably have 20 text messages from friends right now," he said. "So I don’t think it will be done any time soon."

Why was he so sure those texts were already flooding his phone?

"I already read them," he said. "A lot of smartass comments."

Imagine that. These were from his "friends?" What would his friends be texting at a time like this?

"Oh, stuff like: 'about time you got in a game,'" he said, laughing again. "Stuff like that. Or: 'Hey, why didn't you go two innings six months ago?'"

He shook his head. "Just giving me crap. You know."

And that, of course, is what friends do best.

"Absolutely," he said. "I knew this was going to happen the first time I got in against these guys. I knew I was going to hear it -- from either my friends or from the fans."

Was he looking forward to texting them back? He gave the impression that he was already anticipating that thrill -- but not right this minute. He needed to make them twist in silence for a while first.

"Not right now," he said, "but I'll say something to them later."

Transcripts of those exchanges will not be released to the public, unfortunately. But no need. Use your imagination.

Britton's manager has long since stopped answering questions about why his closer didn’t pitch in that wild-card game. But Britton admitted a couple of weeks ago that he and Showalter had what could actually be described as a light-hearted conversation about it a few weeks afterward.

Britton and his wife had just brought their new baby home from the hospital in November when Britton's phone buzzed. It was Showalter, wanting to congratulate them and make sure everything was going well.

Then the manager asked Britton if he’d paid much attention to how managers had used their relief pitchers in the postseason last October, by which he meant exhaustively.

"And he was like, 'Well, I guess I scared everybody. Nobody wanted to get the backlash,'" Britton reported. "You know, just good humor, like Buck has. Kind of just laughed it off and said no one wants to wear it like he did."

Britton says now that he has honestly never questioned why Showalter didn't use him that night. He just knew, he said, that the manager always has a plan and always has a reason.

"He’s never like, 'Let's just flip a coin,'" Britton said.

Britton also appreciates the irony of how the world seems to be much more obsessed with that game he didn't pitch in last year than with all those games he did pitch in -- while racking up the lowest bullpen ERA in history (0.54) and navigating his way through a season in which he saved 47 games and blew zero.

But even with that never-ending plot line hovering over his appearance Monday, Britton swore that when he got up to throw in the bullpen before the ninth inning, the wild-card game never popped into his brain. Certainly, when he was weaving his way through the ninth and 10th innings, that was no time to be thinking about the past.

"No, not at all," he said. "I'm so focused on ... I know who I'm facing. I know who their bench guys are. I'm just focused on making good pitches and trying to get those guys out. Anything else that enters your mind is not going to be any good.

"After the game, you could think about all that kind of stuff but definitely not in the moment."

Then again, after the game, he has all sorts of people who can helpfully remind him of "all that kind of stuff" -- like those close friends of his and we not-so-close media types.

But on a day such as this, when his team came out on the right end of the "What If Game," it was easy to smile about it all. Down the hall, that smile forming on the manager's lips seemed even wider than usual.

Asked how weird it seemed to have this day go how it went, only to have just about everything turn out exactly opposite of how that other game turned out, Showalter got that certain sparkle in his eye.

"It didn't seem weird at all," he said. "It seems appropriate."