Britton converted 37 of 41 save chances and logged a 0.90 WHIP and a 1.65 ERA in 71 appearances this season. His most noteworthy brush with failure came in a June 20 game at Yankee Stadium, when Carlos Beltran took him deep for a three-run walk-off shot in a 5-3 New York victory over the Orioles.
Like a motorist furtively trying to slip past an accident before the orange cones are set up, Britton chose not to linger at the scene.
"I've never been on the mound to lose a game, so I didn't know what to do," he said. "I think I was in the clubhouse before he rounded second base."
The Kansas City Royals owned the first two games of the American League Championship Series at Camden Yards with a mix of bravado, exceptional defense, power and small ball. By winning Game 1 in the 10th inning and Game 2 in the ninth, they also emerged with a slight edge in the competition between two of baseball's elite bullpens.
No one had a more torturous weekend than Britton, who tapped out on control and luck, in that order, and now has a day to recover before manager Buck Showalter throws him out there again in a pivotal spot.
In the series opener Friday, Britton came on in the ninth inning and threw 12 straight balls and walked the bases loaded during an uncharacteristic display of wildness. He escaped because of a great scoop at home plate by catcher Nick Hundley and the intervention of set-up man Darren O'Day, who came on to rescue him with a double-play grounder off the bat of Billy Butler.
In Game 2, the Baltimore relievers reversed roles. After Omar Infante beat out an infield single off O'Day to begin the ninth, Showalter gave Britton a quick chance at redemption. Instead, the Royals strung together a sacrifice bunt by Mike Moustakas, an Alcides Escobar ground-ball double down the right-field line, a Jarrod Dyson chopper that was mishandled by third baseman Ryan Flaherty, and an RBI single by Lorenzo Cain to turn a 4-4 tie into a 6-4 lead.
That's the Monarch Notes version of Britton's game; he relied on a sinking fastball and a slider to induce a staggeringly high ground-ball percentage of 75.3 percent during the regular season. But when the games are this big and the ground balls lead to baserunners, ill-fated timing and BABIP woes can smell suspiciously like failure on a grand stage. Fans and the media tend to see it that way, although pitchers try to keep the phenomenon in context.
"One of the biggest things for us as pitchers is knowing that once the ball leaves your hand, you can't do anything about that," said Orioles reliever Andrew Miller. "Sometimes ground balls find holes. They find the 4-hole or the 6-hole, or you give up infield hits. That's the reality of the game, and you have to move on. Zach's stuff is unquestionable. He's the least of my concerns."
Britton, rated the No. 2 prospect in the Baltimore organization by Baseball America behind Manny Machado in 2011, emerged as a star closer this year under cover of darkness. For years in the minors, he was ticketed for the rotation and never had an inkling the Orioles viewed him as potential closer material until Brady Anderson, the team's vice president of baseball operations, broached the topic in spring training. Britton recorded his first career save on May 15 in Kansas City, of all places, and he was on his way.
It would be an understatement to characterize the past week as an emotional thrill ride for Britton. After the Orioles eliminated Detroit in the division series, he flew home to California to be with his wife, Courtney, when she gave birth to the couple's first child Tuesday. Later in the week, Britton linked to a picture of his infant son, Zander Lee, on his Twitter account:
- Zach Britton (@zbritton) October 10, 2014
Britton was a bit bleary-eyed when he arrived in Baltimore from the West Coast on Friday, but he has refrained from using the chaotic events of this week as a crutch or an excuse for his problems in the ALCS. Britton called Courtney a "champ" and joked that she deserves an extra playoff share for giving birth in time for him to get back to Baltimore and face the Royals.
"I think it's an exciting time," Britton said. "I didn't look at it as a challenge. It's exciting to have your first child and then come here. I had some time to rest, and physically and mentally I was in a good spot. Maybe I just didn't execute pitches as much as I did during the regular season. That's an easy fix."
Some of Britton's veteran teammates might pull him aside and throw a comforting arm or two over his shoulder before Monday's Game 3 in Kansas City. But his fellow Orioles have already seen a maturity that suggests he's able to put the rough patches in perspective. After two bad outings to begin the series, Britton handled one of the most demanding aspects of the job by answering waves of media questions with an analytical and accountable demeanor.
"Guys will pick him up, and that will help," said catcher Caleb Joseph. "The main thing was, he got ground balls and they just found holes. That's happened before during the year, and it won't be the last time it happens to him in his career. He's been rock-solid the whole year, and we believe in him."
As the Orioles try to dig their way out of a 2-0 hole at Kauffman Stadium on Monday, Britton's sudden bout of unreliability isn't even the biggest item on their agenda. Their first goal in Game 3 is making sure they get a lead over the Royals. Then they'll worry about whether he's able to protect it.