Thursday, August 4, 2011

Zach Britton's Latest Outing - a Running Diary

It’s time to bring back a very non-regular feature from my previous blog incarnations. Stolen directly from ESPN’s Bill Simmons – it’s the Live Game Diary! Of course, by the time you’re reading this the action has long since passed, but trust me when I say I’m typing it live.

What’s the occasion? Just a random August start by the left-handed rookie for your Baltimore Orioles, Zach Britton. It has defiantly been a strange season for the lefty from Panorama City, California. He had a dominating spring training only to be cut at the end of camp. Then he was immediately called up and started the second game of the season replacing injured ace Brian Matusz.

Things went swimmingly for the first two months as he racked up 5 wins in his first seven outings. Perhaps his finest outing was a 2-1 win for the O’s against Seattle on May 12th. Despite going 9 innings and allowing only 3 hits he didn’t get a decision as Baltimore waited until extra innings to score some runs.

Since that outing things haven’t been so swell. It seems he hit a bit of a wall, actually crashed into a wall and the wall fell on top of him. He’s won only once since May while suffering 7 defeats. His last outing lasted one-third of an inning. It was an adventurous one-third as the Yankees managed seven hits off of him which led to nine runs. But hey, only six of those runs were earned!

As the O’s have slumped this summer the pitching staff is largely to blame. The young arms haven’t developed as consistently as management (and the fan base) would have liked. Britton is the crown jewel of the “grow the arms, buy the bats” philosophy of GM Andy McPhail. The only hope that sustained the O’s through the last few seasons was that the pitchers were coming, and those pitchers would vault the Birds up the standings. So far that hasn’t happened.

So with some ribs marinating in the fridge and the Royals TV feed streaming on the computer let’s see what happens!

7.21 - His first pitch to Alex Gordon catches the inside corner for strike one. It’s a strike but nowhere near where Matt Wieters wanted it. After working the count full, Gordon doubles off the right field wall. What a fantastic way to start.

Royals play-by-play announcer Ryan Lefebvre points out that not only did Britton only last one-third of an inning in his last start, he didn’t make it out of the first in the start before that against the Red Sox.

7.24 – Britton mishandles a bunt attempt by Melky Cabrera. It wasn’t even a good bunt. Mistakes like those add to pitch count, add to runners on base and makes life difficult for young pitchers. Shortly thereafter Billy Butler takes a 1-2 pitch the other way for a run scoring double. Jeebus this could be a short diary.

7.28 – A nasty 0-2 slider to Eric Hosmer gets Britton his first strikeout of the day. Just realized I’m wearing an Eric Hosmer t-shirt. Way to support the O’s, blogger! A bit of bad luck for Britton as Jeff Francoeur bounces a wicked slider off the plate for an infield single.

7:32 – Mark Reynolds makes what is known in baseball circles as a mental error. He charges a slow roller and instead of getting the play at the plate he fires over to first. Reynolds has been a little better with the glove as of late (not that he really could have done worse), but no one is going to confuse him with Brooks Robinson anytime soon.

7:33 –Chris Getz grounds out to short to end the inning. Britton survives!
His line after one: 24 pitches (15 strikes), 3 runs (one earned), 2 hits, and 1 error. He struggled to locate his fastball and I don’t think he threw a single slider for a strike. Experienced hitters are going to lay off that pitch until he can show that he can occasionally get it over the plate. They will sit on his high-80’s fastball and make life miserable for him.

7:43 – Britton starts off Escobar with a breaking ball for a strike. Working quickly he gets him to fly out to right. Manny Pina bounces to Andino for the second out.

7:45 – After an Alex Gordon single, Britton throws a ball to Cabrera. He had previously thrown seven strikes in a row. It seems he’s settling into a groove.

7:48 – Britton finishes the inning with a professional approach. With two runners on he works carefully to Billy Butler and falls behind 3-0. With the left handed Hosmer on-deck Britton isn’t giving Butler anything good to hit. He nips the inside corner for strike one and then gets the slugging righty to chase a pitch just off the plate and he flies out meekly to right.

Two innings are now in the book. Despite giving up the two hits, Britton definitely looked sharper. He mixed his pitches well and had several hitters off balance. He’s thrown 38 pitches through two innings, 26 of them were strikes.

7:54 – With Robert Andino hitting, Lefebvre brings up Brian Roberts and his concussion. Perhaps you don’t know how Roberts became concussed. He hit himself in the head with his bat in disgust at the end of last season. He hasn’t been the same since.

8.02pm – JJ Hardy is fun to watch at short. He might be my favorite defensive shortstop since the great Ripken patrolled the infield. Hardy makes a nice play on a short hop grounder up the middle. Having an infielder who can make those tricky plays can help a young pitcher just as much

8:03pm – Francoeur lines a single to right.

8:05pm – Britton might have got a break as Yamaico Navarro bends away from a called third strike. The pitch caught the plate, but looked a little high. Britton is working ahead in the count and working quickly. Sometimes when you do that you catch a few breaks.

8.12pm - Britton works his way out of another two-runner on jam. He’s not doing anything to help his WHIP, but he’s making the pitches he needs to.
He’s through three innings now. The Royals have amassed seven hits against him, but other than the first-inning double to Butler they haven’t really been making solid contact against him. He’s not facing the 1927 Yankees (by the way isn’t it time to pick a new team for this cliché),

8:20 – Catching Jesus with a RBI single off of Jeff Francis! He’s hitting .338 with runners in scoring position this year. Which, by the way, is 30 points higher than the guy he’s always compared with. That’s Joe Mauer, kids.

8:30 – Remember how I mentioned that Britton wasn’t throwing his breaking stuff for strikes? He snaps off a couple of nice ones to the sleep deprived Manny Pina for his third strikeout of the match. According to Lefebvre, Pina was up till 3.30 in the morning talking to his family about his major league debut Wednesday night via a video conference on his computer. Let me drop a little

8:31 – Alex Gordon rips his third hit of the night into right field. Looks like he’s starting to live up to some of that potential he was burdened with early in his career.

8:35 – Britton induces a ground ball from Billy Butler to end the inning. As the game progresses, the lefty is looking more and more comfortable on the mound. He worked his way through the top of the Royals order in only 11 pitches.

8:38 – JJ Hardy rips a 3-iron into the bullpen to tie the game at 3. Nice, I might be developing a bit of a man crush on Mr. Hardy. The telecast cuts to the dugout and shows Matt Wieters for some reason instead of Hardy. Nick Markakis follows with a smoked double over the third base bag. Francis might be starting to tire, the O’s are squaring up on him this inning.

8:45 – And now a mental error on the base paths by Markakis. With one out in the inning, Vlad hits a ground ball right at the shortstop. Markakis breaks immediately to third and is an easy out. Yes Guerrero would have been an easy out at first on the groundball, but the O’s would have still had the runner in scoring position where a base hit would have given them the lead.

It’s the lack of fundamentals like this that is most frustrating about this team. Manager Buck Sholwalter has a reputation as a guy whose teams don’t make those kind of mistakes. It’s been a year now since he took over the team, it’s time they corrected those things.

8:50 – Eric Hosmer lines a 1-2 pitch into right field. Britton tends to fall in love with his off-speed stuff when facing lefties. That pitch was a hanging breaking ball that Hosmer was able to square up on and drive.

8:52 – Check on the ribs in the oven. They smell delicious.

8:54 – Britton bounces back to get the next three hitters in order on a pop-up, a grounder to the mound, and a weak grounder to first.

It’s another 11 pitch inning for the lefty. Through five innings his pitch count is at 77 which is pretty good considering the long first inning. Having a strong inning after the O’s tied it up is encouraging. Too often the O’s scratch back to tie or take the lead and their pitchers immediately cough it back up.

Speaking of taking the lead….

8:58 – Back to back doubles by Wieters and Davis give the O’s the lead and knocks Jeff Francis out of the game. He gave up 10 hits in five innings plus – seven of them were extra base hits.

9:05 – Just basted the ribs. It’s a homemade recipe with a little Hoison sauce. Thanks for asking. Nice sideburns Blake Wood. He uses the power of the burns to jam Hardy who pops up to the infield.

9:16 – Zach Britton with a lead lasts a total of four batters. With one out Pina doubles off the wall and then Alex Gordon picks up his fourth hit of the night with a line drive to right. Cabrera knocks in Pena with a ground ball through the left side.

9:19 – Britton’s night is over. Jim Johnson is summoned from the bullpen.
So what should we take away from this outing? Was it good, bad, indifferent? It wasn’t pretty, that’s for sure. I would say it was encouraging. First of all, he made it out of the first inning. He threw strikes. Of his 87 pitches, 59 were strikes and he didn’t walk anyone.

He wasn’t dominant, but that’s not the type of pitcher he is. He isn’t a 95 MPH, blow ‘em away fireballer. He has to have command and mix up his pitches. When he is on, he will induce a lot of awkward swings and ground balls.

It was a step forward, not a leap. His next start, scheduled for Tuesday against the White Sox, will be just as important. It is important that he is on in the first inning. With the start tonight he has now given up 20 runs in the first inning of his last three starts. Seeing those crooked numbers so early in a game kills a team’s morale.

9.31 – Jim Johnson air mails a throw to first base. It’s now 9-4. I’m going to eat my ribs now.

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