May 15, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Zach Britton (53) delivers a pitch against the Kansas City Royals in the ninth inning at Kauffman Stadium. Baltimore won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Baltimore Orioles: Beginning of the Zach Britton Era?

Could it be that a new era in Baltimore Orioles baseball was begun last evening in Kansas City? Zach Britton came on to set down the Royals 1-2-3 in the ninth inning and save a 2-1 victory. It was the first such ninth inning this year, and the first save opportunity for the Orioles after the recent Tommy Hunter implosion.

Britton sure had the look of a great closer, and I’m not just talking about fastball velocity, a killer sinker, and aggressive approach. I am equally referencing the body language and pitching mound demeanor. From his first steps running in the from the bullpen to his walks around the mound between outs, there was a body language attitude of “I’m in control here, and you are not going to be running around the bases; pack your bat bag in the dugout, because we are going home soon.”

Britton has not always looked this way. He never had the nervous fear of a Jake Arrieta or the sometimes overwhelmed confusion of Brian Matusz a couple years ago, but there were times you could see on his face that he was in over his head – that his stuff just wasn’t working like he wanted, and he didn’t know what to do to fix it.

Could Britton be a successful starter if stretched out into that role? My guess is that, yes, he could be that guy. But could his better role to help this club be what we saw last night? Well, on this date of May 16, 2014 I am going to say “yes” to that. With his starter’s stuff and background in pitching for longer periods, could Britton be a shut-down reliever who could pitch in a rather high number of games compared to most others, being brought in more frequently and even for occasional longer stretches than just a final several outs? If so, that is a hugely valuable pitcher. He could impact not only one game every five days, he could have an impact on up to nearly one-half of all games.

Over the previous two seasons, Jim Johnson pitched in 71 and 74 games for the Orioles. If Britton were to be just a bit stronger with an ability to return to game after game in varied stretches of the season, it would not take that much more before he is impacting almost half of all Orioles contests. Johnson was 15th in MLB last year in 74 appearances. The highest was 80 games by Joel Peralta of the Rays – though Peralta only pitched one more inning than Johnson, and the two of them actually faced the exact same number of batters – 291.

For reasons we could explore in another article someday, the Baltimore Orioles get into an unusual number of close games in late innings that call upon relievers to shut down an opponent in the final couple of innings with no margin of error. Showalter referenced this very observation a couple of days ago, and since it happens, Zach Britton’s skill could prove the most valuable commodity on this squad.

Series Game One – Orioles 2, Royals 1

Even though the Orioles struck out a total of 13 times – nine of which were against the powerful pitching of Royals starter Yorlando Ventura – they managed two runs on a walk and homer by Nelson Cruz. Wei-Yin Chen pitched well enough to maintain the lead with only a run given up in 5.1 innings, and the bullpen shut the door the rest of the way, capped off by Britton’s ninth inning.

Series Game Two – Chris Tillman vs. Jeremy Guthrie

In a matchup of a previous top starter versus the current staff leader, Chris Tillman will look to get a victory over former Oriole Jeremy Guthrie.

Tillman will also look to get back to top form as displayed in his early games of the season. His most recent set of starts have been rough, making it through six innings only once in the past four. In his last outing against the Astros, Tillman issued five walks in five innings.

This will be Tillman’s first start against KC this year. Over his career of four starts against the Royals he is 1-2 with a 9.00 ERA. His one start at Kauffman Stadium lasted 3.2 innings and yielded eight runs on 10 hits. I’m sorry to report those numbers early in the morning.

Guthrie is 2-2 on the season with a 4.80 ERA. As with Tillman’s season, both pitchers have had a very mixed bag of results: some of which are extraordinary, whereas half of the others were very, very hard work and quite mediocre.

Guthrie has three career starts against the Orioles and has done well with a 2-0 record and 1.89 ERA over 19 total innings. The only decent numbers against him are by Nick Markakis at 3-for-8. Delmon Young is 4-for-27, Nelson Cruz 4-for-21, and J.J. Hardy 2-for-11. Chris Davis has a home run in 16 at-bats, but that is all, and Adam Jones is hitless in eight plate appearances.

Putting all historic stats together, the Baltimore Orioles have no chance of winning this game. But, the stats don’t play the game.

Tags: Baltimore Orioles Zach Britton

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