TORONTO -- The Orioles' season ended on Tuesday night, and one of the best pitchers in baseball, closer Zach Britton, could only watch on a puzzling night that resulted in Baltimore's gut-wrenching 5-2, 11-inning defeat to the Blue Jays.Britton -- a perfect 47-for-47 in saves on the year -- was
TORONTO -- The Orioles' season ended on Tuesday night, and one of the best pitchers in baseball, closer Zach Britton, could only watch on a puzzling night that resulted in Baltimore's gut-wrenching 5-2, 11-inning defeat to the Blue Jays.
Britton -- a perfect 47-for-47 in saves on the year -- was nowhere to be found in the biggest spots in the winner-take-all American League Wild Card Game. Maybe the lefty sinkerballer, who had allowed one earned run since April, was hurt?
"He was fine," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "He was fine."
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That makes it even stranger that Britton, a strong candidate for the AL Cy Young Award, was never used despite Toronto mounting several late-game chances before Edwin Encarnacion's game-winning three-run homer.
"I figured [Showalter] would wait maybe and in the eighth or ninth if we were ahead, I'd be in the game," said Britton, who reiterated he was fine physically. "But once the score was tied, I felt like once there was an opportunity to get in the game, I was going to get in the game. Whether we were going to get a lead or not, I wasn't sure.
"It was just frustrating to have to sit down there and watch and not be able to help the team."
Britton warmed up three times: in the eighth, ninth and 10th innings. But he never got the call, prompting extensive criticism.
On a certain level, it shouldn't be all that surprising that Showalter didn't use Britton. Like many managers, he has typically refused to put his closers into tie games on the road. Britton entered in a tie game away from home just once all season, which was against the Blue Jays on July 31, when he pitched the ninth and 10th innings of a 2-2 tie (Baltimore went on to win, 6-2, in 12 innings). And that was somewhat of an outlier as he hadn't pitched for five consecutive days before that.
In 2015, Britton also appeared in a tie game on the road only once, and that was also after a long layoff (four days). On the flip side, he entered tie games at home 11 times over the last two seasons.
While Brad Brach got the ball following Mychal Givens in the eighth, Britton stayed on the bench for the ninth. Brach gave up a leadoff double and intentionally walked Encarnacion, making way for Darren O'Day. O'Day, who also pitched the 10th, got out of the jam with one pitch, getting a double-play ball.
Surely, using setup man O'Day meant Britton would get the 11th. Instead, Brian Duensing took the hill for the first out, followed by Ubaldo Jiménez. And Britton didn't budge, even after a pair of one-out singles. Showalter then passed on the chance to walk Encarnacion and take his chances with José Bautista, letting Jimenez face the slugger.
Jimenez, an effective starter down the stretch who was a candidate to start this game, pitched in relief just four times in 2016 and struggled in those opportunities.
"I was expecting [to come in] for certain situations, maybe, like trying to get a double-play ball in a big situation," Britton said. "Whether or not we were ahead or behind today, they just told me to be ready to go for multiple innings if need be. I was prepared."
So, why not use him?
"I considered a lot of things during the course of the game, but our guys did a good job getting us to that point. We just couldn't finish it off," Showalter said. "Yeah, [Britton] was available."
Showalter came to the mound when Toronto had first and third and had a mound meeting with Jimenez before the game-ending homer. Now, with his team's season over, did he regret not using Britton?
"You could do [that] afterwards, yeah. But we went for about four innings there trying to get to that spot," Showalter said. "It looked like if he pitches a couple innings, if he can physically, then you're assuming, which is a pretty good assumption with the way he's pitched this year.
"No, playing on the road has a little something to do with it, too. But we have some good options that have done a great job for us all year, and Zach's one of those."
The O's will never know how things might have turned out if Britton had been used, though the Blue Jays were certainly glad the lefty stayed on the bench.
"He got up one time but once we got into extra innings I kind of felt like they were just going to keep him for when they got the lead," Toronto outfielder Kevin Pillar said. "Fortunate for us, they never got that chance because that's a hell of a pitcher over there, that's a tough guy to score runs off of."
Showalter stopped well short of saying he would have done things differently, but he did acknowledge that things didn't go his way.
"There's a lot of different ways to look at it, so that's the way we went," he said. "It didn't work out."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @britt_ghiroli.