BALTIMORE -- Few would dare question Zach Britton's dominance, even as he's missed most of this season with a left forearm injury. He's not yet putting up the kind of record-breaking numbers he did last year as he's worked his way back into the Orioles' closer role, but Sunday he
BALTIMORE -- Few would dare question Zach Britton's dominance, even as he's missed most of this season with a left forearm injury. He's not yet putting up the kind of record-breaking numbers he did last year as he's worked his way back into the Orioles' closer role, but Sunday he reminded fans why he's one of the best relievers in baseball when healthy.
In his first save opportunity since returning from his injury, Britton set the American League record for consecutive saves with No. 55 in a 9-7 victory over the Astros at Camden Yards, a streak that began Oct. 1, 2015. The record previously was held by Tom Gordon, who saved 54 straight for the Red Sox in 1998-99. Sunday's save also marked Britton's first since April 14.
Britton is rumored to be on the trade market, but whichever team the left-hander finishes his season with will likely have him back to form.
"It's so hard to simulate that type of emotional situation in a rehab start or even out of the 'pen in a non-save situation," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "It's just completely different adrenaline. He looked like he was in his element there, finally. It's been a long haul to get back there."
The past three seasons, Britton held ERAs below 2.00, including an 0.54 ERA and an AL-best 47 saves last year. But he landed on the DL in mid-April. He returned May 2 for two games before reinjuring his forearm, sidelining him from the Majors until July 5.
Britton was solid when he returned, allowing a combined four runs in seven one-inning appearances entering Sunday. But the 29-year-old was used as a setup man while refining his mechanics. Brad Brach pitched the ninth instead.
Sunday, Britton received his first save opportunity since the injury with the Orioles clinging to a two-run lead over the Astros, who lead the AL in almost every offensive category. After striking out the first two batters, Britton walked Marwin Gonzalez before ending the game by inducing George Springer to ground out.
Britton's next challenge will be to pass Eric Gagne, the Major League consecutive saves holder, who converted 84 in a row with the Dodgers from 2002-04.
"I felt like today the focus was on making good pitches, not delivery," said Britton, who also credited Brach and Darren O'Day's setup duties for helping him reach the milestone. "The last five outings I've had, at some point throughout the outing, I was worried about what I was doing with my delivery and stuff. I just felt like I needed to make pitches and felt like myself."
"That's the first time I've seen him throw four breaking balls in a row since I've been here," said Showalter, who's managed Britton for seven years. "Zach throws in a little wrinkle here and there to keep them guessing for the next advanced scout."
Showalter said Britton was the bullpen's missing piece, helping all the relievers shift into defined roles. Baltimore's bullpen, which supports a struggling rotation, was tied for the 13th-best ERA in the Major Leagues, and Britton should help it improve after the unit held the third-best ERA last year.
Orioles executive vice president of baseball operations Dan Duquette said Saturday the club will make a playoff push and Britton would be a focal point of that run. But Baltimore is seven games back of the Red Sox in the AL East and 3 1/2 games out of the crowded competition for two AL Wild Card spots, rumors have swirled about the Orioles potentially moving into selling mode with the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline approaching.
While Britton's consecutive saves streak is ongoing, he knows his stretch of saves in an Orioles uniform could come to a close soon.
"If you're going to go out, that's a cool way to do it in front of the home crowd ... and getting the win against a good team," Britton said. "Hopefully it's not the last. But if it is, that would be, I guess, a good way to go out."
Kyle Melnick is a reporter for MLB.com based in Washington.