Orioles closer Zach Britton‘s absence stuck out like a sore thumb in Tuesday night’s American League Wild Card game, a game which the Orioles lost in walk-off fashion after failing to hand the ball to Britton for three consecutive innings in the ninth, 10th, and 11th. As the 11th inning ended with Edwin Encarnacion circling the bases on a walk-off home run against Ubaldo Jimenez, many speculated that Britton must have been injured for manager Buck Showalter to refrain from using him for three innings in the most important game of the season.
Britton was so dominant during the 2016 regular season that he had many people championing his cause for the AL Cy Young Award — an award that has very, very rarely been given to relievers. The lefty finished with a 0.54 ERA, an 80 percent ground ball rate, and a 74/18 K/BB ratio.
Britton should have started the ninth inning, but Brad Brach came out for his second inning of work. He allowed a leadoff double to Josh Donaldson… and remained in the game in a situation in which preventing base advancement is critical. Britton, a ground ball machine with a terrific strikeout rate, would seem like a good candidate. With a base open, Brach intentionally walked Edwin Encarnacion, then struck out Jose Bautista before departing. Darren O'Day, definitively not Britton, came into the game. As fate would have it, O’Day induced an inning-ending ground ball double play from Russell Martin, sending the game into extras.
In the bottom of the 10th, O’Day again took the mound. Facing right-hander Troy Tulowitzki, who popped out, is defensible, but stayed in to face pinch-hitter Justin Smoak who has traditionally hit right-handed pitching much better than left-handed. Again, Showalter’s gamble paid off, as O’Day struck him out. O’Day got Kevin Pillar to line out to end the bottom of the 10th.
In the 11th and final inning, lefty Brian Duensing — also definitively not Britton — toed the slab to face Ezequiel Carrera. Carrera struck out looking, and Showalter walked to the mound, calling in right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez. The results were predictable. Devon Travis singled to left field on the third pitch he saw from Jimenez. Donaldson followed up with a single of his own on the first pitch he saw, bringing up Encarnacion. Encarnacion swung at the first pitch, a fastball right down the middle, and launched it to left field for a no-doubt walk-off three-run home run to send the Blue Jays to the ALDS to face the Rangers.
At the post-game press conference, Showalter said of his closer’s health, “Zach Britton was fine.” Reporters continued to ask him about his rationale for letting Britton sit, suggesting he was adhering to baseball orthodoxy. Showalter deflected. Baseball orthodoxy says not to use your closer in a tie game on the road because you might need him to finish the game once you get a lead. The problem with that logic is you might lose the game due to using lesser relievers before you’re able to claim a lead. And that’s what happened to the Orioles.
Britton said not getting into Tuesday night’s game was “frustrating,” as ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick reports.
Showalter is a smart guy who has not shown a stubborn allegiance to old school baseball orthodoxy in the past. It’s a shame that his decision not to use Britton will haunt him for the foreseeable future. Grady Little is, to this day, still most remembered for his stubbornness in letting Pedro Martinez start the eighth inning in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS with his pitch count at 100. Martinez proceeded to allow three runs to the Yankees to tie the game at 5-5. Aaron Boone would later hit a walk-off home run against Tim Wakefield in the bottom of the 11th inning.
Showalter’s legacy is far too great for it to be sullied for one mistake, but it is a mistake he repeated three times on Tuesday night and it cost the Orioles big time.