TORONTO — In a game that lasted 11 innings and nearly four hours, with their season and maybe a trip to the World Series in the hanging, the Baltimore Orioles had the bomb but couldn’t drop it.
The O’s most effective player, the most effective at his position in the major leagues this season, was a spectator in Baltimore’s 5-2 loss to the Blue Jays in the American League wild-card game.
If he had been a position player nursing a hurt, you’ll find him a place to pinch hit. Or sub him for defensive purposes. Or pinch run. Or even send him out to the home-plate ump before the game with a lineup card.
If he had been a starting pitcher, okay, maybe circumstances have lined up against you and you had to have him throw 100 pitches on Saturday or Sunday. But even then, there’s a chance you would find a way to get him out there.
Unfortunately for the Orioles, Zach Britton is a reliever. More to the point, he is a closer. He had 47 save opportunities this season and he didn’t squander one. That is the longest perfect run by a left-hander from the start of a season in major-league history and third longest if you lump him in against righties.
By MLB’s criteria, no save opportunity presented itself to Baltimore Tuesday night, so Britton watched the Orioles’ season end from the bullpen.
He didn’t have to, mind you.
With one out and bases empty in the bottom of the 11th and Devon Travis and Josh Donaldson due up for the Blue Jays, Orioles manager Buck Showalter brought Ubaldo Jimenez into the game. Four pitches later, Travis was standing on third and Donaldson on first. It was still two-all. Showalter visited the mound and eyes panned over to the Baltimore bullpen. The gate didn’t open.
Yes, it wasn’t a save situation by the letter. It was, however, an opportunity to save the Orioles season, to save the investment of 162 games and one long night more. Talk about high-leverage situations.
Not the way Showalter saw it, however.
In the losing team’s clubhouse, Britton effected a mien of disappointment but assiduously avoided any hint of disenchantment.
“It was frustrating just to sit down there and watch,” Britton said. “You watch the guys battle ahead of you and you want to go in there and do the same … give your offensive team a chance to win. It’s not my call. The guys ahead of me were throwing well.”
When pushed—Britton would likely think “goaded” would be a better word—by a reporter to categorize the events even as “upsetting” the hurler did not bite. “It’s just frustrating,” he said, a word that hung there like no pitch he threw with a one-run lead this year.
Britton tried to make sense of it or at least explain Showalter’s logic to those who will second-guess his skipper’s refusal to bring Britton in. “Ubie [Jimenez] has thrown well here though,” he said. “He’s thrown great recently. He was just starting, you know, but he was throwing well. No doubt in my mind he was going to go in there and throw some zeroes with the heart of their lineup coming up.”
Britton might have been reading too much into a small sample size, all of four pitches, with Edwin Encarnacion coming to the plate.
For his part, Showalter didn’t countenance self-doubt. “No one has been pitching better for us than Ubaldo,” the manager said.
Maybe by Showalter’s aesthetic but not by statistical measure. By the simplest numbers, 47 for 47 and an ERA of 0.54, Britton is the best that the Orioles had, the best that anyone in the American League might summon. Deeper stats make an even more compelling case: Britton’s Win Probability Added in 2016 was the highest for an AL pitcher since Pedro Martinez in 1999. That is, with a game, with a season on the line, Britton represented the best available choice of this millennium.
Britton’s absence in the crucible in the 11th was so glaring that it prompted questions about his readiness: Was he sending word back to the dugout that he was injured or didn’t have his good stuff?
“Everything was fine,” he said. “I warmed a couple of times down there, so I was good to go.”
Showalter seems to have gone into the wild-card game with his mind set on using Britton only with a lead but, if so, it was news to Britton. “They just told me to be ready to go, a couple of innings if necessary,” he said. “I was expecting [to set in] in certain situations if there was an opportunity for a big double-play ball, whether we were ahead or behind or whatever.”
Well, in the 11th inning Tuesday night it was a double-play ball that was needed to stretch the Orioles’ season. They were neither winning nor losing—it was a real case of “whatever.” And really, if you’re not winning and not losing, “whatever” can only be a tie.
Even more curiously there was no precedent for Showalter’s rigidity: Seven times Britton pitched in tie games this season and almost 30 per cent of his innings were worked in non-save circumstances.
If it had been Jose Bautista at the plate rather than Encarnacion there might have been some fathomable logic in sticking with Jimenez. By way of comparison, Bautista has two singles, a double and nary one RBI in 38 career at-bats versus Jimenez, while Encarnacion has an OPS of .726 against him in 41 at-bats.
In the end Buck Showalter saved Britton for an inning or innings that didn’t happen and will never be played.
The manager’s decision will be forever analyzed, scrutinized and second-guessed by anyone who watched the game end, chief among them the guy on the other side of the fence in the Baltimore bullpen.