August 27, 2012 at 7:05 AM
One month into the season, as Drake Britton scuffled along in his second Carolina League campaign, the hard-throwing left-hander sat down for breakfast with pitching coach Kevin Walker and hitting coach Rich Gedman after a fourth rough start in five tries.
Both knew that Britton wanted nothing more than to make it to Portland—that he’d wanted nothing more before he was even assigned to Salem last season. But with every short start, Britton saw that goal growing farther away.
“They both sympathized with the fact that I was worried about me and my stats and where I wanted to be, and they both sat back and told me from now on, just to try a new outlook out there,” Britton, who was added to the 40-man roster last fall, said earlier this season. “Go out there and no matter what happens, just try and do the best you can to help your team win. Just give them the opportunity. For some reason, that really hit home and clicked for me. Then, I just went on a tear.”
In five May starts after that breakfast meeting, Britton went 2-2 with a 2.50 ERA and was rewarded with a promotion to Portland. The results, he said, were quickly evident.
“I just went out there, and whether I gave up two in the first or cruised through my outings, I was always more worried about the guys behind me instead of myself,” Britton said. “It was just trying to give me a little something else to look at instead of thinking I have to be perfect if I want to do well. It was just a different outlook on my outing. I think they were trying to take the pressure off me.”
Britton arrived in Portland with that new mindset and continued to thrive. Despite taking the loss on Saturday, two recent starts (at home on Aug. 15 against Altoona and Aug. 20 at New Britain) indicate that Britton has all but slammed the door on that disappointing chapter of his career.
“I’m sick of people talking about last year,” said Britton, who was 1-13 with a 6.91 ERA in 26 starts for Salem in 2011. While he knows his stark improvements have been noticed this summer, he keeps last year’s issues in the back of his mind to keep them from ever being repeated.
On Monday night against New Britain, Britton teetered on the brink of disaster as he did so many times with Salem. Leadoff hitter Aaron Hicks struck a well-hit single into left field, and though Britton was making his pitches, the next three batters singled as well. Without recording an out, Britton and the Sea Dogs trailed 2-0.
Pitching coach Bob Kipper visited the mound, and reminded Britton that “the game, sometimes, has an ugly face, and it was beginning to show," Kipper said. "I felt that was kind of a defining moment in the game. You could try to talk yourself into making better pitches, or you can continue to make quality pitches.” Britton fanned the next batter on a backdoor slider, and worked around a walk, but strolled back to the dugout having limited the damage.
“I just told myself that it’s probably a good thing that you scored right now, because you’re probably not getting another one off me,” Britton said. “And the next six innings, I only gave up one hit. I was just locked in.”
After the 30-pitch first inning, Britton never threw more than 13 to finish an inning again. He completed seven innings, allowing two runs on five hits—just one of which came after the first inning—while walking one and striking out three. Where command of all of his pitches would simply disappear last season, Britton pounded both sides of the plate at the knees with his fastball and kept hitters off balance with his low-80s slider while showing a low-80s changeup and sharp mid-70s curveball.
His fastball, which began the day sitting 91-93 mph, sat 93-94 mph in the later innings, and was a constant weapon in all counts. Using primarily his fastball and slider, Britton threw first-pitch strikes to 23 of 28 batters he faced, though he gained a feel for his changeup late in the game and threw it early in the count during the third time through the lineup. He recorded five swinging strikes with his slider, and 65 of his 85 pitches were strikes.
“I would call that controlling the game, commanding the game, dominating the game,” Kipper said. “I was very, very proud of the way he responded to that first-inning challenge, because the game can go two different ways. It can go south, or you can allow yourself to control a situation like that and have a professional outing.”
On Aug. 15 in Portland, SoxProspects.com Northeast Scout Ian Cundall got his second look at Britton since his promotion. Cundall saw much crisper stuff from Britton than he had in his Double-A debut on June 5, when he struggled to repeat his delivery and stay on top of the ball. In that look, his fastball command was below-average, and he walked six in five innings. But last week, Britton sat 92-95 mph with a consistent arm slot and command of his fastball in the lower part of the zone.
With the improved command, Britton was able to miss more bats, getting five swing-and-misses with the pitch and recording all five of his strikeouts with his fastball. Britton also commanded his curveball particularly well in that look, keeping hitters off balance while throwing the pitch from the same arm slot as his fastball. The curve, a plus pitch that night with two-plane break and tight spin, was mixed in equally with his slider, which wasn’t as consistent but showed heavy tilt when he commanded it. Both offerings were better than Cundall saw in Britton’s Double-A debut, and as a result, his inconsistent changeup wasn’t necessary.
“I’m starting to kind of see how I’m not going to have all four pitches every night, and sometimes there are pitches when I start out in a game that are better than others, but if I just stick with those, some of my other pitches start to come around,” Britton said after the New Britain start. “It doesn’t matter if one was struggling or not, I’m just going to keep throwing out there.”
Photo: Drake Britton by Kelly O'Connor.
Jon Meoli is a Senior Columnist for SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonMeoli. SoxProspects.com Northeast Scout Ian Cundall contributed to this story. Follow him on Twitter @IanCundall.