From a Fractured Skull to Baseball's Best Closer: 'It's a Real Miracle'

Danny KnoblerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 26, 2016

BALTIMORE, MD - OCTOBER 02:  Zach Britton #53 of the Baltimore Orioles throws the ball against the Detroit Tigers during Game One of the American League Division Series at Oriole Park at Camden Yards on October 2, 2014 in Baltimore, Maryland.  (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Watching on television, through the eye of the center field camera, the pitch looks unhittable.

Standing at home plate, with a bat in your hands, it looks just about the same.

"A devastating pitch," Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria said. "Really hard, and with tremendous sink. It looks straight until it gets to the plate, and then it goes down."

Zach Britton throws it, game after game, pitch after pitch. Hitters pound it into the ground, or they just whiff. According to FanGraphs, their batting average against it was .154, the slugging percentage was .197, and nearly 30 percent of the time they swung, they missed, through Sept. 24.

The average velocity: 96.3 mph.

"It's the best left-handed sinker I've ever seen," said one American League scout with decades of experience watching thousands of pitches.

"He's kind of like the modern-day Mariano Rivera," Longoria said. "Basically just one pitch, but it's a devastating pitch."

The pitch—call it a turbo sinker or, in the words of Baltimore Orioles general manager Dan Duquette, "a sinker with a trap door on the way to the plate"—has helped turn Britton into baseball's best closer.

Brandon Crow, Luke Elliott, Tommy Kimmerle and the other kids from the 2003 Canyon High freshman team watch and marvel. That's their buddy, their onetime teammate. That's the kid they remember from that awful day at Bouquet Canyon Park, lying on the ground, screaming in pain after he ran head-on into a light standard.

Even now, 13 years later, Crow can remember details from that day. Even now, Elliott says that day sticks in his mind more than anything else from his high school baseball career.

They remember the sound, the "thwack" as Britton collided with the standard. They remember the scene, the blood and the medics arriving to take Britton to the hospital.

They remember, and then they think of what that 15-year-old kid has become.

"It's a real miracle, to be honest," Crow said.

Britton is the one guy who barely remembers the details of that day in Santa Clarita, California. One minute he was chasing a fly ball, thinking he had a chance to catch it. The next thing he knew, he was in an ambulance, in pain.

Then he was in a hospital bed, with a fractured skull, a fractured right collarbone, a separated shoulder and a doctor telling his parents he had bleeding in his brain. If the swelling didn't go away, they would need to drill a hole in his skull.

"That's when I knew it was serious," he said.


Zach Britton (top left) with his freshman teammates
Zach Britton (top left) with his freshman teammatesCourtesy of Canyon H.S. (Santa Clarita, CA)

The freshman team at Canyon practiced at Bouquet Canyon Park, across town from the school. The varsity team got the main diamond, and the junior varsity squad had a park closer to campus.

It wasn't perfect, but it was what they had, and they were freshmen and they weren't going to complain. They'd grown up together, some playing in the Canyon Country Little League and others, such as Britton, playing in the nearby Hart Little League.

"I remember Zach pitching against us when we were eight or nine years old," Crow said.

Britton was the best player on the Canyon freshman team, the Most Valuable Player when the team handed out postseason awards. But the team wasn't winning its league, and on that late-spring day, coach Mike Newman decided to have a little fun.

Instead of a normal practice, the kids would play over-the-line, a baseball-like contest popularly played by kids on California streets. Newman divided the group into two teams, and the game began.

Britton played the outfield on days he didn't pitch, and he was standing in the outfield that day when Crow was at the plate. Newman was pitching, and Crow swung and hit it foul down the left field line.

"Everyone else peeled off," Crow said. "But Zach kept running. He wanted to get the ball."

Crow and Britton's other Canyon teammates say that was just Zach. He went all-out after everything. He always had.

"My dad had me play Pop Warner football one year," Britton said. "He thought maybe I'd get some of the energy out by hitting people on defense."

The light standard was just off the main field, on a berm that several players described as looking like the center field hill at Houston's Minute Maid Park. And it wasn't just any light standard. It was huge, like something you might see on the side of a freeway.

"One of those monster light standards," Britton said.

The ball kept going, and Britton did, too.

"I was watching the ball, the pole and Zach all coming together," Crow said.

As they reconstructed later what they had seen, some of the kids figured Britton might have lost his balance as he ran up the berm chasing the ball. They all remember hearing the sound, although some at first thought it was the ball hitting the light standard.

It wasn't the ball.

Britton went into the standard with enough force to fracture his skull and collarbone. He's still not sure exactly where he hit, because there's no scar (and no memory).

He hit the post, and then he hit the ground. And then he tried to get up.

"He got up, and he went right back down," Elliott said. "It went from 'ooh' to 'oh, wow' to 'I hope he's all right.'"

Some of the players went right to Britton, who was screaming and covered in blood. Any touch brought on louder screams. Other players went to an elementary school across the street in search of ice bags. The park medics came quickly, and so did Britton's mother, Martha.

"I remember thinking this is bad," Elliott said.


The Britton Brothers (left to right: Clay, Buck, Zach)
The Britton Brothers (left to right: Clay, Buck, Zach)Courtesy of Canyon H.S. (Santa Clarita, CA)

The Britton family was well-known in the Canyon High School baseball community. Zach's older brothers, Clay and Buck, were both starting players on the varsity team, Martha Britton was active in the booster club, and Greg Britton helped get the field ready for games.

"We knew Zach was going to be all that and more," said Adam Schulhofer, the varsity coach. "He was the best athlete in the program."

Schulhofer wasn't at Bouquet Canyon Park, but when Zach was at Henry Mayo Hospital, he went to visit.

"I went and saw him, and he was flanked on both sides by his parents and brothers," Schulhofer remembered. "It may have been a little tense at the time, but luckily it all worked out."

It was more than just a little tense.

"It was really one of the worst days of our lives," Greg Britton told Kevin Van Valkenburg of the Baltimore Sun for a 2011 story. "When we were in the hospital, the doctors showed us his scans, and he had a bubble on his brain about the size of a quarter. They told us: 'If this doesn't go down in a day or so, we're going to have to drill through his skull to relieve the pressure. And if we do that, it may affect his motor skills.'

"At that point, you just drop to your knees and start praying."

Zach still remembers the look on his parents' faces as the doctor spoke. He remembers doctors testing his ability to speak and his sense of taste.

"I remember them giving me math stuff to do," he said. "I was just like, 'I'm not good at math, anyway.'"

He could tell his left from his right and knew he was fortunate the broken collarbone was on his right side. The collarbone remained sore for a full year, but because he threw left-handed, he was able to return to pitching later that year.

Britton returned to Canyon High before the school year ended. His arm was in a sling and his neck was in a brace, but by then, doctors were confident he had avoided any serious damage to his brain.

His teammates were thrilled to see him but couldn't resist one question: "What were you thinking going after that ball?"

"I don't know," Britton told them.

He knew one thing. He was lucky it wasn't worse.

"I got pretty fortunate," Britton said. "It could have been something pretty serious."


The journey from hospital room to the title of baseball's best closer wasn't always smooth, but the obstacles had little to do with the injuries Britton suffered that day at Bouquet Canyon Park.

Britton in the All-Star Futures Game in 2010
Britton in the All-Star Futures Game in 2010Jeff Gross/Getty Images

He was back to playing baseball later that year after the family moved from California to Texas. He was a third-round draft pick three years later and a highly rated prospect who made the Opening Day rotation in 2011 with the Orioles.

He had already shown off the signature sinker, a pitch Britton stumbled on in 2007 in Aberdeen, Maryland, when coach Calvin Maduro was trying to teach him to throw a cutter. Instead of cutting, the ball sank.

"It was doing the opposite of what we wanted it to do," Britton said. "He said, 'OK, well just keep doing it.' Over the years, I started doing a few different things, throwing it harder."

It seems a little funny now. The closer Britton is compared to the most is Rivera, who made his career throwing basically one pitch—a cutter he said appeared when he wasn't trying to throw one.

Like Rivera with the New York Yankees, Britton struggled to find consistency as a starter. He was sent back down to the minor leagues in July 2011, and while he spent parts of the next two seasons in the Baltimore rotation, he also found himself pitching in Double-A Bowie and Triple-A Norfolk in 2012, and at Norfolk again in 2013.

By the time the 2013 season ended, he was out of options and still without a guaranteed job. And just as spring training began, the Orioles spent $50 million on Ubaldo Jimenez, filling what had been the only open spot in the rotation.

But something else happened that winter, something that would have just as big an impact on Britton's career.

The Orioles hired Dave Wallace as their pitching coach and Dom Chiti as bullpen coach. Before their first spring training began, Wallace and Chiti flew to California to work with Britton and two other Orioles pitchers in person.

They had both watched Britton on video, and Chiti had seen him quite a few times in person while scouting for the Atlanta Braves. They met Britton at the baseball field at UC Irvine, and they brought along their ideas.

"It was let's just go back to being simple again [with the delivery]," Britton said. "And they wanted me to only throw the sinker in the spring and focus on commanding it to both sides of the plate. They felt that was going to be the way to stay in the big leagues and be successful."

It became more than that. The Orioles don't think of Britton as a one-pitch pitcher, but since going to the bullpen, he has thrown the sinker more than 90 percent of the time.

He stayed in the big leagues. And he was so successful that he made back-to-back All-Star teams and has a chance to win the Cy Young Award.


When spring training began in 2014, the Orioles still weren't sure what Britton would become or even what role he would fill. But Wallace and Chiti saw quickly he had picked up what they gave him.

"Zach bought it," Chiti said. "He listened and made it his own. And halfway through spring training, it was like, 'Here it comes!'"

Britton began the season in the bullpen, but not as the closer. The Orioles went with Tommy Hunter in the ninth inning. Britton was still thinking that if he pitched well enough, he'd get another chance at starting.

Instead, a month into the season, manager Buck Showalter made him the closer.

Showalter still wasn't sure how it would work. Then came a sequence of games in late June.

Called on to protect a 3-1 lead at Yankee Stadium, Britton gave up a three-run, walk-off home run to Carlos Beltran. It wasn't his first blown save, but it was the first really bad one.

They wondered how he would react. Here's how: It was almost a month before Britton allowed another run.

When he converted his next save opportunity without trouble, Showalter turned to Wallace and said, "We may have something here."

They had something, all right.

Britton signing autographs for his many new fans
Britton signing autographs for his many new fansGAIL BURTON/Associated Press/Associated Press

Britton converted 37 of 41 save opportunities that season and 36 of 40 in 2015. He still hasn't missed one in 46 chances this year, and in 43 appearances between May 5 and Aug. 22, he didn't allow a single earned run.

He's almost certain to get votes for the Cy Young Award and probably for Most Valuable Player, as well. He's unlikely to win either one, simply because many voters believe awards like that shouldn't go to someone who appears in just 60-70 innings a season.

Showalter disagrees.

"You don't think he's valuable?" Showalter asked. "Try winning without him."


There are other things Britton does that you don't notice. Showalter talked about the work he has done on his defense, which is necessary because his sinker induces so many swinging bunts.

"I don't think I've ever seen anyone improve as much defensively," Showalter said.

Chiti talked about how much of a leader Britton has become in the bullpen.

"Zach does a lot of things to let the other guys in the bullpen know how important they are," he said. "To me, that's a sign of people who are better than good."

As for Britton, he has found that the bullpen suits his personality in a way pitching out of the rotation never seemed to fit him.

The hidden truth is he always preferred hitting and that, as a kid, he was very good at it. Flint Wallace, who coached Britton at Weatherford High in Texas, said Britton was the best hitter he has ever coached.

"That's what I wanted to do was hit," Britton said. "I wasn't completely sold on pitching. There's something about being able to play every day that I really wanted to do."

As a closer, he has found the next best thing. Unlike a starter who gets in a game once every five or six days, Britton has to be ready nearly every day.

He pitches one inning a night, but he can go all out. He's always done that.

He did it as a kid, and he did it on that awful day at Bouquet Canyon Park. No one else was going to keep chasing a foul ball in a simple game of over-the-line.

Zach Britton did it, and years later, the other kids who were there that day say they'll never forget it.

The memories come back, and because it all worked out, they don't try to suppress them. They think of Britton, and then they see an Orioles game or an All-Star Game, and there he is.

"Every time I see him on TV, I think, 'We almost killed the kid,'" Crow said. "Now look at him."

Now look at him. He's the best closer in baseball, with the best pitch in baseball.

It is a real miracle.

    

Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

Follow Danny on Twitter and talk baseball.

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