Red Sox rookie Britton rises above the fear
Lefty has overcome rough seasons in Minors, confidence issues to thrive
Nobody in the Red Sox's bullpen really understood the 24-year-old tattooed left-hander with a Mohawk. Not at first.
In a still frame, Drake Britton was "Wild Thing" Rick Vaughn from "Major League": No fear, no care, just heaters. But watching Britton in motion, he was Charlie Brown, at the moment before he attempts to kick the football: Expecting the worst and sure of failure.
Manager John Farrell called down to the bullpen in the ninth inning of a Sunday night game against the Yankees on July 21. The ESPN broadcast gave the game a national audience; New York's four-run comeback to send the game to extra innings gave it a playoff feel.
Britton was warming up for his second career Major League appearance. He'd get a full inning. Due up was speedster Brett Gardner, hit-machine Ichiro Suzuki and one of the most dangerous hitters in the game, Robinson Cano. As Britton began to toss in the 'pen, he noticed his body trembling between pitches. He was having a panic attack, and the reaction from his colleagues sitting in the bullpen of Fenway Park was laughter.
"I was shaking so badly you could see my pants moving. My hands were like that," Britton said, reenacting the vibrating movements.
"You're going to have nerves when you're young in this game," said veteran lefty Matt Thornton.
Britton walked Gardner to start the 10th inning. He then stood back atop the pitcher's mound at the 101-year-old ballpark and gathered himself.
Two years ago, Britton was one breakdown away from updating his resume and applying for a new job. Flipping burgers? Sure.
"I wanted to quit baseball," he said. "I was miserable. I wanted to go do something else."
Before the 2011 season, Britton entered as Baseball America's 97th-ranked prospect. After the season, he wasn't listed on any prospect lists. Britton started 26 games for Advanced Class A Salem in 2011. He won once. His ERA was 6.91. Britton couldn't find the strike zone. He couldn't smile.
Baseball is a tricky game, often without answers. While it's often said that players from Double-A and above have the skill level to be in the Majors, the final piece comes with the ability to handle failure. Britton turned failure into motivation, tried to put the fire out with gasoline.
After an offseason in which Britton dedicated himself to improving, his 2012 season started just as poorly. He couldn't get an out in the fifth inning through his first three starts, allowing five homers and 19 runs over 12 innings.
"It's almost just like I've been part of some of the worst games ever," Britton said. "I walked the bases loaded, next pitch, give up a grand slam."
Back on the Fenway mound, with Gardner threatening as the go-ahead run on first base and a 10-time All-Star at the plate, Britton let it all go, freeing his mind of the anxiety and remembering how it felt to post two straight disappointing seasons at Class A. He had failed plenty. He didn't care if he failed again.
"I tell myself, 'What's the worst that's going to happen?'" Britton said. "'This guy is going to hit it 500 feet?' Been there, done that.
"I just try to tell myself it's the same game I've been playing all my life. That kind of helped me."
Then Britton attacked. Ichiro barely made contact on a high fastball and popped up to right field. Cano grounded a single to left, but Britton then induced Lyle Overbay to hit into a 4-6-3 double play to finish the inning.
The Red Sox won the game in the 11th.
Ask around for a description of Britton's pitching style now, after he'd reached a low point only few others have hit in the Minor Leagues, and the answers match the still image: He's just like Rick Vaughn.
"He threw hard, he threw harder if he needed to, and he threw strikes," said Yankees outfielder Curtis Granderson, who struck out swinging in his only at-bat against Britton last weekend.
There's only so much to be determined from one at-bat. But for a young player to impress a veteran, one thing has to happen.
"Considering he threw strikes, that's the big thing," Granderson said. "So if that's any determination of anything, he held his own."
After pitching nine scoreless innings to start his career, Britton hit a speed bump, allowing runs in three of four games during a stretch in mid-August. But he continues to serve a valuable role in the Boston bullpen, having almost immediately earned the trust of Farrell, who has used Britton, along with some other young relievers, in pressure situations.
"They haven't gone out and had successive outings where you kind of wonder, 'Are they getting overexposed?'" Farrell said. "That hasn't been the case at all."
Britton's desire to attack hitters of any caliber has run him into some trouble at times, but that's part of the learning curve, Thornton said. The fact that Britton is willing to sling with confidence trumps any bout with failure.
The odd part is that Major League hitters have generally challenged Britton to throw strikes. His reputation in the Minors, where he walked almost one batter every other inning, had preceded him.
Had Britton thrown enough innings to qualify among league leaders this season, he has thrown a higher percentage of pitches that were taken in the strike zone than anyone in the Majors. Of all the pitches he's thrown, only 40 percent of them have been swung at, which would rank second lowest in the Majors.
"There's a relationship with the hitters," Thornton said. "You're in a relationship with them. They're going to start looking for something from you and you're going to do the opposite. It's kind of a cat-and-mouse game. He's doing it the right way right now.
"He's going out there and going after hitters and throwing strikes. He's going to learn along the way. It's a tough division, a tough league. And he's learning on the fly in a pennant race, which is a fun way to do it."
With 14 strikeouts in 14 1/3 innings, Britton is simultaneously teaching Major League hitters something about him.
"I don't care," he said. "I'm coming at you and I'm not going to back down."