For Zack Britton, there’s something comforting about pitching the ninth inning — even if he looked anything but comfortable closing out Saturday night’s 7-5 win over the Astros.
With closer Aroldis Chapman unavailable, Britton induced a groundout by Alex Bregman but walked Michael Brantley and Yordan Alvarez, prompting manager Aaron Boone to get Chad Green throwing in the bullpen.
After Yuli Gurriel’s weak groundout to third moved the runners to second and third, Boone went to the mound to talk strategy with the lefthander. Britton threw a first-pitch ball to pinch hitter Robinson Chirinos and then intentionally walked him, putting the go-ahead run on first base.
The gamble paid off when Tyler White lined out to rightfielder Aaron Judge, sealing the Yankees’ eighth straight win.
"I’ve actually found that I feel a little bit more natural, you know?” said Britton, who is 3-for-5 in save chances this season. “It might not look like it today, but there’s something about it when your back’s against the wall a little bit, you reach back for a little bit more sometimes.”
Britton said he “typically” wouldn’t be in favor of loading the bases, but Boone preferred the matchup against White. Had White reached base, Boone liked the matchup against Max Stassi, too. The two-run cushion allowed him to take a chance.
“I went out there and just felt like the better matchups were slightly the next two guys,” Boone said. “Once he fell behind there, I felt like it was the right call.”
Britton, who was an All-Star closer in 2015 and 2016 with the Orioles, said his experience working the ninth inning actually settled him down with traffic on the bases.
“Put myself in a jam right there, but I’ve done it before,” he said. “I think the best thing I can lean on is experience, like I’ve been here before. There’s pretty much no situation in the ninth inning that I haven’t been in, so you lean back on that and know you’re one pitch away.”
Part of the problem, Britton said, was that he wasn’t making the sinker look like a strike for long enough, resulting in hitters laying off the pitch.
“When I was aggressive early with strikes, I got good results,” he said. “That’s been my career. If I’m attacking the strike zone, good things are going to happen.”
Britton owns a 2.51 ERA in 31 1/3 innings with 15 holds, 25 strikeouts and a 1.24 WHIP. He said he has settled into his role as the primary eighth-inning pitcher but was ready to pitch the ninth on Saturday.
“I’ve been pretty comfortable with the routine, like throwing the eighth inning like I have this year,” he said. “I’m just trying to stick to the same routine, regardless of inning, right now.”