Britton fuels optimism for Baltimore's rising Orioles

By Larry Fine

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The high-flying Orioles were brought down to earth by a two-game New York Yankees sweep but Baltimore looked to rise again Friday by handing the ball to one of their top reasons for optimism, pitcher Zach Britton.

Featuring a fast-moving, darting sinkerball, the 23-year-old left-hander will carry a 2-0 record and 0.66 earned run average to the mound in Cleveland to open Baltimore's three-game series against the Indians.

Britton was given an extra day off to spare him from making a highly-pressurized start Thursday at Yankee Stadium in a game that ended in a 6-5, 10-inning loss after a 5-0 Orioles lead, and bumped Baltimore (6-5) out of first place in the AL East.

Orioles manager Buck Showalter said he was bringing along prized prospect Britton at his own pace.

"It's early," Showalter told Reuters in a dugout interview during the New York series. "He's got a chance to be pretty good.

"He'll have some bumps and bruises and growing pains along the way. But he possesses a lot of things you look for. I'm going to let Zach be a rookie. He's coming in and taking in Yankee Stadium."

The hard-throwing lefty gave up one run in six innings in a triumphant major league debut against last year's AL East champion Tampa Bay Rays, and followed with 7 2/3 shutout innings against reigning AL champion Texas Rangers.

"He's one of those guys, you watch him walk out here at Yankee Stadium, going 'wow' but yet when he comes out and goes out there," said Showalter, pointing at the pitcher's mound, "you don't see that.

COMFORT LEVEL

Britton said one of the reasons for his quick success was his comfort level, having gotten to know the Orioles regulars after spending spring training with the team.

"I think what's really surprising is actually how easy it is to get used to," the Californian told Reuters about his transition to the big leagues. "It's not as overwhelming as I really thought it was going to be.

"Maybe it's because I've been around these guys since spring training and felt really comfortable coming in. I think that has a lot to do with it. They've treated me like one of their own right from day one."

Britton joined a young pitching staff including Jake Arrieta, Chris Tillman and the soon-to-return Matusz that forms the core of Baltimore's long-term hopes.

Texas manager Ron Washington explained Britton's success against his World Series runner-up team. "He had a good sinker working. When he got into trouble, he got that ground ball. When we did square him up, someone was standing there.

"He moved the ball around," Washington said. "Two fly balls, that's all I remember. He kept his middle infielders busy."

Britton received Baltimore's Jim Palmer Award as the team's top minor league pitcher last year after going a combined 10-7 with a 2.70 ERA between stops in Double-A and Triple-A.

"He's got good stuff, a good sinker," Hall of Famer Palmer, now an Orioles broadcaster, told Reuters. "Throws 91 to 96 (miles per hour). "He's not afraid of major leaguers. Throws strikes.

"We'll just have to see. You'd like to have about five of those in your minor league system."

(Reporting by Larry Fine, Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)