All across SB Nation this week, sites are posing the amazing, frustrating, and sometimes terrifying question: What if?
We all remember the game, the most important one the Orioles have played in the last five years. And we all remember how it ended: with one of the most infamous managerial gaffes in recent postseason history. O’s manager Buck Showalter kept his utterly dominant, Cy Young-caliber closer stapled to the bullpen bench for the entire 11-inning contest, then watched the Orioles’ season come to a crushing end as Edwin Encarnacion’s walkoff homer rattled into the left-field seats.
The blunder might have marked the beginning of the end of Showalter’s career in Baltimore. Sure, he stuck around for two more seasons, but the O’s finished a combined 80 games under .500 in those years, never again competing for a postseason bid. Beat writers have rumbled that Showalter began to lose the O’s clubhouse that regrettable night. And while most Orioles fans still supported Buck, who had transformed the long-moribund Birds into improbable contenders, the memory of that crucial mistake wouldn’t soon leave their minds. The honeymoon was over.
Nobody ever got a satisfying answer about why Zack Britton (then known as Zach) didn’t get into the game. Showalter confirmed that Britton wasn’t hurt — in fact, he warmed up numerous times throughout the evening. But every time the bullpen door swung open, six times in all, someone other than Britton walked through it. Their very best hurler sat unused, helpless.
“It was just frustrating having to sit down there and watch and not be able to help the team,” Britton said.
I cannot stress this enough: Britton was perhaps the most unhittable pitcher in baseball that year. He was a perfect 47-for-47 in save opportunities. His 0.54 ERA was the best in MLB history for a pitcher with at least 65 innings pitched. He racked up nearly twice as many strikeouts (74) as hits allowed (38), and his ground ball percentage was an unbelievable 80 percent. Hitters simply couldn’t make good contact — or, usually, any contact — against his filthy sinker. Britton finished fourth in the AL Cy Young vote, better than any other reliever. He was as sure as a sure thing could be.
And yet Showalter repeatedly rolled the dice with lesser options until he came up snake eyes. The game ended with noted Oriole bust Ubaldo Jimenez — season ERA, 5.44 — throwing three consecutive pitches with the following results: single, single, three-run homer. Season over.
Showalter’s post-game quotes indicated he was holding onto Britton until the O’s had a save opportunity. “You can use Zack Britton in the seventh and eighth inning and not have anybody to pitch the last inning,” he said. “Playing on the road has a little something to do with it, too.”
That, of course, is an absurd argument. It’s a extra-innings, sudden-death playoff game on the road. You lose as soon as the Blue Jays score. You don’t hold back your best pitcher for a save opportunity that might never come; you bring him in to throw up zeroes until your offense can scrape a run across.
It was an especially inexplicable decision coming from Showalter, who — after his very first game as O’s manager in 2010 — memorably said, “I know the save rule, and quite frankly, it doesn’t carry much weight with me. I like the win rule a little better.” Yet, in this case, he slavishly adhered to the save rule even when it cost his team the season.
So...what if Buck Showalter had brought in Zack Britton?
Let’s look at how the story could have played out differently if Buck had pressed the right buttons.
We’ll jump straight to the 11th — even though I would’ve liked to see Britton much earlier, maybe as soon as the eighth. But to their credit, the non-Jimenez relievers did a fine job that night, with Mychal Givens, Donnie Hart, Brad Brach, Darren O’Day, and Brian Duensing combining for six scoreless innings.
As we pick things up in our alternate reality, the O’s and Jays are tied at two. Showalter makes the call we’ve all been waiting for. Zack Britton jogs to the mound to open the bottom of the 11th. It’s time.
“We didn’t have the lead yet, but of course I had to get Zack in there,” said Alternate-Universe Showalter. “I mean, can you imagine if I didn’t use him? C’mon. How crazy would that be?”
Britton quickly dispatches the first two batters, then allows a seeing-eye single to Josh Donaldson. That brings up Edwin Encarnacion, who, instead of ending the game with a momentous home run, flails helplessly at a Britton sinker for a strikeout. The game continues into the 12th — and Britton retires the Jays 1-2-3, with two groundouts and a strikeout.
Meanwhile, there’s the issue of the Orioles’ offense. In the real-life Wild Card Game, the Birds’ bats went completely dead after Mark Trumbo’s fourth-inning homer. The O’s didn’t manage a hit after the sixth inning, and Jays pitchers retired the last 14 consecutive batters.
But in our alternate reality, Britton’s two scoreless innings buys the Orioles a little more time to scratch out a run. And in the top of the 13th inning, Showalter, in an inspired strategical move, pinch-hits for Michael Bourn with rookie Trey Mancini, who earned a spot on the postseason roster after hitting three home runs in five regular season games. Mancini jumps on a mistake from Jays lefty Francisco Liriano and deposits it into the left-field seats, giving the Birds a 3-2 lead. The Legend of Trey Mancini is born that night.
With the Orioles three outs away from advancing in the postseason, Showalter decides to keep in Britton for the 13th even though he never pitched more than two innings in a game that year. “This is a winner-take-all game. You have to go with your best,” Alternate Reality Showalter said. “You don’t want to lose with, say, Ubaldo Jimenez out there.”
Britton is up to the challenge. He easily sets down the bottom of the Blue Jays’ lineup, getting the final out on a harmless grounder to second base. The Orioles mob each other on the field, celebrating in a dogpile near the pitcher’s mound. The Blue Jays trudge dejectedly to their clubhouse, their season over, as the crushed Rogers Centre crowd of 49,934 looks on in a hush. In the beer- and champagne-soaked visitors’ locker room afterward, Orioles teammates crow about their stellar closer, naming Zack Britton their game MVP for his heroic three-inning performance.
Orioles ownership is so impressed by Showalter’s tactical acumen in the game that, the following day, they announce they’ve signed him to a contract extension that will keep him in a Baltimore uniform through 2021.
The Orioles advance to the ALDS for the third time in five years. And instead of it being the Blue Jays who sweep the Rangers in three games, it’s the Orioles who do so, handing losses to Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish on the road before returning home to clinch the series win in front of a raucous Camden Yards crowd. Britton nails down two saves in the series, retiring all six batters he faces.
The Orioles next would have headed to the ALCS against Cleveland, and...well, this is where the alternate reality gets a little hazy. In real life, the Blue Jays were no match for the Indians’ stellar pitching staff, getting held to two runs or fewer in four of the five games. Would the O’s, whose offense was similar to Toronto’s during the 2016 regular season, have fared any better than the Jays in the ALCS? It may be worth mentioning that the Orioles went 5-1 against the Indians during the regular season that year, so they certainly would’ve had a fighting chance.
Who knows — it could’ve been Baltimore who represented the AL in the World Series that season. It could’ve been the O’s who snapped their 33-year championship drought instead of the Chicago Cubs snapping their 108-year dry spell.
We never got the chance to find out. Because Zack Britton never walked through those bullpen doors in Toronto.