The Zack Britton of old returned on a 2-2 pitch in the top of the eighth inning Wednesday night, one that left Brad Miller embarrassed.
Miller was leading off the inning for the Philadelphia Phillies against the Yankees, who were clinging to a three-run lead with their shakiest bullpen in years. With Britton injured for most of the year and Aroldis Chapman in a deep slump, every non-blowout feels like a minefield.
Britton returned from a hamstring strain on Sunday in a win against the Boston Red Sox, and his signature sinker looked solid, if not at its sharpest — standard for a pitch that needs repetition to become refined.
But he threw one that reminded everyone why he has spent years as one of the best relievers in the game.
With two balls and two strikes on the lefty Miller, Britton fired a 92 mph sinker to the inside corner. Miller poked at the ball as if with a spear or javelin, a tentative miss that ended the at-bat.
“When you see a guy swing at a sinker like that, you know it’s diving, the way Miller went after that ball,” manager Aaron Boone later said.
The inning was hardly perfect from there — but most of the mild damage against Britton came in a form that a sinkerballer could accept.
Former Yankee Ronald Torreyes followed by somehow reaching for a sinker on the other side of the plate — a decent pitch and one that was probably a ball — and lining it back up the middle. Torreyes is a good low-ball hitter, and simply beat Britton’s strength with his own.
“Tip your cap to Torreyes,” Boone said.
Britton then left a 1-2 sinker up to Luke Williams, who stroked it into right field.
He made a solid pitch to Jean Segura and got the ground ball he needed — but Segura hit it just hard enough to bounce into left field, scoring Torreyes.
A pitcher like Britton, even when he’s right, will allow a seeing-eye single here and there. It was the type of hit he could grudgingly accept, but it did thicken the tension in the inning. In the Yankees bullpen, Justin Wilson sprung into action.
For the Phillies, J.T. Realmuto was next, and he bounced a first-pitch sinker back to Britton, who fired it to second to initiate an inning-ending double play.
“With Britt, you know he’s always a pitch away,” Boone said. “And sure enough, he made a huge pitch to Realmuto.”
All told, the outing showed significant progress, and a version of Britton that was closer to the dominant reliever of seasons past.
The Yankees picked up Britton’s contract option last winter because they knew they couldn’t live without it. Now that they have played most of a season with him on the injured list, they see how right they were.
It was just as encouraging for the team when Chapman locked down the game in the ninth, apparently agitated enough by allowing a solo home run to dig for his 103 mph fastball and alpha mound presence.
We don’t need to explain why Britton and Chapman are essential to the Yankees retaining any hope of climbing back into the race for a postseason spot. That’s obvious. But perhaps it wasn’t quite as obvious that, despite allowing a run apiece, both exhibited encouraging signs on Wednesday.