Zack Britton Says 'Self-Motivation' is Key to Winning This Season

Max Goodman

When reliever Zack Britton makes his first appearance of the season this summer, it won't be his first time pitching in front of an empty stadium. 

Just over five years ago, on April 29, 2015, Britton was Baltimore's closer when the Orioles hosted the Chicago White Sox with no fans at Camden Yards.

Back then, the venue was closed off to the public because of civil unrest in the city of Baltimore. Now, with the novel coronavirus pandemic looming across Major League Baseball, all teams are preparing for barren ballparks to become a new normal. 

"I remember saying after that game 'I hope I never have to do this again,'" the southpaw recalled on Friday. "It's gonna be a challenge. I've spoken to some guys on our team about it, what it felt like and it's something that we're going to talk about again here in the next couple days."

When Britton jogged in from the Orioles' bullpen to start the ninth inning on that afternoon in 2015, it wasn't a save situation. After surrendering a base knock to Emilio Bonifacio to start the frame, Britton buckled down, retiring the side in order. Baltimore secured the 8-2 victory.

The veteran explained that it's simply impossible not to think about the fact that there were no fans in the seats as he stood on the rubber. Looking back, Britton admitted that a scorching foul ball from the first batter he faced moments after coming in the game was a wake-up call

With that experience in mind, Britton revealed that the best way to combat any sort of mental lapse this season – when pitching in such a strange circumstance – will come before ever stepping foot on the diamond. 

"For me personally, and what I'll share with the other relievers, would be that the warm-up is much more important out there," Britton explained. "I think that's something that maybe throughout the course of the season, you don't necessary go through the motions but you're kind of [taking it] easy out there and save [the intensity] for the game. I do think the warm-up process will be a lot more important in getting guys ready to go."

This won't necessarily apply to every hurler on the Yankees. New York's pitching coach Matt Blake joked on Thursday that "it doesn’t take fans in the stands" to get ace Gerrit Cole "amped" with the ball in his hand. He proved it on Wednesday in his first simulated game of Summer Camp, tossing three innings and nearly touching 100 mph. 

READ: Yankees' Gerrit Cole Has 'Confidence' Coronavirus Protocols Will Keep Him Safe This Season With Newborn at Home

For the other arms that may initially struggle with toeing the rubber in silence, however, don't fret. Britton assured that with time, all pitchers will adjust. After all, it's hard not to get used to it quickly considering how drastically different the situation is compared to what all pitchers are used to. 

The left-hander referenced the fact that he was able to hear Orioles' play-by-play broadcaster Gary Thorne call each pitch he threw from the press box. 

As for how desolate venues across baseball can impact the results come the postseason – COVID-19 permitting – Britton explained that the best team may not be the one to win it all. In Britton's words, the club that's able to "self-motivate the best is going to be the team that comes out on top." 

"I honestly do believe that it might not be the most talented team this year I think it's gonna be the guys that can come to the ballpark and, you know, not be relying on the adrenaline that the atmosphere would give you in that environment but be able to self-motivate and accomplish what they want to accomplish," he spelled out. "I truly believe it's going to be that team this year that that wins it."

READ: Yankees Likely to Use Five-Man Rotation With Pitching Staff This Season, But Will Get Creative If Need Be

Could that be his Yankees? Britton says absolutely. 

"I do believe that we have the guys that can do it," Britton explained. "We have guys that have played at a top level for a long time and the more I've been around those type of players, the more I realized that those are the guys that can self-motivate, the guys that can, you know, maintain a performance level throughout the course of the season at a high level. 

"I'm hopeful that our team is that team that can do it," he said. "My gut reaction is that we're going to be fine in that aspect."

In the meantime, the Bombers are focusing on the return to a competitive environment and adjusting to the health and safety protocols at Yankee Stadium designed keep all personnel safe from contracting the coronavirus.

Britton threw a bullpen session on Friday and with nine years in the big leagues under his belt, a few extra months away from the game surely won't have too much of an impact on his performance. Wearing a mask and social distancing from his teammates, however, is another story. 

"As we go forward, it'll be a little bit more comfortable to do that to wear the mask every day, all day and give people their space," he said. "We're just so used to going up to each other and being in close proximity to each other throughout the season ... it's gonna be an adjustment period but if anything I was just excited to be back in Yankee Stadium with my teammates. It's been a long time."

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