Wednesday, August 24, 2011
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Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Numbers not indicative of Sox prospect Drake Britton's talent

Pitcher could tie club record for losses in a season

You could see Drake Britton in Boston soon. His stuff is that good.

His fastball sizzles in the mid-90s — from the left side, no less. His high-70s slider has a diabolical two-plane break. He has a nice change-up he can flip to righties. He's built like an outside linebacker — 6-2 with broad shoulders and muscular arms.

Yes, Britton is a legit prospect for the Red Sox.

He is also 1-13.

"It's been a long a year," Britton said Tuesday, a day after getting a no-decision in Salem's 6-3 win over Winston-Salem. "It hasn't gone the way I wanted it to."

The chasm between Britton's ability and Britton's results couldn't be more pronounced, and it helps explain how the Red Sox are about to miss the Carolina League playoffs for the second straight year. Just as the club teased fans with a brilliant start —the Sox, who improved to 57-70 with a 3-2 victory Tuesday night, were 20-7 at one point — Britton tantalizes with his talent and frustrates with his inconsistency.

Nobody's been more frustrated than Britton himself.

"There's definitely been times when I just wanted to give up," said Britton, 22. "I just wanted to get in my truck and drive home. But everyone's been real supportive. The staff — especially Kevin Walker, our pitching coach — they've helped me through the tough times and got me through it. I started to see some progress, and it was easier to get up every day and come here."

Britton showed the good and the bad against the Dash on Monday. He walked the first batter of the game on four pitches, moved him to second on a wild pitch, then calmly worked out of it without allowing a run. He allowed three earned runs on seven hits and two walks over five innings, but he also fanned five and gave his team a chance to win.

The performance lowered his ERA to 6.93. That's miles away from where he wants it — and from where it was last year at Low-A Greenville (2.93) — but still better than how this season began. Britton produced an 11.08 ERA in his four April starts, with each un­successful outing compounding the problem.

"I really, honestly, had never experienced failure playing baseball at all," said Britton, who passed on a Texas A&M scholarship to sign for $700,000 in 2007. "So I kind of went into panic mode. And the minute I fell behind a hitter I was just like, ‘Oh, no. I can't walk this guy.' And I'd end up walking him.

"And then I'd be thinking about that rather than the next hitter, and I'd walk that guy. I couldn't get back focused to the task at hand, to what I needed to do. The wheels were just turning upstairs."

And that was the problem: too much mental clutter. The mechanics were fine. The stuff was still nasty. But especially when the club began losing, Britton was overthinking every pitch.

"I felt like if I fell behind in the game, then I was going to lose it for everybody, because we were struggling at the time," he said. "I'm a competitor. I like to compete. But I was putting way too much pressure on myself."

The lack of wins isn't entirely his fault. When Britton was going through the worst of his struggles, the Red Sox began limiting his starts to two or three innings to help him focus. So there have been days like June 23, when he tossed two scoreless innings against Kinston but departed before he could qualify for a win.

Britton should make two more starts this season. If he were to lose both, he would tie a Salem record for losses in a season shared by James McKee (1970), Frank Brosious (1983) and Corey Bass (2008).

He does not plan to lose either. Even though the coaching staff has told Britton to concern himself with development and not results, nobody likes 1-13.

"I just want to be happy, you know?" he said. "Enjoy playing rather [than] beating myself up and being miserable. And I'm in a 10-times-better mental state than I was a month and a half, two months ago."

Britton was a prospect then, too. But now? He's a prospect with perspective.

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