It wasn’t until mid-October -- well over a month after he left Salem, Va., for what he hoped would be the last time -- that Drake Britton was able to turn the proverbial corner and move on from a calamitous 2011 season.
The struggles that began on the first day of the season continued, mostly uninterrupted, all the way through a campaign that simply baffled the 22-year-old lefty. Sapped of all his confidence, Britton would take the hill for High-A Salem every fifth day and wait for something bad to happen. If he remained in the game long enough, it usually did.
“When I would walk a guy, I’d be thinking about that guy and what I should have done different instead of focusing on the next hitter,” Britton said last month in Fort Myers, Fla. “Things just spiraled out of control. At one point, I was just a zombie out there. I didn’t want to pitch. I was just trying to... it was kind of like, ‘Screw it. This is already going to go bad. I just want to hurry up and speed this up.’ ”
Britton won just once in 14 decisions and finished the year with a 6.91 ERA in 26 starts. He struck out 89 batters in 97.2 innings, but posted a 1.70 WHIP and threw 16 wild pitches. All told, his performance was far from the expectations set when Britton entered the 2011 season as the No. 4-ranked player and second-highest-ranked pitcher in the SoxProspects.com rankings after his promising return from Tommy John surgery with Low-A Greenville in 2010.
Despite the struggles, Britton’s raw stuff was still there. His four-seam fastball sat in the mid-90s, though his command of the pitch was spotty. When it broke, Britton’s sharp curveball was borderline unhittable. But it was the moments when his command failed him that would bring on those zombie-like stretches. He didn’t know how to manage them.
“It was definitely a crazy thing,” he said. “I’d never been through anything like that. I just didn’t know how to handle it, but I definitely needed it. Last year was very informative, and it was humbling. It turned out to be a really good thing for me, and I needed that.”
Such perspective came only with time, however. For a while, Britton asked himself a painful question: Why me? “I just didn’t understand,” he said. “For some reason, that needed to happen to me to be able to get through it and be a better pitcher for it.”
A winter of hopeful thinking brought a resolved Britton into spring training this year. Despite the struggles, he was added to Red Sox 40-man roster and protected from the Rule 5 draft.
Britton spent a few weeks in major-league camp and, like last year, was hoping to break camp with Double-A Portland.
Director of player development Ben Crockett said the organization enters spring training “with an open mind as to where all players should start the year, and then combine progress made in the offseason that is displayed in spring training with the previous season’s body of work and come to a decision.” Although he said Britton showed advancement this spring that put Portland on the radar, the club still felt he would benefit from starting the year in Salem.
So Britton was thrust back into an environment that immediately brought bad memories. Even his first opponent, the defending Carolina League champion Frederick Keys, remained the same from year to year.
Though his final line in that first start on April 7 -- eight runs, all earned, on eight hits in 4.1 innings -- could have just as easily been from his 27th start of 2011, Britton looked like a different pitcher than in years past.
For starters, his velocity was uncharacteristically low. Britton’s fastball topped out at 90 mph and sat mostly at 88-89. Salem pitching coach Kevin Walker said Britton needed to do a better job of driving the baseball and finishing his pitches, but was unconcerned about the low velocity given how early it was in the season. Britton’s changeup was effective when used, and the slider he replaced his curveball with this spring was more of the looping variety than the hard slider he featured in the past.
There were also, as was the case in last year’s starts, moments to forget. A pair of 90 mph fastballs caught too much of the plate in the third and fourth innings, each deposited for a two-run home run. But most promising is that Britton was able to rebound from them.
“If I gave up a missile or a home run, I came right back throwing strikes,” Britton said after the outing.
Additionally, both Britton and Walker pointed to the second inning as a sign of improvement from 2011. After Britton yielded a leadoff single and plunked the next batter with a slider that didn’t slide, a pair of fielding miscues on double-play balls extended the inning and allowed Frederick’s first run to score.
“He ended up getting a couple ground balls, but things didn’t go his way,” Walker said. “He stayed composed and poised and continued to make pitches and limited damage.”
Britton picked up his only two strikeouts of the afternoon to get out of the jam with just one run across.
“The minute it first started, when I started giving up some hits and some runs, last year I would have been done,” Britton said. “I wouldn’t have made it out of the second. I feel like I handled it well.”
“I saw a more poised, mature kid out there today,” Walker added.
Combining that poise with the raw stuff he featured last season will be key to Britton’s development in 2012.
“He’s got the pieces,” Walker said. “We’ve just got to put them together.”
Crockett said the team has been “very happy” with Britton’s progress throughout the offseason and into spring training.
“He’s put himself in a position to succeed in 2012 by being in very good shape, working hard on and off the field, and being confident in his abilities,” Crockett said. “We expect Drake to keep getting better during the season as he continues to get more consistent with his mechanics and approach, and won’t hesitate pushing him when he proves he’s ready.”
When exactly that will be remains to be seen. Britton’s second start of the year was only marginally better than his first -- he allowed six runs, four earned, on four hits and a pair of walks in 4.0 innings in an April 13 loss to Myrtle Beach.
One thing, however, is certain. A bad at-bat, inning or even outing will be forgotten just as quickly as they happen this year.
“I just want to take positives out of the outing, then forget about it and worry about five days later, because I’ve got to pitch again,” Britton said. “I’ve got 26 starts this year, so one bad one’s not going to shut me down for the rest of the year.”
Jon Meoli is a senior columnist for SoxProspects.com.