Not Maurer's best stuff, but good enough to beat champs

ryan.divish@thenewstribune.comMarch 20, 2013 

PEORIA, Ariz. — Brandon Maurer did nothing to take himself out of competition for the starting rotation. In fact, he may have strengthened his case for one of those coveted spots.

The right-handed pitching prospect threw five strong innings Tuesday night, allowing one run on three hits and striking out four in the Mariners’ 6-3 win over the San Francisco Giants.

And he did it all without having command of his four-seam fastball — the pitch he favors. So, he pitched five innings against a San Francisco lineup that featured six legitimate, experienced major league players without his fastball and still allowed only three hits.

“I just didn’t have the control with it, so I didn’t try to overthrow anything, because that tends to get wild when I try do that,” he said.

Instead, he went to his other four pitches. He used his two-seam fastball, change-up, slider and curveball.

“I was able to use those offspeed pitches to get outs,” he said.

It’s the sign of a maturing starting pitcher. On plenty of nights in a season, at least one or two pitches aren’t going to be working exactly how a pitcher wants them to. But for Maurer, he has enough pitches and confidence in them to find ways.

It’s something that sets him apart from his fellow pitching prospects — Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton, who were dubbed the “Big 3” last spring.

“That’s a big part of it for him: He’s not just a one-, two- or three-pitch pitcher. He’s got four or five different types of pitches that he can throw,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “He’s a big, strong guy that works off his fastball. In a lot of ways that’s a good sign that he’s able to use his other pitches and work his way through the ballgame.”

With 11,188 people crammed into Peoria Stadium, the defending World Series champion Giants across the field and his parents back home in California watching the rare televised game, Maurer had plenty of pregame adrenaline. There was also the possibility of making the starting rotation looming over him with each pitch.

“It was a great opportunity for him to be under the lights in this setting with a great crowd and this late in camp,” Wedge said.

It wasn’t quite the same as a major league game, but the stakes were certainly elevated for Maurer more than in any other appearance this spring.

And yet, for the laid-back Southern Californian, the moment didn’t seem too big.

“I got a little nervous at first, like anyone would,” he said. “But I got that first inning under my belt and I was like, ‘alright, let’s roll.’”

That first inning could have been a disaster. After striking out Andres Torres to start the game, he hit Gregor Blanco in the leg with a pitch. Hunter Pence then singled to left as Blanco was stealing second to put runners on the corners.

But Maurer didn’t fall apart. He got some help from his defense as first baseman Kendrys Morales — not known for his glove — fielded a ground ball from Brandon Belt, fired to second for the forceout and retreated to first to finish off a 3-6-3 double play to end the inning.

The only other trouble Maurer found himself in was in the fourth when he gave up a two-out single to Brandon Belt and then left a fastball up that Brandon Crawford hammered to center for a triple.

But that was it. He got out of the inning with a flyball and worked a 1-2-3 fifth.

Maurer was so efficient, throwing 64 pitches (42 strikes) that he needed to throw 16 more pitches in the bullpen to reach his total limit of 80 for the outing.

So does this performance put Maurer ahead in the competition? Wedge wasn’t dropping any hints. His poker face was as unmoving as concrete.

“We fully expected him to come in here and compete,” Wedge said. “That’s what he’s done. That’s why he’s still here. That’s why he’s still pitching.”

Wedge wouldn’t bite on questions about experience or lack thereof hurting Maurer’s chances.

“He has major league stuff, and we feel strongly he will be able to get major league outs,” Wedge said. “But as we prep everything out for the decisions we have to make, you have to take everything into consideration — the experience level, what the other guys have done — and match that up with what he’s done. We don’t have to make any decisions yet. We still have time.”

Maurer is playing it cool, or at least trying to appear to be doing so.

Is he still the long shot of the group of five pitchers vying for two spots? He’s never pitched above Double A, while competitors Jon Garland (330), Jeremy Bonderman (193), Blake Beavan (41) and Erasmo Ramirez (eight) have a combined 572 major league starts in their careers.

Does it all matter?

It didn’t two years ago when Michael Pineda forced the Mariners to put him in the rotation by dominating the Cactus League.

Maurer hasn’t done that, but neither has Beavan, Garland or Bonderman. He’s been better than all three.

Admittedly, he wouldn’t have believed people if they told him he’d be in this position before reporting to spring training. So why overthink it? Instead, he’s going to enjoy it.

“If I’m pitching up there, or if I’m pitching down there, I’m still pitching,” he said. “I just go out there and try to have fun.”

RYAN RECOVERING

Brendan Ryan isn’t the type of player to miss multiple games — spring training or otherwise — without good reason. The Mariners’ starting shortstop had missed the last two games with a stiff neck. But his absence was just precautionary.

“I just slept funny and woke up and it was a little stiff,” he said. “I threw a baseball and felt it kind of pinch and thought, ‘If I try to man up here, I’m just going to end up out a week or more or something like that.’”

The Mariners shut Ryan down for a few days and gave him some medication for the pain and the spasms as well.

Wedge said that with an off-day today, he expects Ryan to be in the lineup Thursday.

SPRING TRAINING RECAP

MARINERS 6, GIANTS 3 (at Peoria Stadium)

The facts: The Mariners won their sixth-straight Cactus League game, defeating the defending World Series champions in front of a packed house of 11,188 on a perfect Tuesday night with temperatures in the mid-70s. Brandon Maurer gave the Mariners a solid start, pitching five innings and allowing one run on three hits with four strikeouts.

Play of the game: Kendrys Morales kept the power show going, ripping his third home run in three games and fifth of the spring. The slugging first baseman pushed the Mariners’ homer total to 45. And yet it wasn’t his biggest play. Not known for his glove, he turned a 3-6-3 double play in the first inning to help Maurer get out of a jam with runners on first and third and one out.

Who was hot: Nick Franklin has had a quiet spring, but he had what manager Eric Wedge labeled his “best night,” going 2-for-2 with two RBI and two runs scored. Franklin drove in the first run of the game with an RBI single off of Barry Zito in the second inning. He led off the fifth inning with a double off Zito and later scored on a sacrifice fly. He also added a sacrifice fly of his own in the sixth inning.

Who was not: Tom Wilhelmsen is usually pretty reliable. But the Mariners’ closer struggled in his one inning of work, giving up two runs on two hits with a walk. Wilhelmsen walked the lead-off hitter — Andres Torres — which is never a good thing for a closer. He then gave up an RBI single to Gregor Blanco and run scoring ground rule double to Brandon Belt.

On tap: The Mariners are off today. They return to action Thursday night in Peoria against the Chicago Cubs. Jon Garland is scheduled to start for Seattle, while Jeff Samardzija will go for Chicago.

Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 ryan.divish@thenewstribune.com ryan.divish@thenewstribune.com

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