PEORIA, Ariz. - When they came up with the idea to have an intrasquad game, the Seattle Mariners' manager and coaching staff knew immediately who they wanted to pitch: everyone who would be nervous their first time on a mound.
How to define that before a pitcher pitches? The formula is simple: If a pitcher hasn’t pitched against big-league hitters, if he’s a youngster who might try to make the team in his first inning of work
In other words, about half the 33 pitchers in camp this spring.
So, yes, there were sweaty palms in Friday’s five-inning affair on a back field, and there were pitchers and players who handled it better than others. But general manager Jack Zduriencik probably summed it up best.
“You look to see how they handle themselves. You look at poise, the stuff they’re throwing. Sometimes you’re surprised, but you have to take it all with a grain of salt,” Zduriencik said. “This was a game to settle everyone down, a little showcase game.”
How important was it to the participants?
“You want to break the ice. You always want to play at 100 percent,” rookie infielder Alex Liddi said. “It’s not like because it’s an exhibition game you give it 50 percent.”
And here’s the take by rookie Blake Beavan, who had never faced a big-league hitter until he worked a scoreless first inning. Meaningful?
“I called my wife in Texas, my folks, my brothers – my agent. They were all really happy,” Beavan said. “It took longer to talk about than to pitch, but it was my first inning against big-league hitters.
“Was I nervous? Of course. I grew up watching Ichiro, now I’m facing him?”
Dan Cortes is a veteran of 5 major-league innings, and still had trouble controlling himself and his pitches.
“I was trying too hard and I knew it, but I got frustrated out there,” Cortes said. “I let my emotions take over, and that’s a learning experience I have to take advantage of. I have to handle adrenaline and emotion better.
“My mind was racing. I just didn’t handle it well.”
Cortes walked two batters, allowed a hit and a run and hit his pitch limit of 25 before getting a third out. Worse, one of his 98 mph fastballs in the dirt jumped up and bit catcher Miguel Olivo in the forearm.
On Saturday, Olivo’s forearm looked like Popeye’s – huge.
“I felt bad about that, too,” Cortes said. “I apologized.”
Edward Paredes gave up three hits and a run in his inning of work, and while he wasn’t pleased with the results, he was happy to find his curveball effective.
“Now, I just have to keep working,” Paredes said.
Mariners bullpen coach Jaime Navarro says it’s just part of the process.
“It’s normal for the kids to try to do more than they can, more than they need to their first time out,” he said. “They all threw well, free and easy. It’s almost a ‘get-it-out-of-the-way’ thing for young pitchers. Now they know, they’ve faced big-league hitters.
Tom Wilhelmsen, the Tucson bartender trying to get back into baseball after nearly six years away, joked he hadn’t been nervous at all waiting for his turn in the fifth inning.
“I only had to go to the bathroom three times in the first four innings,” he deadpanned.
“My hands were sweaty, and when I pitched out of the stretch, the muscles in my leg started twitching. I was afraid they might call a balk. I wanted to throw strikes, change the hitter’s eye level.
“I calmed myself down. I told myself I know how to pitch, and I pretty much pitched my inning. When my first pitch was a strike, that relaxed me.”
“I called my father, and my wife when she got home from work. I called my mother and brother and some friends. It was absolutely a blast.”
Pitching coach Carl Willis, who has just about seen it all, smiled.
“There’s a reason we put them in that game instead of waiting until there are 5,000-6,000 people in the stands,” Willis said. “It is different for them. It’s impressive when they do the job but, good or bad, you can’t put much stock in it.
“It’s way too early, they’re just getting the dust off. Now they’ve had an inning and seen hitters. Now they’re a little more ready for what’s coming.”
Overall, 10 Mariners pitchers worked a total of 92/3 innings in the intrasquad game, allowing 10 hits, four runs, five walks and striking out seven.
All of them survived. Each will pitch again.