Can Hultzen find his control, be second lefty in Mariners' rotation?
His legs wore down. His arm followed. While those limbs wilted, his brain fought an internal battle.
Hultzen, a left-handed starter considered among the Mariners' premier prospects, arrived in Class AAA Tacoma last season after dominating at Class AA Jackson. Prior, he powered through an excellent college career at Virginia to become the No. 2 overall pick in 2011.
At Jackson, Hultzen carved up everyone he faced. In 13 starts, his earned run average was 1.19, prompting the promotion to Tacoma -- where he slammed into a wall.
The longest baseball season of his life -- Hultzen had started back in February -- was catching up to him. Dragging weary legs to the mound caused Hultzen's command to become elusive. Once his legs couldn't hold up their end, Hultzen began to throw more with just his arm. By the end, he was walking eight hitters per nine innings and had a stunning 5.92 ERA.
"I just had no idea what was going on," Hultzen said. "Just playing catch with the guys, I couldn't, if you were standing 15 feet from me, I couldn't hit you in the chest.
"I was trying to be a little too perfect sometimes instead of going out there and just throwing the ball. I think I got in my own head a lot, too. That combination did not bode well for the pitching numbers."
Hultzen called his high school coach. His college coach. His other minor league coaches and chatted with his dad. He watched tape of his success at Virginia and Jackson.
He threw more. He threw less. He took days off. Hultzen did everything short of turning his uniform inside out and seeing if that changed anything.
"Nothing seemed to work," Hultzen said. "But, it's something that is going to happen and you have to learn how to deal with it. It was really, really hard at times, but it's something you have to figure out and try to get through."
To reboot himself, Hultzen took time off during the winter and bounced from Florida to Virginia to Maryland. He did little throwing. Instead, he concentrated on lifting weights to steel himself for a full season of pitching.
"I was just physically wiped," Hultzen said.
The Mariners start camp with just one left-hander projected to be in the rotation. Veteran lefty Joe Saunders signed a one-year deal Feb. 12. Otherwise, the prospective rotation is very right-hand heavy.
If Hultzen is going to add a second lefty to the starters, he'll have to quickly find his command. Like any pitcher, fastball command is first. Also important for Hultzen is making his changeup -- which he holds with an odd grip, picture Spock making the Vulcan sign then wrapping his hand around a baseball -- an effective tool.
"I'm just trying to get back to throwing strikes and that's my main issue," Hultzen said. "If you throw strikes, then you have a shot. If you keep walking people and just try to throw it down the middle, obviously, that's what I did in Tacoma, that didn't work out very well."
At the very least, the bumps occurred away from the glare of the big leagues. That leaves Hultzen thankful for his struggles during his pursuit of making them a blip.
"I've ever failed like that in my life," Hultzen said. "It's a good experience to go through that and I learned a whole lot from it."
Ackley, Ryan held out
After offseason arthroscopic surgeries to remove bone spurs, second baseman Dustin Ackley and shortstop Brendan Ryan will be held out of the first three spring training games.
"We're just going to give them a little more time," manager Eric Wedge said. "They're practicing well and doing a nice job, but I think it's important just to give them a little more time."
Ackley had bone spurs removed from his ankle and Ryan had loose bodies extracted from his throwing elbow.
Time to throw
Hector Noesi will start Friday's opener against the Padres, where the Mariners plan for pitchers to throw one inning apiece. On the tentative schedule behind Noesi are Oliver Perez, D.J. Mitchell, Andrew Carraway, Chance Ruffin, Logan Bawcom, Anthony Fernandez, Brian Moran and Danny Farquhar.
Saturday's tentative set up is Blake Beavan, Kameron Loe, Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, Bobby LaFromboise, Carson Smith, Jonathan Arias and Jhonny Nunez.
Sunday starts with Erasmo Ramirez, followed by James Paxton, Tom Wilhelmsen, Charlie Furbush, Stephen Pryor, Carter Capps, Josh Kinney, Lucas Luetge and Yoervis Medina.
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