French learns lessons after tough season

  • Mon Mar 1st, 2010 11:17pm
  • Sports

By Kirby Arnold Herald Writer

PEORIA, Ariz. — Luke French sat at his locker and flipped through the pages of the Seattle Mariners 2010 information guide, marveling at the amount of space devoted to Ken Griffey Jr.

“It’s amazing,” French said. “They didn’t miss a thing.”

Griffey’s accomplishments, awards and statistics over 23 pro seasons take up 13 pages.

French has two pages, including the details of a 2009 season that are both memorable and forgettable for the 24-year-old left-handed pitcher.

Overwhelmed and overweight, French faded at the finish.

Five years after the Tigers made French their eighth-round draft pick in 2004, he reached the major leagues for the first time in May, then won his first big-league game July 8 against the Royals.

Less than a month later, French faced the Royals again, this time as a Mariner after they acquired him and minor league pitcher Mauricio Robles from the Tigers in exchange for Jarrod Washburn. He won that game, although it was rough five-inning, nine-hit preview of the rest of his year.

French made seven starts with the Mariners and didn’t get past the sixth inning in any of them before the team stuck him in the bullpen, basically to sit the rest of the season. He made one relief appearance.

“This guy took on a lot last year,” Mariners pitching coach Rick Adair said. “You have to go back to the very beginning of the year for him. He wasn’t even in big-league camp with Detroit. He gets called up, then he gets traded into a new environment.”

The trade, French said, “is kind of what rocked my world a little bit.

“I was on the road, my wife was in Detroit and I had to fly out. Then she had to get two cars home. She had a lot to do and I wanted her to get out there safely. We were trying to find a place, trying to meet new people. It was a lot. But it was a good learning experience, and that’s what I’m going to take it as.”

When the Mariners got their first look at French when he reported to spring training last month, he was a much different person, both physically and mentally.

He had lost nearly 20 pounds, dropping from the 252 he weighed last year after an offseason of strict diet and exercise. And he also shed something just as burdensome, the mental anxiety of trying to prove to the Mariners that he was worth the trade for Washburn.

“I was trying to do more than I could do instead of just trusting what I do and be myself,” French said. “I really wanted to make a good impression. I think I took it a little too far and tried to do too much. I think that was part of it. It’s the way we are as humans. We want to impress. I just need to stick with who I am and what I do, and if that’s good enough, it is. If not, what can you do?”

Who is the real Luke French?

“I’m actually a really relaxed guy,” he said. “I don’t get too fired up or too down in the dumps. I’m pretty consistent. But last year I was up and down, up and down. I’m the type of guy who just goes out there and throws strikes, hopes they put it in play and gets out of there quickly.”

The challenge now is to maintain that approach while trying to win one of the few jobs available in the Mariners’ camp. He’s in a four-way competition for the fifth starter’s job with Jason Vargas, Doug Fister and Garrett Olson, and if he doesn’t fit there, he could fill a long relief role.

“He’s a guy who has some flexibility,” Adair said. “He did some good things for us last year but he got to the end of the year and he’d gone through a lot of stuff emotionally. He was a little bit out of gas, a little bit out of shape. But he has worked extremely hard.

“With all the work he did last year, and with the weight loss, he looks like he’s a very confident guy.”

Today is a new beginning, of sorts, for French as a Mariner. He’ll pitch an inning of their intrasquad game to start a month-long stretch of outings that will determine whether he makes the team or doesn’t.

“If it ends up going my way, or I end up going somewhere else, that’s fine,” French said. “I learned what not to do last year. This year I’m going to relax and go after it.”

Ackley’s athleticism on display

Dustin Ackley played his first game ever at second base in the Mariners’ intrasquad Monday, and he immediately displayed the athleticism that makes the M’s believe he can make the transition from the outfield along with the sweet swing that attracted them in the first place with the second overall pick in the June draft.

Ackley played five innings, went 1-for-2 with a leadoff double off the left-field fence in the seventh inning and made a sweet diving play in the top of the eighth. With Ezequiel Carrera on first and nobody out, Greg Halman hit a hard grounder to Ackley’s left, and he made a headlong dive to snag it, popped up and threw out Carrera at second.

“It was good to go out there and see balls off the bat live,” Ackley said. “I have been taking fungos and it’s a little bit different in a game. I was hoping that there was going to be a ball to my left or right to start it off. The ones right at you might get you.”

Manager Don Wakamatsu was impressed with the whole package he saw from Ackley.

“You just see the athleticism,” Wakamatsu said. “This guy hasn’t played much professional baseball, but he sure looks polished.”

Third base coach Mike Brumley, who works with the infielders, credits the Mariners’ minor league staff with helping Ackley’s transition from outfield to second base go so smoothly.

“They have done such a good job with him that it looks like he fits there,” Brumley said. “He’s a little tentative in throwing right now, mainly because he is feeling his way through it. But he makes a good move on the ball when he’s catching it. He has great timing with his body. Now, it’s a matter of game experience and spending time making decisions on the bases and defensively.

“I think he has a chance to be a great player on both sides of the ball. He is going to be a real joy to watch.”

Mariners beat Mariners

Mike Carp’s two-run double in the bottom of the seventh broke a 2-2 tie, helping the Mariners’ No. 1 team to a 5-2 victory in their first intrasquad game Monday. Carp’s double down the right-field line scored Brad Nelson and Alex Liddi, who’d started the inning with back-to-back singles off left-hander Danny Cortes.

Jose Lopez played the first four innings, all of them at third base, but didn’t get a ground ball. He caught one foul popup near the fence in shallow left field, but otherwise was a defensive spectator. Lopez went 2-for-2 with a single and a double.

The game featured 17 pitchers, all throwing one inning each, and started the way it finished, with a couple of 1-2-3 innings by some youngsters who give them high hopes.

Right-hander Ian Snell, who figures to pitch in the third or fourth spots in the rotation, pitched a perfect top of the first inning. Left-hander Mauricio Robles, a 20-year-old obtained from the Tigers in the Jarrod Washburn trade last year, retired all three he faced in the ninth, including strikeouts of minor leaguers James Jones and Nick Franklin.

Nine more pitchers will work this morning’s intrasquad, among them Ryan Rowland-Smith, Luke French, Chad Cordero and Josh Fields.

Of note

The Mariners ran through their bunt defense between innings Monday and not everything went smoothly. On one play, Ken Griffey Jr. dropped a bunt and reached first when second baseman Matt Tuiasosopo didn’t cover the bag. “We’re throwing a whole new system at them in a sense, and that’s going to happen,” manager Don Wakamatsu said. “That’s why you have these intrasquad games, to expose that.” … Griffey, who grounded out and walked, won’t play in today’s intrasquad. “He’s running the practice on Field 2, him and Coach Sweeney,” Wakamatsu said. “We’re going to put a little onus on them getting some work done rather than messing around, so I’d rather keep them out of the drill. We’ll give him a stopwatch, my cart and a fungo, and see what happens.” … Both Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee will throw off the bullpen mounds this morning. … After today’s game, the Mariners and Padres will play their annual golf tournament at the Raven at Verrado golf club. Then they start their 33-game exhibition games Wednesday against the Giants at Peoria.

Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com/marinersblog