By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
SURPRISE, Ariz. — Danny Hultzen hasn’t given up the hope of still somehow making the Seattle Mariners starting rotation.
On Wednesday, he took a step toward getting back into the competition, throwing a scoreless inning against the Kansas City Royals in the Mariners’ 4-2 loss at Surprise Stadium.
After being scratched from his previous scheduled start and missing a week with a mild hip flexor strain, Hultzen happily returned to the mound.
“It felt good to be out there again,” said Hultzen, who the Mariners took with the No. 2 pick of the 2011 amateur draft and have high hopes for.
Hultzen looked good out on the mound. In his one inning of work, he gave up a leadoff double to Lorenzo Cain, but then retired the next three batters, all major league players. He got Endy Chavez to pop out to right, Chris Getz to ground out to shortstop and Alex Gordon to fly out to left. Hultzen has yet to allow an earned run this spring in three appearances and four innings pitched.
Still, Cain’s double was irksome. Hultzen quickly got ahead 0-2 in the count on a pair of two-seam fastballs — one on the outside corner and the other on the inside corner for called strikes.
On the third next pitch, catcher Kelly Shoppach called for a curveball and wanted it down and away, even in the dirt, just nowhere near the strike zone. Instead, Hultzen hung it and Cain ripped it to the left-center gap.
“He crushed it,” Hultzen said. “I knew where it was supposed to go, but I just didn’t do it that time. Lesson learned.”
Hultzen didn’t panic thanks to previous lessons learned. He calmly attacked Chavez to get that all-important first out.
“I tried to not dwell on it,” he said. “In my recent history, I’d think about it too much. I just tried to move on. I did my best to do that.”
After retiring Getz on a ground ball to short, Hultzen faced the dangerous Alex Gordon. Hultzen fell behind 2-0, but threw a 92 mph fastball that Gordon fouled off. Hultzen came back with a slider on the next pitch and got Gordon to send a fly ball to left field.
It was a good return for Hultzen and one that pleased manager Eric Wedge.
“We’ll work him back in,” Wedge said. “We wanted to make sure he just got one in today. We’ll see how he feels tomorrow. He said he felt good and he obviously looked good.”
The hip is a non-issue to Hultzen now.
“I’m past it,” he said. “Hopefully, it isn’t going to come back. I’m going to keep doing some preventative work just to make sure it doesn’t happen, but it felt good today.”
But the bigger question for Hultzen is whether or not he still has a chance to make the rotation. Of the four top pitching prospects in the Mariners system, Hultzen and Brandon Maurer have had the two best springs thus far, while Taijuan Walker and James Paxton appear ticketed for more seasoning in the minor leagues.
Still, both Hultzen and Maurer’s chances of making the starting rotation are relatively low. Hultzen knows that. He just wants a more chances to show Wedge, pitching coach Carl Willis and general manager Jack Zduriencik what he can do.
With more than 15 springs games to play, he might get those chances. It’s up to Wedge. Even if Wedge isn’t really considering Hultzen for the rotation, a few more outings against big-league hitters would be beneficial for Hultzen’s growth. He could definitely leave an even higher impression on Wedge going into the season.
“I want to throw as much as possible, you can’t impress anyone on the bench,” Hultzen said. “I just hope I get a couple more chances and keep it going.”