By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — Brandon Maurer did nothing to take himself out of the competition for the starting rotation. In fact, he may have strengthened his case for one of those coveted spots.
The right-handed pitching prospect pitched five strong innings, allowing one run on three hits and striking out four in the Mariners 6-3 win over the San Francisco Giants Tuesday night.
And he did it all without having command of his four-seam fastball — his dominant pitch.
“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 to do that,” he said.
Instead, he went to his other four pitches. He used his two-seam fastball, changeup, slider and curve ball.
“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 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 ball game.
“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 appearance this spring.
And yet, for the laid-back southern Californian, the moment didn’t seem too big for him.
“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, ‘All right, 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 singled to left with Blanco advancing to third.
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 to start a 3-6-3 double play to end the inning.
Did it help Maurer to exhale some of those early jitters?
“Quite a bit, quite a bit,” he said. “He made a quite a few plays over there that were like, ‘whew, thank you.’”
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 fly out 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 outing put Maurer ahead in the competition?
Wedge isn’t dropping any hints. His poker face could burn is 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? Of course, he’s never pitched above Class AA, while his competitors Jon Garland (330), Jeremy Bonderman (193), Blake Beavan (41) and Erasmo Ramirez (8) 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 has sore neck
Brendan Ryan isn’t the type of player to miss multiple games 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, gave him some medication for the pain and the spasms as well.
“I just did the right thing,” he said. “I got off the field and they gave me a little stuff to stop the spasm. But it was nothing crazy. Nothing even close to what it was a couple years ago.”
What it was a few years ago was bad enough for Ryan to miss more than two weeks of the 2011 season. And there was no way he was going to let it get to that situation by trying to force it.
Ryan worked out on Tuesday afternoon. He took batting practice, did some base running drills.
Wedge said with the off day today, he expects Ryan to be in the line-up on Thursday.