M’s pitcher Ruffin looks to find his niche

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Starter? Reliever? Chance Ruffin isn’t sure what he is anymore. So he narrows it’s down to the simplest of terms.

“I think I’m just a pitcher,” he said. “Just put me in whenever and I will try to get outs.”

It’s been an interesting season for the 24-year-old right-hander.

Ruffin began spring training as a reliever and didn’t make the big-league club. The organization then converted him to a starter. He began the season in the starting rotation for Class AA Jackson, going 4-4 with a 3.90 ERA in 16 starts. He was promoted to Class AAA Tacoma in July and made two forgettable starts, giving up nine runs in 82/3 innings pitched. The organization then moved him back to pitching in relief — as a way to control his growing innings count. He made 13 relief appearances with the Rainiers and posted a 1.74 ERA, striking out 19 batters and walking just three in 202/3 innings pitched.

“I’d say it’s been as close to a roller coaster season as I’ve ever had or could remember,” he said.

Now, he’s back with the Mariners as a September call-up. It’s his first time back in the big leagues since the 2011 season when he was one of four players sent to Seattle in a trade that sent Doug Fister and David Pauley to Detroit.

Ruffin made 13 appearances for the Mariners in 2011, posting a 1-0 record with a 3.86 ERA in 14 innings pitched. He was viewed as a possible closer or late inning set-up man of the future.

But that got sidetracked in 2012 when he struggled in spring training to find his command and started the season in Tacoma. The command issues carried over from spring into the season. He made 50 appearances for the Rainiers, going 0-5 and posting a 5.99 ERA. He walked 35 batters in 702/3 innings pitched.

Those same issues followed him into this spring training. He was one of the first relievers optioned out of big-league camp. The Mariners made a few minor adjustments to his mechanics and a major adjustment in his role — asking him to convert to starting. Ruffin didn’t have to be sold on the idea.

“I love starting,” he said. “I did it in college for a couple years. I liked it a lot. I was excited when they told me I’d go back to starting. I came out and had a good first couple months. It got a little rocky at the end. Mostly, I was just trying to use it as a learning experience.”

And what did he learn?

“It’s taught me how to focus more pitch to pitch and on each hitter rather than getting caught up in the moment and the game so much,” Ruffin said. “It slowed the game down.”

When the game started moving fast, Ruffin’s pulse and mechanics got fast and his command got worse.

“The biggest thing was learning how to slow the game down and getting myself under control,” he said. “In the past, I’d have trouble when I’d get out of rhythm and I’d start to lose command. As a starter, if you lose command, you are done early and that’s a bad day. So I learned to adjust.”

That realization wasn’t something the Mariners were looking for in the conversion, but they were pleased it happened. A slowed down Ruffin meant slowed down mechanics and better command with his pitches.

“It calmed his delivery a little bit, he was more under control and more consistent with his delivery with his arm action, arm slot and release point,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said.

So what will Ruffin do with the Mariners? He isn’t going to start. He’s going to pitch, but there will be no set definition to his role.

“I really don’t need to have roles for them,” Wedge said of his called-up pitchers. “We are going to give them opportunities when we feel like we have opportunities. He’s earned the right to be up here. He did a tremendous job making the adjustment down there.”

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