SEATTLE — Before John Jaso could become the Mariners’ Mr. Clutch, he needed to calm down a little bit.
Heading into his 10th season of professional baseball and first with the Mariners, Jaso made a few minor physical adjustments to his swing, but the biggest change — and the reason he’s swinging the hottest bat in the Mariners’ lineup — is that he’s mellowed a bit.
“The biggest thing is my approach, being more relaxed up there, not really tensing up to try to cut out a step to reach the fastball or whatever,” the catcher/designated hitter said. “Just being relaxed allows me to see pitches earlier and deeper into the zone. It’s just a mental thing. It’s basically a trust thing. It’s tough to do mentally — you get two strikes on you and you’re doing something new that’s out of your comfort zone — it takes trust to stick to it. But so far I have and it’s paid off a little bit.”
Whatever Jaso is doing, it’s working. Not only does he lead the team in batting average (.300) and slugging percentage (.525), he also has shown a considerable knack for coming up big late in games. Of the eight runs Jaso has driven in, three have been game winners and five have given the Mariners a lead. He capped off a ninth-inning rally Monday with a game-winning sacrifice fly, then two days later, he drove in the go-ahead run with an eighth-inning single that helped the Mariners take two of three from the Detroit Tigers.
When the Mariners acquired Jaso in a trade this offseason, one of the traits they liked in the former Tampa Bay Ray was his ability to put together quality at-bats. That’s hardly an insignificant trait in a player for the Mariners, who had the league’s worst offense in 2010 and 2011. And since joining the Mariners, Jaso has done what Seattle was hoping he would and more.
“The first thing that came to mind is he puts up good ABs, and he’s able to put up good ABs late in the ball game, which we’ve seen four or five times already this year,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said.
Of course, for Jaso to become the Mariners’ late-game hero, he first had to get some playing time. Jaso quickly became a fan favorite despite limited action because in those occasional chances he did get, he came through. After he went 2-for-4 with a triple in his first game, then spent the next week on the bench, Mariners fans started a #FreeJaso hash tag on Twitter. Jaso was finally freed when catcher Miguel Olivo went down with a groin injury on April 30, and has maintained his hot start to the season since becoming an every-day player.
Of course, the new, more relaxed John Jaso doesn’t see his early-season success as a way to send a message to his team that he needs to play every day, or an in-your-face to the team that let him go. He’s too busy relaxing and having fun.
“It’s not a competitive thing to try to change minds or anything,” he said. “They gave me the opportunity to be here and be on their big-league team, and I’m grateful for that. When I go out there it’s just all about having fun and playing with my new teammates and enjoying the moment. It’s not like it’s an aggressive approach to spark an idea into the manager’s head or the general manager’s head, it’s just to go out and have fun. Who knows, it could end tomorrow.”
The way Jaso is swinging the bat, it’s not likely to end tomorrow or anytime soon. Yes, his playing time could decrease when Olivo gets back from his injury — much to the chagrin of Jaso’s growing fan base — but Wedge will have to find ways to keep Jaso in the lineup if his bat doesn’t cool down.
Perhaps it’s fitting that a guy from the north coast of California — one of the most laid-back places in America — is finding his groove because he is more relaxed. When he wasn’t playing frequently to start the season, Jaso didn’t let it get to him, and now that he is in the lineup almost every day, he isn’t about to start stressing out about showing he deserves to stay there.
“People talk about taking advantage of the situation, but it always seems like that means you’re trying to do more, trying to do too much,” he said. “I’ve played this game long enough to know that I just need to go out there and play.”
So far this season, that approach is working just fine for the Mariners’ relaxed Mr. Clutch.
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org.