PEORIA, Ariz. – They were part of the wave of talent known around Seattle as The Mariners’ Next Great Pitching Staff.
Clint Nageotte, Matt Thornton, Jeff Heaverlo, Aaron Taylor, Bobby Madritsch and Rett Johnson all came through the Mariners’ minor league system with the highest of hopes, especially after they helped the Class AA San Antonio Missions win two straight Texas League championships.
Then they drifted away.
Some were hurt, some traded, others ineffective and all out of the organization by the time spring training, 2007, rolled around.
All, that is, except left-hander Travis Blackley.
The personable Australian remains with the Mariners, although in near anonymity these days after his status as a can’t-miss prospect sank three years ago in a half-dozen difficult outings in the majors, followed by shoulder surgery.
Blackley doesn’t figure to make the opening-day pitching staff this year and, compared with four years ago when he was one of the young phenoms of the organization, doesn’t draw nearly the media attention he once did.
“It’s a lot more quiet in front of my locker now,” he said Saturday.
Where has Blackley been since 2003?
Riding the same wave of hope that crashed atop him just like it did many of the others who comprised San Antonio’s stellar pitching staff in 2002 and 2003.
“It was like we hit a big reef or something,” he said. “We didn’t make it to the big leagues together and I don’t know what happened. Injuries. Nagging things. Bad luck. I thought that was a great crop. All of those guys could really throw.”
Blackley easily could have joined those guys in the scrapyard of former Mariners pitching prospects who never matched the hype.
He breezed through the minor leagues and reached the Mariners as a jittery 21-year-old in 2004, beating the Texas Rangers in his debut. Then he wobbled through five more starts that tested his arm and mind, neither of which were 100 percent that year.
Blackley was having shoulder problems that eventually ended his season and, five months later, landed him in surgery to repair two tears in the labrum.
“I think of what could have been if I hadn’t gotten hurt,” he said. “I was on fire for about eight weeks, but as soon as I got up (to the Mariners), my arm started to fall apart on me. I kind of wonder what would have happened if I had gone up eight weeks earlier.”
He went 1-3 with a 10.04 earned run average during his month with the Mariners. He was hammered twice, including a July 16 start at Cleveland when he gave up three home runs in the third inning of what became an 18-6 loss.
Blackley can laugh about that now.
“The Cleveland game, it was Hand Out Bombs Day,” he said. “I’ve taken it off the calendar.”
Blackley also has cleansed his mind of what happened and believes the rough times in 2004 were good for him.
“I had always won, always had great teams behind me,” Blackley said. “I got up and had some adversity to go through and didn’t handle it the best. I was impatient and a little angry. I thought I was ready when I was called up, but I don’t think I was.”
Blackley prepared for spring training the following year, in 2005, hoping to regain the form that made him so good in 2003. Instead, the shoulder continued to bother him and he had surgery.
He spent all of 2005 recovering but made 27 starts last year, going 8-11 with a 4.06 ERA at San Antonio and 1-1, 4.09 in two starts at Class AAA Tacoma. He pitched six shutout innings, allowing one hit, in his final start for the Rainiers.
That, along with his good health, have Blackley enthused at spring training this year. He will make his first appearance today against the Diamondbacks in Tucson, and he feels better prepared than any season since 2004.
“In 2003 I was considered to be on the way up and now I have to show that I am still that guy,” he said. “I feel like I am, playing wise, in better shape and have a better head on my shoulders.
“I want another opportunity to try not to screw it up this time. I don’t want to be spending my life in Triple-A. I don’t mind being there at the moment, but I don’t want to stay there.”