How are the kids?

  • Saturday, July 24, 2004 9:00pm
  • Sports

Let’s get one thing clear. The “kids” the Mariners are looking at these days really aren’t kids.

Bucky Jacobsen will turn 29 on Aug. 30, Bobby Madritsch is 28, Justin Leone, J.J. Putz and George Sherrill all 27.

The only true pup on the Seattle Mariners’ roster is pitcher Travis Blackley, a 21-year-old who, so far, has pitched like he’s a boy facing men.

The others? They’re seasoned minor leaguers who should be ready to show the Mariners that they’re capable of playing in the majors. Or not.

That’s why the Mariners, hopelessly out of contention, have brought Jacobsen, Madritsch, Leone, Putz, Sherrill and Blackley now and not in September when rosters expand and the non-contenders play their prospects.

The question now is how long must they struggle – or succeed – before the team can make a sound evaluation?

“It takes a couple of months,” manager Bob Melvin said. “If they have success to start, you know there’s always going to be some struggles, then they’ll have success again. You see how they handle that, whether they make adjustments. Half a season is a pretty good indication of where you are.”

After just half a month, here’s a progress report:

* Sherrill: The left-hander has been the most consistently successful of the callups, having pitched seven straight scoreless innings entering the weekend series against Anaheim. It’s too soon to consider him a success because, as even Sherrill admits, opposing hitters will adjust to his funky short-armed delivery after they’ve seen him a few times. Then it will be time to see how he holds up at this level.

* Jacobsen: He has crushed a couple of memorable home runs, given the Mariners a power threat every time he bats and become the media’s best buddy with quotes that never end.

Despite his dramatic game-winning home run to beat the A’s last week, Bucky has been in a slump. He was just 2-for-16 entering Saturday.

* Leone: He hit a couple of impressive home runs his first week with the Mariners before opposing pitchers revealed a major hole in his swing by feeding him a steady array of breaking pitches. At third base, Leone made six errors in his first 12 games, all on bad throws caused by either poor footwork or his penchant for rushing. His challenge is to make the proper adjustments at the plate and in the field.

* Madritsch: By the grace of good fortune and Jacobsen’s 10th-inning home run, Madritsch has a 1-0 major league record after a debut in which everything seemed to go wrong before it turned out right. Oakland’s Eric Chavez nearly undressed him with a first-pitch line drive, Leone’s throwing error put a second runner on base with nobody out and, after a sacrifice bunt, Bobby Kielty blistered a line drive that Leone turned into an inning-ending double play.

* Putz: The Mariners love his strong arm and are testing him in the right-handed late setup role. So far, he’s shown the inconsistency you’d expect – 71/3 shutout innings early this month, then home runs in his last two outings.

* Blackley: He’s talented, young and excitable and that’s been a detrimental combination so far. Blackley struggled in his last three starts when a sudden boost of adrenaline stole his feel for the baseball once he stepped on the mound. With average velocity on his fastball, Blackley must locate it with pinpoint accuracy, and so far he hasn’t.

Like Melvin says, the Mariners are committed to looking at these guys the rest of the season because that’s how long it takes to truly evaluate them.

Be prepared for some ups and downs.

Judgment calls

* Why are the Mariners winning now with prospects when they couldn’t with veterans?

Melvin says it’s because the minor leaguers have invigorated a clubhouse that was stagnant and getting worse as the losses piled up, and that the older players who remain have become re-energized.

Nobody would argue that point, although there’s another factor: The Mariners are a faster team this way.

Miguel Olivo, Jolbert Cabrera, Willie Bloomquist and Leone give the team an ability to run from first to third and second to home much better than before, when the M’s were little more than a station-to-station offense.

* Looking at his numbers in Tacoma, Gil Meche isn’t on a smooth road back to the Mariners. He’s 1-3 with a 5.76 earned run average, and he gave up six runs and walked six in five innings in his last outing.

Melvin said Meche threw his fastball up to 96 mph and seemed well in control of his pitches in all but one inning. In that inning, though, Meche gave up two home runs and four of his six walks.

“He ended up with a bad line, but for the majority of the game he threw pretty well,” Melvin said.

An outing like that may be acceptable at Tacoma, but one bad inning every outing won’t get him back to Seattle.

* A few reporters were digging for the sympathy angle with Bret Boone last week, asking how much personal problems affected his hitting in the first half of the season.

It was a tough first half because he battled a hip injury, his grandfather was in the hospital and his wife struggled with a difficult pregnancy. Boone, though, wouldn’t lean on that excuse.

“That’s life. A lot of people have problems,” he said. “I feel very fortunate that I haven’t had a lot of them. This year is a little different, but no way am I going to make an excuse for the way I’ve played.”

Everyone has problems big and small, whether they’re writing about the game, reading it or playing it, and it’s refreshing that Boone is clearly aware of that.

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