SURPRISE, Ariz. – An earned run average is a dangerous thing to get excited about at spring training.
The infields are hard, the air is dry, the wind always seems to blow out and baseball games have football scores.
But when the ERA is low, especially in Arizona, people take notice.
That is starting to happen with the Seattle Mariners, who threw another group of their talented young pitchers onto the mound Sunday and came away with a 2-1 victory over the Texas Rangers.
Four pitchers with little or no major league time – Matt Thornton, Cha Seung Baek, Bobby Madritsch and J.J. Putz – helped stop the Rangers on eight hits.
They are among seven kids in camp – along with Travis Blackley, Clint Nageotte and Aaron Looper – who have been sharp from the first pitch. Together they have a 2.85 ERA.
“That’s very hard to do here,” pitching coach Bryan Price said. “You’re always a couple of those 12- to 15-run games away from going, ‘My God, how are we going to make it through the spring?’ It’s easy to give up runs here and still pitch well because it’s more common to see that 10-7 game than to see a 3-2 game.”
Thornton, who has impressed the Mariners with his mid-90 mph fastball, gave up four hits and the Rangers’ only run in 1 2/3innings Sunday. Veteran left-hander Mike Myers didn’t allow a baserunner in 1 1/3innings, then handed the game to Baek, Madritsch and Putz.
Baek, a 23-year-old right-hander from Korea, gave up two hits in two innings and lowered his spring ERA to 1.42; Madritsch, a left-hander who continues to refine his breaking pitch, allowed a hit in two innings and has a 3.60 ERA; and Putz gave up one hit in the final two innings, dropping his ERA to 1.73.
Blackley hasn’t allowed an earned run in five innings, Looper has given up one run in three innings and Nageotte’s ERA is 3.00 in six innings of work.
Impressed as he is, Price wants to see where those numbers are by the end of spring training.
“I think you can come in and throw an inning at a time and make five or six appearances and have good numbers,” he said. “If you get somebody who has thrown 12 to 15 innings as a reliever or 20 to 25 innings as a starter with good numbers here, that’s very impressive.”
Most springs, at least one of the youngsters has thrown a clunker by now. Not this year.
“I think it has something to do with the fact that most of the kids we have in camp are polished guys,” Price said. “We’re not bringing up the strong-armed, erratic young pitchers that we may have in years past. I think our minor league guys are a lot more refined.”
Price cautions that it’s early. Many young pitchers who have looked good the first two weeks of March have crumbled late in the month.
“That’s especially true when you feel like there’s a carrot dangled in front of you,” he said. “I think a lot of these young guys are trying to leave a lasting impression. The longer you’re in camp, the more your chances grow, so it will be fun to watch these guys as we get toward the end of the month.”
Barring injury or trade, there aren’t any jobs to win on a pitching staff loaded with veterans. Still, the Mariners feel more secure now if a vacancy occurs on the staff and they must reach into the minors.
“I have no doubt that Travis Blackley and Clint Nageotte can do it, but we’d like to see them get some time at the Triple-A level and have some success there,” manager Bob Melvin said. “Last year we didn’t get into that. But now we definitely have guys down there who we feel like we can reach to.”