The bullpen could be a great fit for Mariners’ Danny Hultzen, for now

Mar 6, 2016, 10:44 AM | Updated: Mar 7, 2016, 12:32 pm
Danny Hultzen hopes to make the big leagues by concentrating on pitching one- or two-inning outings...
Danny Hultzen hopes to make the big leagues by concentrating on pitching one- or two-inning outings. (AP)

PEORIA, Ariz. – Four years ago, I made the trek to Goodyear one morning to watch a game that took place on a back field at the Reds/Rockies complex. Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Danny Hultzen were scheduled to pitch in a B game, and for me this was must-watch baseball. I wasn’t alone. The two rows of seats behind home plate were filled to capacity with scouts. Others sat in stands with the fans. I stood behind the fence wanting to get as close a look as possible at what could be the Mariners future.

Walker pitched two scoreless innings to start the game and was followed by Hultzen, who retired his first batter and then was faced with runners on second and third after Nick Franklin committed back-to-back errors behind him. What came next was one of the most memorable spring training moments in my 15 years covering the team in Arizona, rivaling the intrasquad game where I first saw Michael Pineda’s slider and Felix Hernandez’s Cactus League debut, when his cap fell off with every pitch he made.

Related: Latest news, photos, video and more from Mariners spring training

Hultzen, who had been drafted No. 2 by the Mariners the year before and had just 19 innings of Arizona Fall League under his belt at that moment, walked the bases loaded and then took it to another gear to strike out the next two batters on seven pitches, all fastballs.

I wrote in my post from that day: “You could just see Hultzen bear down when the bases were loaded. He all-out challenged them, climbing the ladder as he went.”

The intensity was as electric as the stuff, and that’s what made the moment memorable. None shall score. That day I saw the competitor in Danny Hultzen.

After four years and one major shoulder surgery to fix three issues, that competitiveness was once again on display on another back field, this time against Mariners minor leaguers in a live batting-practice session. Hultzen worked through it, cursing loudly into his glove when he wasn’t pleased with what he saw from his pitches.

I would imagine the hitters were cursing under their breath as well, particularly when they saw the changeup. Hultzen looked good, just like he did last year in spring training. Of course, we know what happened next. Things didn’t feel right shortly after spring training, he was given extra rest and eventually shut down.

The Mariners are trying a new approach with Hultzen this year, having him work as a reliever rather than a starter in hopes that path will lead to the Majors rather than another shutdown. Hultzen is on board with the plan – anything to keep him on the field, including doing his part in trying to slow things down at the start.

“The last couple of years I tried to do too much too quickly,” he said. “I tried to prove I was healthy and good to go. During the first batting-practice session, I was throwing every pitch as hard as I could. If I am going to last the whole season, I need to pace myself a little bit better.”

Sometimes this is easier said than done, as evidenced by the live BP session Saturday.

“My whole life I have been wired to go as hard as I can all the time,” Hultzen said. “It is a mental thing to still be competitive and still get your work in, but you don’t have to throw every pitch 100 mph, 100 percent. When we get into games, that’s a little different, but throwing the ball as hard as you can in batting practice 30 times isn’t going to help anyone. That’s something I have changed.”

Changed in his mind, but Hultzen still needs reminders every now and then. On Saturday, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre Jr. could be seen telling him to calm down after he got fired up about a pitch. Manager Scott Servais has noted that the biggest challenge with Hultzen is to get him to relax. He said his running joke with Hultzen is to tell him to smile whenever he walks by.

As intense as he is, the smile is as quick to come. With everything that he has been through, there isn’t a hint of weariness in how he carries himself or when you talk to him. It hasn’t been easy, but he has worked through the ups and downs of trying to come back from a major injury.

“There was a period where I stewed about my whole situation and kind of felt sorry for myself, but that didn’t last long because I knew that wouldn’t help,” he said. “Last year was really tough because I felt so good, felt I was done with my rehab, past my surgery and past the injuries. I felt so good and all of a sudden it was just kind of done.

“That was really tough. That was harder than the actual rehab and surgery. People have arm injuries all the time. It’s nothing crazy different. During that period I looked at it as I guess it is my time to do that. A lot of people go through it. But having it and having it being gone so quickly was really frustrating.”

Hultzen looked for activities to fill the time when he normally would be pitching. For him, fishing has always been a passion, and golf is a sport he enjoyed. He turned his attention to both.

“Those things are my saving grace, they saved my sanity,” he said. “I have golfed most of the golf courses in the Phoenix area. I think I have found every possible fishing hole in the Phoenix area. It is interesting, if you drive around even in the most populated parts of the city there are these canals that they use for irrigation that have really big carp and bass in them. There have been a few times where I drive off the side of the road and just kind of peer in and I have the fishing rod in the back just in case. Those things not only are really fun but they really keep your mind off those negative thoughts that can trickle in.”

There’s a baseball activity in camp that Hultzen has also used to clear his mind every now and then. Last week, long after drills had ended, I saw Hultzen heading out to the batting cages with bat in hand and a serious look on his face. Not something you see every day with a pitcher.

“I have been doing it every now and then,” he said. “In the back of my mind, if this pitching thing doesn’t work, if my arm doesn’t hold up, maybe mess around with hitting a little bit. I also just really enjoy hitting. It’s fun, it keeps my mind off stuff so every now and then I will go in there and take some hacks.”

Hultzen played first base, outfield and some DH in college when he wasn’t pitching. He hit .314/.400/.431 with 57 walks and 56 strikeouts in 392 at-bats. While he didn’t show much power, it would appear he was a “C the Z” hitter.

“I did hit in college and I really miss it,” he said. “I miss it every day. During down time of a game sometimes I will grab a bat and swing it around and people will be like, ‘Calm down! That’s not you!’

“It’s just something I have enjoyed since I was 5 years old, just hitting baseballs. I think everyone has that same feeling. You love swinging a bat, you love seeing where it goes. It’s something I really miss but hopefully I don’t have to resort to that again.”

The plan is to face hitters, not to be a hitter. While it stung to be dropped from the 40-man roster last fall, Hultzen is grateful for the support of Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto, who have both watched him for several years. Dipoto, in fact, was vice president of player personnel with the Diamondbacks when they selected Hultzen out of high school in the 10th round of the 2008 draft.

“They have said some things that made me feel really good about my situation, feel good about what’s going on,” Hultzen said. “I can’t thank them enough for being fully behind me as they have during this time. That’s been really great.”

The decision to try pitching in relief has been mutually agreed upon. Based on his history, that approach makes sense to Hultzen.

“Last year during spring training and extended I was feeling great when I was throwing one and two innings and I started having issues when I started going three to four innings,” he said. “So if I don’t have to do that again for a while, that really is in my favor that I can stay healthy.”

One bonus is that once he is allowed to go 100 percent, there is no holding back in relief. He is free to let loose.

“That’s one of the things I am excited about, is you can just go out there and go as hard as you can for a inning or two and that will be it,” he said.

The short-term bullpen fix may be the perfect fit, or someday, maybe we see him starting again. One thing is for certain. This is someone you want to see on the mound at Safeco Field. Hultzen is doing everything he can do to get there.

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The bullpen could be a great fit for Mariners’ Danny Hultzen, for now