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Mariners Keynan Middleton
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Drayer: New Mariners RHP Keynan Middleton reunited with the GM who saw something in him

Keynan Middleton was more concentrated on basketball when he was drafted. (Getty)

If environment plays into success, new Mariners reliever Keynan Middleton may already be one step ahead of the game in his return to pre-Tommy John surgery form.

M’s bullpen additions: Sign Keynan Middleton | Trade for Rafael Montero

From being raised in the Portland area by a family of “huge” baseball fans, to being reunited with the general manager who saw things in him he didn’t when he was drafted at 19 years old, to the comfort level he quickly found with his new coaching staff, Middleton believes he is in the right place.

“It was a no-brainer for me almost,” he said Wednesday on a video call with media members after his signing with the Mariners was announced. “This is an organization that is trending in the right direction. I am happy to be a part of it.”

Middleton admitted that he was not surprised that the Angels non-tendered him after what he called his first rough season, a season in which he was coming back from a torn ulnar collateral ligament.

“Seven years is a long time, a lot of stuff happened and that’s all I am really going to say about that,” he said about his time with the Angels.

Any sting from the Angels’ non-tender was erased by the opportunity to reunite with the general manager who brought him into the organization – Jerry Dipoto, the current Mariners GM who selected him in the third round of the 2013 draft when he held the same position for Los Angeles.

“When Jerry drafted me, I honestly didn’t see what he saw,” said Middleton. “So I trust Jerry 100 percent because it turned out it worked out for me when he drafted me.”

Middleton at the time was a freshman at Lane Community College in Euguene, Ore., and he said he was shocked to be drafted because he believed then that basketball was his No. 1 sport. While still relatively new to baseball, he impressed enough for the Angels to take him with their second pick that year.

“We saw a tremendous athlete with a fast arm and the ability to create natural spin,” Dipoto recalled. “He was a basketball player who hadn’t spent a ton of time on the mound. Our belief was that given the opportunity to focus on baseball only, he had the potential to flourish.”

There was a lot of work to be done. By Dipoto’s recollection, Middleton had logged fewer than 100 innings on the mound at the time he entered the organization. Along with the work, there were lumps to be taken, lessons to be learned.

“I just trusted the process,” said Middleton. “I was not ready to play pro ball. I was not really so I just had to take my lumps. I had to learn how to pitch, how to play the game. I never was discouraged. When Jerry was in the organization they never let me get discouraged.”

Middleton’s latest challenge has been coming back from the Tommy John surgery he underwent to repair the UCL tear two years ago. In his brief return in 2019 he felt good and put up numbers, but he didn’t have his velocity. In 2020, the velocity returned, and he admits at times he tended to overthrow and rely on his fastball too much because it once again felt good.

“I feel like command was an issue because last year I fell in love with (the fastball) … I threw the hardest stuff of my career so I was just trying to get used to that and trying to use my fastball too much, but I feel if I mix my pitches it is going to be a whole new story,” he said.

A whole new story with a whole new ball club and staff, one that he has gotten to know in the past few days and is eager to get to work with.

“It’s a young staff. It’s all for the players,” he said. “I’ve been places where it’s not the same. They want to know about you, they are not trying to change you. They are trying to get the best out of you. Just the relationships that I have heard on the team are a very strong bond. I’m ready to be a part of that anf that’s what I’m really excited about.”

The excitement extends to his family, who Middleton says have been in constant contact since he let them know he was joining the Mariners.

“My family are huge fans,” he said. “All my family is a baseball family and all they do is watch Mariners games. When we are at a family reunion, listening to Mariners games. They are so hyped, I’m just so excited. That’s the only team I saw on TV growing up. It’s huge to me.”

Follow Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

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