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Drayer: Mariners’ Tom Murphy healthy as he prepares to finally follow up on his 2019 breakout

Mariners catcher Tom Murphy turned heads with an .858 OPS in 2019. (Getty)

The mask Mariners catcher Tom Murphy wore could only partially hide the smile on his face while he conducted his Zoom session with the media Saturday afternoon.

With a season lost to injury behind him, it was good to be back.

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“I think they could have probably thrown anything at me that first day and I would have been alright with it because it just felt right,” Murphy said from spring training. “It felt right being back out there with the guys. I spent some time with them last year but it just didn’t feel like you were part of the team when you’re not out there grinding out each day with the guys.”

Of all of the returning Mariners players in 2020, perhaps none looked forward more to getting going again than Murphy. Heading into his age 29 season, he was well aware that baseball isn’t forever, and his breakout in the big leagues came late. In 2019, the Mariners had given Murphy opportunity and he ran with it.

Having accumulated just 196 plate appearances in parts of four seasons with the Rockies, the Mariners acquired Murphy right before the start of the 2019 season. At one time a highly regarded catching prospect, he had failed to produce with the bat in his limited opportunities with Colorado, and he came to the Mariners with his eyes and ears wide open to what the organization had to offer him in terms of improving his game. The result? Murphy hit .273/.324/.535 for a .858 OPS while accumulating 3.2 fWAR.

“I couldn’t be more thankful that this organization was the one that picked me up and decided to give me a shot,” he said. “They didn’t have to do the things that they did. They didn’t have to try to bring me on but they did and they let me be who I was and actually advanced upon that. They made me better than what I realized I could be and a lot of the credit goes to the guys who are here.”

He figured to get the bulk of the playing time behind the plate in 2020, but that plan came to an end when he fractured a bone in his foot in summer camp. With surgery not an option, his recovery turned into a waiting game that took place in both Seattle and at the Mariners’ complex in Peoria, Ariz., before he was finally sent home when it became apparent he would not be able to return. The end of a season that should have been left Murphy in unfamiliar territory.

“Usually when you get home it’s a great time to reflect on the season you just had – good bad indifferent, you can pull something form it – but it felt like I had nothing to pull from in that season,” he said. “It kind of gets turned into your identity. I try not to identify as a baseball player but it is very hard to do that. To go home with nothing to feed off of in the offseason, it’s a very different feel. It took me a while to really feel normal again and be prepared like I feel I am now.”

Part of feeling normal returned when the avid outdoorsman was able to spend time in the woods surrounding his home in upstate New York in October and November.

“You find that better space in the world just being out there alone and really reflecting on how you are feeling,” Murphy said. “I cherish that time as much as any time because it is that chance to look inward and how to improve. It’s super important for me.”

As for the foot, Murphy put it to the test in November with some sprints and shortly after was able to fall into his normal offseason training routine. That included everything from workouts, to weekly “Game Calling U” sessions with Mariners pitching coaches and catchers, to work in the cage hitting off machines. Having not seen live pitching since intrasquad games last July, hitting remains the biggest question mark at this point.

“All the scenarios of practice I am very comfortable with in terms of timing,” he said. “But that’s a whole different ballgame once you step into the box against other guys. Obviously that’s the name of the game, that variability not know what’s coming. I look forward to my at-bats to progress through spring training and hopefully will be as comfortable from day 1 of the season as possible.”

Murphy reports that there have been no issues so far with his foot and that he hopes the trend continues. In an effort to protect the foot, he said he is not without a leg guard any time he swings the bat. If all goes well, after a year-long delay Tom Murphy will finally get the opportunity to build on a breakout 2019 season.

Follow Shannon Drayer on Twitter.

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