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Mariners prospect Justus Sheffield
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Drayer: Change of scenery working out for Mariners prospect Justus Sheffield

Mariners pitching prospect Justus Sheffield has found his groove with Double-A Arkansas. (Getty)

There will be changes in the coming weeks and days with the Mariners’ 25-man roster, and one of those additions eventually will be left-handed pitcher Justus Sheffield.

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The centerpiece of the James Paxton trade with the Yankees, Sheffield was tabbed to be an important part of the Mariners’ future. It perhaps has taken longer than expected to get the 23 year old to the big league level, but after early stumbles in Triple-A forced the club to send him down to Double-A for a change of scenery, he appears to be back on track.

“I feel like I am in a pretty good spot,” Sheffield said last week when I made a trip to Frisco, Texas, to catch up with Seattle’s Double-A affiliate, the Arkansas Travelers. “When I am on the mound I just feel good. I had to take a step back but sometimes in life you have got to do that, but I feel like it actually has been a positive step forward for me and I just have to continue to build off where I am right now.”

After a strong showing in his first spring training with the Mariners, Sheffield posted a disappointing and perhaps alarming 6.87 ERA for Triple-A Tacoma with 41 walks and 48 strikeouts over 13 starts (55 innings). The reports were that Sheffield’s stuff was there but his command completely absent. There was talk that a factor in his performance was the letdown of not being named to the Mariners’ starting roster out of spring training, but a bigger issue pointed out by multiple people in the organization was controlling his emotions on mound. One person commented that it was as if Sheffield “completely lost his mind when he was on the hill.”

One issue Sheffield insists had nothing to do with his performance was the extreme hitting environment in the Triple-A Pacific Coast League this year. While the PCL’s home run numbers have almost doubled in 2019 thanks to a new baseball (the same one being used in the MLB) and already hitter-friendly parks, Sheffield would not use that as an excuse for his demotion.

“I was aware the ball was flying but I wasn’t thinking about it,” he said. “I’m a competitor. You can put me on a Little League field and I can face big league hitters and I’m still going to go out there and if I don’t pitch well I feel like it is something I am doing wrong. I don’t think it has anything to do with the ballpark or the ball or anything like that. You still have got to go out and get the guys out.”

On the Double-A fields of the Texas League, Sheffield has done exactly that.

In his nine starts (60 innings) with Arkansas, Sheffield has posted a 1.65 ERA while striking out 65 and walking just 14. The move to Double-A allowed Sheffield to take a much-needed deep breath and reset.

“It was kind of tough,” he acknowledged. “It was the first time in my career that I really struggled. To get past that, it was a learning experience. I know that this game is going to be full of failure but there will be positivity as well. I learned I just have to manage that and get past the failure as quick as possible.”

The change of scenery has done Sheffield good. Being further away from Seattle perhaps made it easier to focus on the task at hand and not the ultimate goal that was further in front of him. Film study made him realize just how far off he had gotten in Tacoma.

“I looked back at some film from spring training, saw some things that I wasn’t doing, that I kind of got away from,” he said. “It sucked that it took a little bit of time to get back to it but it’s finally there and I am just having fun with these guys.”

Having fun with teammates closer to his age appears to have had a positive impact as well.

“He looks like Justus,” observed fellow Arkansas starter Justin Dunn. “We have been having fun down here, keeping it light, bringing music to bullpens. We’re the same in the way that we like to stay athletic, loose and play with a little swag, a little energy. We’ve been keeping each other in check with that which is awesome and I definitely think our numbers have reflected that.”

As for the issue of controlling his emotions on the hill, Sheffield noted it’s a delicate balance and a continuing work in progress.

“When I get out there I’m in compete mode, bulldog mode. Sometimes it can affect me, but I think it works more than it doesn’t,” he said. “I would rather be one of those guys that has to step on the brake than one of the guys that has to get it going. That has never been a problem with me. Sometimes it is pulling the reins back but that’s who I am. I love the game and I love going out there and competing with my teammates.

“It’s one of those things where you have got to know yourself and know what you need to do to get back under control whether that’s breathing, stepping off the mound, finding something to look at. Everybody has their own little niche but I feel like every time I go out there I am getting more and more comfortable and the reps I am getting here will benefit that up there.”

With his command back, life on his fastball and better consistency with his slider, a chance to try out his mental approach “up there” should come soon. For now, Sheffield looks forward to his starts with the Travelers, who took the first-half division title and will be playing in the postseason. He said they should be favored to win.

“(Arkansas first baseman) Evan White has one of the best approaches I’ve seen,” Sheffield answered when asked who he likes to watch. “(Catcher) Joe Odom behind the dish, he steals so many strikes back there. He’s smart, he does his homework.

“I love watching Dunn out there, that’s my boy,” he continued. “Getting to pitch the day after him, that’s kind of cool. He gets me kind of fired up when he’s on the mound. I want to go out there and do what he’s doing and that’s going out there and shoving. (Outfielder) Kyle Lewis, (catcher) Cal Raleigh – tremendous pop. (Pitcher Logan) Gilbert, the ball just flies out of his hand, nice easy motion. It’s a good group.”

If things go well, a good number of that group could follow Sheffield to Seattle – and be together for a long time.

“That would be fun,” Sheffield said. “The chemistry is amazing. You look in the locker room, it’s never dead. I love coming to the field and being with these guys, getting to learn from them and vice versa. Trying to teach them some things like what goes on in the big leagues and things like that. It’s been a good mix.”

Read more from Shannon Drayer here.

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