Putz closing in on old form
Mariners reliever aiming to finish season on high note
SEATTLE -- The value of a closer usually is better determined by saves instead of wins.But that might not be the case with Mariners right-hander J.J. Putz, who tied a club record on Thursday night with victories in his last three relief appearances and continues to show signs of returning to form. Putz, who has been on the 15-day disabled list twice this season, causing him to miss 49 games, is 3-0 this month, working 3 2/3 scoreless innings in three relief appearances. The only glitch so far was a two-out, two-run double he surrendered to Twins pinch-hitter Mike Lamb on Wednesday afternoon that turned a one-run Seattle lead into a one-run deficit, costing him his sixth blown save of the season. But the Mariners rallied for two runs against Minnesota's All-Star closer Joe Nathan in the bottom of the eighth inning. Putz protected that lead in the ninth inning, surviving a bases-loaded jam, and won the game. He pitched a scoreless ninth inning in Thursday night's series opener against the Rays, striking out the last two batters he faced to escape a first-and-third, one-out predicament, and become the winning pitcher in the bottom of the ninth when Raul Ibanez delivered a walk-off home run. The three straight wins matches a rather obscure club record of most consecutive wins by a reliever, previously shared by John Montague (1977) and Enrique Romo ('78). Though still not quite the Putz of last season, when he converted 40 of his 42 save opportunities, he believes the remainder of the season will allow him to enter the offseason on an upbeat note. It begins with staying out of the trainer's room. When asked about his late-season ambitions, Putz said: "First and foremost is to stay healthy and try to regain that form from last year, giving me something to look forward to next year. I wouldn't wish what has happened to me this year on my worst enemy. "I consider this season to be a little bump in the road in my career, and I hope it makes me stronger physically and mentally all the way around." His last three outings have been encouraging on both counts. "For this first time [since being injured the first time], I got loose, like, in six pitches," he said of Thursday night's game. "I felt good warming up and had a good fastball coming into the game. It felt like it was coming out of hand really nice, smooth and effortless." When at his best, Putz (5-4, 4.40 ERA, seven saves) is as good as a closer gets, blowing hitters away with a high-90s fastball, or throwing them a devilish splitter that enters the hitting zone looking like a fastball and then dives sharply, below the knees and out of harm's way. "The last couple outings have been good," Putz said. "The biggest thing is just building that arm strength back. Once you get your arm strength back, the secondary pitches are going to be better. "Fastball command you can always work on, no matter how much strength you have in your arm. But the offspeed pitches and the secondary pitches are the ones that suffer when you don't have the arm strength. And once you get your arm strength back, it's naturally going to bring confidence in those pitches." After being in the mid-90s mph in most of his appearances since returning from his second stint on the DL with a hyperextended right elbow, Putz threw a 98-mph fastball to strike out Rays designated hitter Cliff Floyd in the ninth inning on Thursday night. It was Putz's fastest fastball since Opening Night on March 31, when he registered his first save of the season. "It's just encouraging that he's really making progress," Mariners manager Jim Riggleman said. "And the split that he threw to [Dioner] Navarro was really a great pitch, and the fastball to Cliff Floyd -- those two pitches were as good as it gets. Hopefully we can get that on a more consistent basis, and for two or three days in a row, like I'm sure you guys were used to seeing last year."
"That tells me I'm getting my arm strength back," Putz said, "but a 98-mph fastball down the middle doesn't do me any good. I still have to pitch, and I was able to make pitches the last couple of [outings]."He's off to a good start on his late-season goal.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.