02/24/09 11:06 PM EST
Batista among Seattle's closer options
Mariners looking for pitcher who can handle late-game pressure
By Jim Street / MLB.com
This is his 13th season in the Major Leagues -- and the first time he reported to Spring Training competing for the closer job.
"I was the closer for Toronto in 2005," he said Tuesday, "but it wasn't until midway through camp when someone came up and talked to me about closing. It was between me and [Justin] Speier."
Batista won the job, registered 31 saves during the regular season, but he has spent the majority of the past three seasons as a starter. He made 33 starts and one relief appearance for the Diamondbacks in 2006, made 32 starts in 33 appearances for the Mariners in '07, when he led the team in wins with 16, and began last season in the rotation, adding 20 starts to his Major League resume, along with 24 relief appearances.
The Mariners opened camp with seven potential starters. He's not one of them.
"He is one of the closer candidates," first-year manager Don Wakamatsu said.
The first of 34 Cactus League games will be played Thursday afternoon against the Padres at Peoria Stadium, officially kicking off what could be one of the most competitive battles of the spring -- replacing right-hander J.J. Putz in the closer role.
In alphabetical order, the contenders are:
Right-hander David Aardsma, a 27-year-old former first-round Draft choice who averaged one strikeout per inning last season with the Red Sox.
Batista, a 37-year-old right-hander with 38 career saves under his belt, more than anyone else on the staff.
Roy Corcoran, the life of the party inside the clubhouse and a cool customer on the mound. He gives in to no one and speaks a different language than most.
Mark Lowe, who just might have the best pure stuff of the bunch -- a high-powered fastball, snappy slider and, when he's on, good control. He also has strong desire to be the closer.
Newcomer Tyler Walker, who also has big league closing experience, primarily with the Giants. If not the closer, he could become a quality right-handed setup man.
Five pitchers competing for the most pressurized job in the bullpen.
Wakamatsu said it's difficult in Spring Training to get an accurate gauge on how certain pitchers handle the pressure that goes with the job.
"We'll try to do the best we can of talking to these guys and watching them, to see how they react to giving up a run [that loses a game]," he said. "Competition is built in, against the other team and against each other. It will be interesting to see how they react to that."
So, what makes a good closer?
"I think their mentality for one," the manager said. "Can they believe in what they can do? No. 2 is emotions. I think emotions play a lot into how they handle pressure situations. You watch guys throw and get all excited, but until we see them compete, you never know."
Wakamatsu said the closer candidates have been asked whether they would prefer pitching earlier in the Cactus League games against Major League hitters or in actual save situations against primarily Minor League hitters.
"A lot of them said it doesn't matter," Wakamatsu said. "As we get deeper into spring, we want to see all of them in more pressure situations. Spring Training is tough [to evaluate]. We'll try to create that [competing] scenario.
"You will probably see a lot of guys that are competing for the job pitch early in the ballgame against some of the better hitters that are in the game, as opposed to Minor League players late in the game. As we go along in Spring Training, [we] will see them pitching deeper into the game."
Batista comes from the school of "bring it on."
"Even in the spring, I think you should get mentally ready to pitch the last inning," he said. "You wait for eight innings, get ready and go in there in the ninth. The mentality you have to develop is to treat the last inning like you are putting the last nails in the coffin."
Batista is entering the final year of a three-year, $27 million contract. So far he's batting .500, leading the team in wins with a 16-11 record in 2007 and tied for second on the team in losses last season when he wobbled to a 4-14 record.
The oldest player on the roster blames nagging injuries for his tough season, especially his back, which ached on and off the entire season, starting in Spring Training.
"I am just trying to stay healthy," he said. "If I'm healthy, I can pitch anywhere. That actually is my first priority right now, to make sure my back is OK. It's OK now. Some days are better than others, but it's a big improvement from last year. It was hurting every day.
"After that, my arm is in great shape. If I can get the rest of my body to combine with that, it will be a very fun season."
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.