8/21/2014 3:45 P.M. ET
Reborn Young helping key Mariners' hunt for October
Fully healthy for first time since '07, towering right-hander among AL's top hurlers
By Greg Johns / MLB.com
BOSTON -- If you're searching for one of the biggest reasons the Mariners are 10 games over .500 and thick in the hunt for their first postseason berth in 13 years as the calendar rolls toward late August, just look up. Then look a little higher.
That's where you'll find Chris Young, the tallest active player in Major League Baseball at 6-foot-10 and a looming presence in Seattle's sudden rise up the American League ladder.
It's not easy for Young to fly under the radar, but that's where he's been the last six seasons while battling a series of shoulder issues that required a pair of surgeries and eventually a diagnosis of thoracic outlet syndrome that ultimately salvaged a career he admits was about out of chances.
Now fully healthy for the first time since his 2007 All-Star season with the Padres, Young has emerged as a leading contender for the AL Comeback Player of the Year Award while teaming with Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma as the most effective starting trio in the league.
As a former Princeton basketball and baseball standout with a degree in politics, Young has always kept a pretty good perspective on things. But the 35-year-old said he's having the time of his life this season while putting up a 12-6 record and a 3.07 ERA after doctors solved a nerve blockage issue in June 2013 that he now believes had been the underlying and unsolved problem for years.
Young pitched nine games in the Minors for the Nationals last year while yielding a 6.81 ERA, then he was released by that club at the end of Spring Training. But he signed a late one-year, $1.25 million base deal with Seattle and has proceeded to become what manager Lloyd McClendon calls "a godsend" for a pitching staff that leads the Majors in ERA.
Young, who next pitches Saturday in Boston, has already accumulated an extra $2.275 million in performance bonuses, and he can max out his incentives for an additional $1.2 million if he makes four more starts and throws another 33 1/3 innings. But that's been a bargain for a club that opened the season looking for a fill-in starter with Iwakuma and top prospect Taijuan Walker on the disabled list and wound up instead with a quality hurler and valuable veteran presence in the clubhouse as well.
While reliever Joe Beimel is a strong AL Comeback Player of the Year Award contender in his own right -- he's posted a 1.19 ERA in 44 relief appearances in his first year in the Majors since 2011 following Tommy John elbow surgery -- Young looms as the largest single factor in solidifying Seattle's turnaround.
Young has already pitched his most innings (146 2/3) since 2007 and matched his most wins in a season (12-7 for the Padres in 2005). While Hernandez and Iwakuma understandably draw the most attention, Young has quietly put together a season in which he's fourth in the AL in batting average against (.216), 10th in WHIP (1.11) and 11th in ERA.
Not bad for a guy who wondered just last summer if his baseball days were done.
"I certainly feel like I've been through challenges," Young said. "I've learned a lot of life lessons through my rehabs and my surgeries. The importance of perseverance and believing in yourself, of really taking rehab and life, or whatever it is, one day at a time.
"A lot of times, we worry or stress about things that are beyond our control. So I've tried to be better about that. I think it's made me a better husband and a better dad, as well. I've learned so much through this that I know will stay with me the rest of my life."
The San Diego resident has found a perfect situation with a young team in the Pacific Northwest that has welcomed his quiet leadership and intense preparation. And Young, in turn, has rediscovered the joy of being able to take the ball every fifth day and perform at a very competitive level.
Young has a single-minded focus that is hard to crack, but he has heeded McClendon's advice to enjoy this journey the Mariners are on as they've elevated themselves above expectations and into playoff contention.
"I'm much better at that now, given my age and perspective," Young said. "It's been such a fun season and I'm trying to enjoy every minute of it, because you never know how and when it'll come to an end. It's inevitable that it will. But when this season ends, no matter whether we play all the way to the last game of the season or don't make the playoffs, I'll be extremely sad, because this is such a fun year with this group of guys and the camaraderie and team spirit we have here."
Young hasn't missed a game yet, other than his first outing in Oakland when poor field conditions canceled what was going to be his first start in the Majors since 2012. But after waiting an extra week, he stepped in and has taken the ball every turn since without as much as a wince.
McClendon has been mindful of pushing Young's pitch counts too high given his history, and he's given him an extra day of rest on occasion -- but no more than any of the other pitchers on the staff.
And Young certainly isn't dwelling on his mounting innings or a need to be careful at this point.
"I haven't thought that much about it, because I've been healthy," he said. "I've had normal throwing routines between starts, normal recovery. If anything has popped up, it's been extremely minor, things that would be expected during a normal season. I feel good and excited to keep taking the ball.
"As Lloyd has reminded us, you get so focused and tunnel-visioned that you forget about the big picture and the journey and where you've come from," Young said. "So when I step back for just a second, I have great appreciation for that. But that being said, I feel to be successful and continue to improve, you can't really step back too much. You keep moving, keep going forward, keep looking for ways to improve."
And for Young, that process has taken him back to a place he's longed to be in recent years: healthy, up on the hill and helping a team pursue its dreams.