People in the Mariners organization have said this season could hinge on Cishek, who lost the closer’s job last season with Miami, returning to form.
Trying to decide which of the many Mariners reclamation acquisitions might be most important in 2016 isn’t simple.
The case could be made for Leonys Martin, who played himself out of a starting center-field spot with the Texas Rangers. One could point to catcher Chris Iannetta, who hit .188 last season for the Los Angeles Angels. Both are positions at which the Mariners need a serious upgrade.
But the Mariners’ accomplishments and their postseason hopes could hinge on the broad shoulders of closer Steve Cishek.
Feb. 18: Voluntary spring training reporting date for pitchers and catchers.
Feb. 23: Voluntary reporting date for other players.
March 2: Mariners spring training opener, vs. Padres in Peoria, Ariz., 12:10 p.m. PT (charity game)
April 3: Regular-season opening day.
April 4: Mariners season opener, at Texas, 1:05 p.m.
April 8: Mariners home opener, vs. Oakland, 7:10 p.m.
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Perhaps a quick reminder of last season’s late-inning failures is in order. The Mariners’ bullpen finished with 24 blown saves, 36 losses and a 4.15 ERA, fourth-worst in the AL.
The Mariners had 12 walkoff losses and 27 losses in an opponent’s final at-bat. The Fernando Rodney Experience finally ran out of chances, and he lost the closing job in June. Carson Smith filled in for a two-month period before flaming out. Tom Wilhelmsen, who had lost the closing job in 2013, finished the season as de facto closer in underwhelming fashion.
To steal a football cliché regarding quarterbacks, if you have three closers in a season, you have no closer.
The stability of a bullpen begins with the ninth inning, and everything follows from there.
Cishek knows a little about the chaos that comes with a closer losing his job.
After two and a half seasons as the Miami Marlins’ closer, he lost the job a month and a half into the 2015 season.
“When you’re pitching in the ninth inning and you’re mechanically not very comfortable, it’s pretty hard to have the confidence you had in years past,” he said. “I just lost confidence early because I didn’t feel the same on the mound. It reflected in my performance and unfortunately hurt the team early on as well. It was a bummer.”
He was relegated to a setup role and traded to the St. Louis Cardinals. But the desire to close never left. And he was given another chance with the Mariners.
Cishek was signed in the offseason to anchor a bullpen that has undergone an overhaul. General manager Jerry Dipoto eschewed the higher-priced free agents and signed Cishek to a two-year, $10 million deal, believing he can return to his 2013-2014 form when he saved 73 games.
“The first thing I would say is that Steve Cishek, prior to last year, was one of the premier closers in the game for the previous two seasons,” Dipoto said. “His 2014 season is on par with just about anybody we can talk about as a premium free agent. There is no reason to expect him to return to that level, but there’s no reason to expect that 2015 is his new talent level.”
After his struggles in 2015, Cishek wasn’t certain he’d be given another chance to close right away.
“Obviously, I want to be back in that role again,” he said. “I enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes with it and the pressure. I wanted to give it another shot. I couldn’t have been happier when I signed this deal and have this job.”
Though Cishek had success as a setup man in 2015, he admitted it isn’t the same as succeeding in save situations.
“It’s a lot different,” he said. “As much as you want to say it’s not and that you treat it the same, it’s not even close to the same adrenaline you get when you run out of the bullpen in the ninth. The team is relying on you to get those three outs. And it sounds simple, but they aren’t the easiest three outs. It can be really difficult sometimes, but that’s what makes it so much fun — having all that pressure.”
It’s why people in the Mariners organization have said this season could hinge on Cishek returning to form. It allows Joaquin Benoit to pitch in his best role as a setup man and right-handers Evan Scribner and Justin De Fratus to work the middle innings.
“That’s the best part of it,” Cishek said. “You know the team is relying on you to secure wins. There is nothing more gratifying.”
Cishek said last year’s struggles have prepared him for this season.
“I learned to handle adversity, so if this problem comes up in the future I know how to take care of it quicker,” he said.
He also has adjusted some of the mechanical issues that cost him command of his nasty sinker and mitigated the effectiveness of his slider — a pitch he needs, particularly against left-handed hitters.
Left-handed hitters had a .754 OPS against Cishek last season with a whopping .384 on-base percentage. In 99 plate appearances, he walked 17 and struck out just 18. By comparison in 2014, left-handed hitters produced a .586 OPS against Cishek with a .270 on-base percentage. In 154 plate appearances, lefties had just 10 walks and 54 strikeouts.
“It hurt my slider,” he said of the mechanical problems. “It’s something I relied upon in years past is throwing sliders to both sides of the plate. I just didn’t have that command last year, especially early on. It hurt my approach with lefties. I was in hitter’s counts a lot with lefties, and they put good swings on them.”
Cishek hasn’t thrown a bullpen session but has thrown flat-ground sessions. And he says the slider seems to be back.
“It already feels better coming out of my hand than it did last year,” he said.
The Mariners hope save situations will feel better than they did last year, too.
|Steve Cishek file|
|Age: 29 Throws: Right Height: 6-6 Weight: 215Signed by Mariners as free agent through 2017 season for $10 million over both seasons.|
|2010 Florida (3 games)||0-0||0.00||0|
|2015 Miami, St. Louis||2-6||3.58||4|