Zych threw a live batting practice session and is getting closer to pitching in Cactus League games

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PEORIA, Ariz. — Tony Zych’s first time facing live hitters this spring was certain to draw a crowd. It’s a major step in the hard-throwing reliever’s recovery from offseason shoulder surgery.

And it did, with manager Scott Servais, general manager Jerry Dipoto, pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre along with several other Mariners staffers from the field staff and baseball operations staff gathered around the on-field batting cage on Field 1 to watch Zych pitch a live batting practice session Tuffy Gosewisch taking swings in the batter’s box and bullpen catcher Fleming Baez behind the plate.

“When Jerry and Scott are there watching, you know it’s important,” Zych said jokingly.

With the audience, Zych threw a mixture of fastballs and sliders to Gosewisch, simulating certain situations. A few of the crisp fastballs and bending sliders drew vocal approval from all watching.

“I felt really good,” Zych said. “After a couple of pitches and I felt like I was right there. Obviously, I wasn’t trying to do too, too much. Just get out in front with a hitter in the box and try not to hit him.”

But beyond monitoring the health of Zych’s surgically repaired shoulder, the big crowd was a factor of a few new elements at play for the Mariners in his progression — need and time.

Zych’s importance to the Mariners pitching depth in the bullpen has ascended in the last week with fellow right-hander Shae Simmons getting shut down with a forearm strain and Steve Cishek’s recovery from hip surgery progressing at a rate slow enough for the Mariners to know he likely won’t be ready until around late April.

Add to the fact that Nick Vincent has struggled this spring (15.75 ERA and four homers allowed in four innings pitched) and none of the non-roster invitees looking that dominant and there is some concern about quality right-handed depth. If Simmons isn’t ready by opening day, the Mariners five right-handers in the bullpen would be Edwin Diaz, Vincent, Evan Scribner, Casey Fien and Dan Altavilla. The only fully healthy right-handed reliever behind them on the 40-man roster is youngster Thyago Vieira, who isn’t quite ready for big-league games.

The Mariners won’t take a projected starting pitcher for Class AAA Tacoma like Chris Heston or Rob Whalen and make him a reliever. They are already considering that with lefty Ariel Miranda.

“We are going to try and take our best guys out of the bullpen,” Servais said. “That’s kind of the philosophy that comes from the ideas we talked about this spring.”

A healthy Zych would provided needed depth and he possibly be one of the best guys available come opening day. He brings an element of power that Vincent, Scribner and Fien don’t possess.

Obviously, the Mariners won’t rush Zych’s progression out of need. But he’s gone from a pitcher that was ticketed for Tacoma or extended spring training to an outside opening day to a possibility. If the Mariners decided to go with an eight-man bullpen to start the season, something Servais said the team has considered, a spot could be there for Zych.

“We’ve discussed all kinds of different options in how you want to break camp and who we play against on that first road trip and how their lineups set up and how we match up there,” Servais said of an eight-man bullpen. “It would be a decision we make right at the end of camp. We’ve talked about it.”

While the expectation for Zych to push for a spot in the bullpen seemed like an impossibility when pitchers and catchers reported, given his surgery recovery and based on the pitchers projected ahead of him, he never gave up that possibility.

“My goal is to be on the team and do what I can to help as soon as I can,” he said. “I would like that. But obviously I’ve got to listen to myself and how I respond to this and see how I feel tomorrow.”

Zych has done that this spring, trying not to push too much, too fast. He completed the throwing progression from hours of flat-ground catch, to long toss, to bullpens and now a live batting practice session.

“I’ve wanted to do this so bad,” he said. “My favorite thing is competing and that’s what I want to do. I haven’t gotten that adrenaline going in a while. Just to bring it up a little bit was awesome.”

He never thought once about the biceps tendon that had been reattached in his shoulder.

“No, once I got out there, I felt great,” Zych said. “There was no hesitation. It is what it is, it’s either attached or it’s not, right? Fastball, slider, I was getting the four seam away. I was working on that in the bullpens and that was really good today.”

The live bullpen offered a test on another level. Zych has modified his mechanics this offseason to protect the shoulder, but also out of need for consistency and better action on his pitches.

“It’s 50-50,” he said of the reasoning. “We looked at it at first as a way to definitely protect the shoulder, get in a better position and use more of my body so I’m not putting extra stress on it. But it also really helped me get out front and the ball was doing good things. I’m excited about it.”

The changes give his fastball and slider not necessarily more, but better movement.

“It’s later and able to get through (the strikezone) better,” Zych said.

Zych hopes to throw one more live bullpen session and then begin throwing in Cactus League games. If he stays on track and without setbacks, he gives the Mariners another, and possibly needed, right-hand option for the bullpen.