For the Mariners, early work isn’t only for the slumping, the struggling or the inexperienced, it’s for everybody.
In years past, seeing players out on the field before the normal team pregame workouts meant there was something specific being addressed. Perhaps early batting practice for players not feeling right at the plate or for bench players who hadn’t seen the field much in past games.
If there was early fielding work, it was for a player to address a fundamental flaw or some additional work for a player not executing the routine plays.
But for the Mariners now, there is one overlying reason for early work — it’s what they do.
It started with the daily ground-ball work by the infielders initiated by infield coach Perry Hill and former second baseman Dee Gordon during the 2019 season when the team was abysmal in the field.
And now weather permitting, they do it before every game, even on day games after night games when most teams don’t do much on the field.
It’s become part of their daily routine.
The Mariners have also added other aspects of the game to the daily early work.
Before Saturday’s game, Seattle had pitchers’ doing fielding practice, going over the fundamentals of throwing double plays to second base, covering first base on ground balls to the right side of the field and fielding bunts.
“I think it’s really important to be consistent with the early work,” Servais said. “If there’s a particular play that we’re struggling with or haven’t executed very well, those are the things that are always going to stick out. You want to get out and talk about it and go through some physical work on the field with it.”
Earlier on the homestand, the Mariners had catchers Tom Murphy, Cal Raleigh and Luis Torrens on the field in full gear, working on tag plays at the plate. They spent a large amount of time working on getting their feet in the right position, receiving the ball cleanly and making a strong tag. It’s a play they have been less than stellar at this season.
“The tag play for us at times, whether we haven’t maybe stopped the ball or redirected the ball to stop the batter or runner from going, it’s a feel play,” Servais said. “You need to practice it. You also need to do it at game speed, which we cannot simulate in early work.”
The work proved beneficial as catcher Tom Murphy cleanly fielded a one-hop throw from first baseman Ty France to tag out Santiago Espinal at home to keep Friday’s score tied going into the bottom of the ninth and set up a 3-2 win. Espinal tried to tag up and score on France’s over-the-shoulder catch in foul territory behind the first-base bag. Instead it was an inning-ending double play.
“Carson Vitale works with our catchers daily,” Servais said. “A lot of things they do, you don’t see. It’s underneath in the tunnel where they’re catching off the machines and working on their framing, they’re in the bullpen, there’s a lot of things going on through the course of the day. But getting a chance to get out there and do some tag plays the other day was something that they wanted to work on. I thought it was great. And then a couple nights later, it pays off.”
There’s a lot that goes into the play that makes it difficult.
“The glove is a huge thing in it,” Murphy said. “It’s not designed to hold on to a baseball. It’s designed to just receive it. Secondly, I have no vision of what’s going on, so as I turn I’m kind of gaining information as my eyes catch up to what’s happening behind me. So as I’m turning, I’m just kind of making the best estimated guess possible about where that guy could be. And yesterday, it wasn’t like a violent tag, but it was enough. Obviously I had it braced. Really it was just about being in the right position, and then trusting that if I turn and put my glove in the area, I’m going to get him.”
The call on the field was safe, but a replay review changed the call to an out. Murphy having his foot blocking the plate helped immensely.
“What I do is I always put my foot up the third-base line so I have a point of reference and I’m giving him a lane, but I also know I’m exactly where I’m at,” Murphy said, referring to the rules on blocking the plate. “So as I’m catching it, I have that foot on the line or somewhere near there as I turn. I just happened to extra rotate my foot and he went right into it.”
Murphy is also happy about the rule change where he can no longer get “trucked” by a base-runner trying to knock the ball loose. Even with his size and strength, the stationary catcher usually loses in collisions with a base runner at full speed.
“It doesn’t have to be a big guy,” he said. “They can get so much speed and momentum built up that it can be a bad collision. … Everybody saw what happened to (catcher Jonathan Lucroy) a few years back and I don’t think he’s been the same since. For something like that to derail a guy’s career, I don’t think it’s a necessary part of the game.”
Lewis ‘looked great’
Servais was quite pleased with Kyle Lewis’ first on-field batting practice before Friday’s game. It was his first since undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. Lewis took pregame BP before Saturday’s game as well.
“He looked great,” Servais said. “I’m really excited about what I saw out of Kyle yesterday. I know he’s been hitting a lot with Ichiro in the cages. To really get a feel for where he’s at physically and where the bat was, I thought it looked awesome. It was way better than I thought it would look.”
But don’t start penciling Lewis back in your lineup just yet.
“With where Kyle’s at in his progression right now, and just talking to our trainers, he’s not up to 100 percent running,” Servais said. “His running progression is a little bit behind where he’s at with the bat right now. That’s the next thing that he really needs to focus on is, making sure his running progression is up. As soon as it gets to the point where he gets on the bases, start making some turns and doing some things like that, then you’re talking about going out on a rehab.”