The last night of “summer camp 2020” should have been one of celebration and anticipation. With the sun finally emerging around first pitch, making the evening feel warmer than the day, the Mariners finished three weeks of rushed preparation — daily workouts and 12 intrasquad games.
They will travel to Houston on Thursday to open the delayed and shortened 2020 season Friday evening against the Astros at Minute Maid Park.
“We completed summer camp,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “We didn’t have any marshmallows around the campfire, but we are pretty excited to get this rolling. I didn’t know that we’d get to this point, quite frankly, when this whole thing started. With all the testing we’d have to overcome to get to opening day, I questioned whether it could happen or not. But it’s a testament to our players and the people around Major League Baseball to put the protocols in place. Our guys our excited as heck, and so am I. It’s going to be a quick season, but at least we got one.”
But any joy from finishing their first, and hopefully last, summer camp, or the dominant showing from lefty Justus Sheffield, was tempered with the knowledge that their starting catcher wouldn’t be traveling with them on this first road trip.
After Servais said during his afternoon media session that Tom Murphy’s ailing left foot wasn’t responding to treatment, and he might not be ready for opening day, general manager Jerry Dipoto broke the news on Root Sports’ first and only broadcast of summer camp. He announced that Murphy has a fracture in his foot and would be placed on the 10-day injured list to start the season.
“It is a blow,” Servais said. “I feel bad for Murph. This guy works as hard as anybody we have. He comes to the ballpark with great attitude every day, but things happen. I’m hoping he’s not down for too long, but I also don’t want him to rush back.”
Murphy injured the foot when he fouled a ball off the top of it during a live batting-practice session. Two days later, he took a foul tip off the same foot while catching, leaving him screaming in pain and frustration. He tried to play through the pain, taking several at-bats as the designated hitter and even catching a few innings.
“He was trying play through it, but the foot just wasn’t responding,” Servais said.
The Mariners officially announced that Murphy was diagnosed with a fractured metatarsal in his left foot and would be placed on the injured list when the team submitted their opening-day roster before Thursday’s 9 a.m. deadline.
Having any player projected to be a starter go on the injured list two days before the start of the season is less than ideal. But given the Mariners’ lack of catching depth, losing Murphy is costly.
It means that Austin Nola will assume the starting duties, while Joe Hudson will likely be added to the 40-man roster to serve as the backup.
“Austin Nola will get plenty of time back there as will Joe Hudson,” Servais said.
Between the two of them, they’ve started a total of eight games — four each — at the MLB level and combined to appear in seven other games at the position.
The other two catchers in camp are Brian O’Keefe, who was minor league Rule 5 draft selection with no MLB experience and top catching prospect Cal Raleigh, who probably isn’t ready to be the backup.
Dipoto said Monday that they were in the process of trying to acquire another catcher with MLB experience either through free agency or a player that doesn’t make an opening-day roster.
But any player would have to clear intake testing, which would take at least two to three days.
Nola, 30, was drafted by the Marlins as a shortstop in the fifth round of the 2012 draft. He toiled in the minor leagues for five seasons, reaching the Triple A level but never seeming close to the big leagues.
At the end of the 2016 season, he was asked to try catching. It might offer a different path while still taking advantage of his soft hands and solid arm. He went to the Arizona Fall League to learn the position. He started his first game at the position on Nov. 4, 2016 as a member of the Mesa Solar Sox.
The Mariners signed him last offseason as a minor league free agent to serve as the catcher at Class AAA Tacoma. But after several injuries and multiple transactions removing players from the roster, Nola, who had a .327/.415/.520 slash line 55 games with the Rainiers, earned a call-up as a bench player to play first base with Murphy and Narvaez handling catcher.
After playing sparingly over the first 10 days, he moved into the lineup on a near full-time basis, posting a .269/.342/.454 slash line with 12 doubles, a triple, 10 homers and 31 RBI in 79 games. While the Mariners only saw him catch a handful of times, they knew he was a significantly better defensive catcher than Narvaez, who became expendable and was traded to the Brewers in the offseason.
“It’s remarkable how quickly Austin’s made the transition and how he handles himself behind the plate,” Servais said earlier in camp. “And if you watch him catch and how he receives the ball, it’s as good as anyone I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s very, very natural for him.”
Hudson, who has caught in more than 500 games in the minor leagues, was sidelined early in spring training with an oblique strain. He also missed almost the first two weeks of summer camp, awaiting clearance from intake testing for COVID-19. With Murphy not catching, the Mariners put him into games and made sure he caught Sheffield in the last intrasquad game.
“Joe really brings a great attitude, and he’s done a great job defensively and really stood out,” Servais said. “He’s got a very outgoing personality and a guy that’s in the middle of our meetings and really grasps what we are trying to do with our pitching.”
Working with Hudson, Sheffield was brilliant pitching, four perfect innings — retiring all 12 players he faced while striking out eight batters.
“I knew this was the last one and I wanted to turn it up a little bit,” Sheffield said. “I felt like my slider was really good today and I could see the movement on my fastball getting guys of the plate.”
Servais was pleased with how Hudson handled Sheffield’s outing.
“Seeing him back there tonight and the last few games he caught, his understanding of sequencing pitches is really good,” Servais said. “He’s been around. He’s caught a lot at high levels. It really doesn’t take him long to get him in sync with our starting pitchers, especially with our young guys who will need his help.”
Adams out as well
Murphy won’t be the only key contributor to start the shortened season on the injured list. Right-handed reliever Austin Adams, perhaps the Mariners most effective reliever, will be on the injured list.
Adams underwent offseason surgery on Oct. 15, 2019 to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee. He suffered the injury on Sept. 21 on a play in the field. Adams reported to summer camp with no pain in the knee, having thrown multiple bullpens and a live batting-practice session during the shutdown. He was active early in camp, throwing a live batting practice session and appearing in two intrasquad games early. But the rapid pace wasn’t good for the knee, causing some discomfort.
“I think we maybe tried to ramp him up a little too quick and if you know Austin he wanted to ramp himself up a little too quick,” Servais said. “We are so playing him a little bit. We want to make sure that knee is completely healthy.”