Mariners' utility man Shawn O'Malley knows the odds are against him making the team's Opening Day roster but says he is intent on enjoying the baseball ride wherever it takes him.
In many other years and many other camps, Shawn O’Malley might not have to consider that as early as Sunday the Mariners could tell him he’s being sent to the minors.
O’Malley’s 16 runs scored are the most of any player in the Cactus or Grapefruit leagues, and his .471 average is the second-highest on the Mariners of anyone with more than two at-bats.
“He’s played great,’’ manager Scott Servais said of O’Malley.
But at the moment, there also simply doesn’t appear to be a spot for O’Malley on the roster. O’Malley’s only real shot to make it is as a utility infielder. But one of the main requirements of that role with this Mariner team is playing shortstop, and for that reason the nod appears likely to go to Luis Sardinas, regarded as the better fielder and also a player the Mariners acquired in a trade with Milwaukee this off-season (as well as having been drafted by Texas when Servais was the director of player development there).
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“To be your utility infielder, you have to be able to play shortstop,’’ Servais said. “(Third baseman) Kyle Seager and (second baseman) Robbie Cano are not going to play shortstop for us, so it’s got to be one of the guys that would be in that utility role and that’s the job he’s competing for.”
It’s the kind of situation that a few years ago might have kept O’Malley up nights.
A fifth-round pick of Tampa Bay in 2006, the Richland native and graduate of Southridge High in Kennewick thought about giving up baseball following the 2013 season when the Rays released him after a couple of shoulder surgeries had stunted his progress, never making it past Class AAA.
But the sudden death that summer due to heart attack of his father, Rich, and some encouraging words from his wife, Samantha, a college basketball coach, led to some reassessments of his life and career.
“It’s silly how you put so much pressure on yourself,’’ O’Malley says, recalling traps he felt he fell into.
So he decided to keep playing, but to do so with a different outlook. Having already spent a few days contemplating life after baseball he said he was now determined to just enjoy wherever the ride took him.
And the following year, at age 26, he finally made his Major League debut late in the 2014 with the Angels. He signed the following off-season with the Mariners, where he thrived in a late-season call-up, hitting .262 in 24 games and a .418 on-base-plus-slugging average.
“That really just taught me how to have fun with the game and not put so much pressure on myself,’’ he said. “Now I’m away from that. I’m loving it and I just want to have fun and play baseball like I did when I was 10 years old, playing in the backyard with your buddies, trying to impersonate Ken Griffey Jr. That’s what I try to do every day and strive for.’’
Which is why he says he’s also not stressing the possibility that having done just about everything statistically he could reasonably be asked to do he’s still likely to begin the year in Tacoma.
“You see what’s going on,’’ he said. “It’s a numbers game. But obviously at the end of the day I can’t control anything except what I can do to prepare for the game. When I start thinking about competition with somebody else I become selfish. I want to be a selfless person and show that I can help this team, that it’s not about me.’’
So O’Malley says he’ll make the most of Tacoma, if that’s the decision, knowing Seattle is short drive and a roster move away.
His stint with the Mariners last year not only reinforced the wisdom of his new-found outlook on baseball but also represented the fulfillment of a childhood dream. His father had been a devout Mariners fan, forever proud to say he had made the drive from the Tri-Cities to attend Game 5 of the American League Division Series against the Yankees.
He knows how cool his dad would think it is that Shawn O’Malley now takes daily batting instruction from the man who drove in the winning run that day, Edgar Martinez.
But he also knows how close those moments came to not happening, and that they won’t last forever. So he’s promising to just enjoy each moment, however many as he gets.
“It always reverts back to ‘hey, when I was having success what was I doing?’’’ he said. “It’s not that I wasn’t caring but that I was laidback and having fun and didn’t overanalyze every at-bat or every day. Some days you just don’t have it, and some days you have it and some days you don’t know how you got four hits, but it just happens.’’