PEORIA, Ariz. – The conversation was perhaps 15 seconds and completely one-sided.
Scott Servais did all the talking, forcing young Logan Gilbert to look him in the eye to make sure what he was saying was digested while still trying to maintain perspective and perhaps maybe make the panicked pitcher smile or just stop breathing quite so hard.
Meanwhile, it was clear Gilbert just wanted to hand Servais the baseball and exit the one place he’d always felt comfortable, even dominant – the pitcher’s mound – as quickly as possible so he could fully comprehend what had just transpired in private.
Gilbert’s first professional appearance of his young baseball career had come on March 10, 2019 in a Cactus League game vs. Cleveland at Peoria Stadium. The scheduled one-inning outing started off promising and spiraled into a disaster.
He never finished his inning of work, recording two outs while giving up five runs on four hits, including a homer, with a walk and a strikeout.
On the broadcast, former Mariners pitcher Ryan Rowland-Smith remarked as Gilbert trudged off the mound, “Hopefully this is something he can look back at and laugh.”
So can he?
“That was so crazy,” Gilbert said with a light chuckle. “I was so nervous. My hands felt like they were shaking the whole time. It was my first professional outing. It kind of caught me by surprise a little bit. You know, I think I’m ready for anything, but I got out there in that first appearance and it got the best of me.”
Now almost a year later, with nothing but baseball success since then, Gilbert will return to the scene of his unforgettable professional debut when he makes the start vs. the San Francisco Giants on Thursday.
“I’m ready to get back out there,” he said. “I’ve got a full season under my belt. I know what to expect now, so I’m really excited.”
Indeed, that full season was an outstanding one.
He made appearances at three affiliates, rising from Low-A West Virginia to High-A Modesto and ending the year with Class AA Arkansas. Armed with a high-90s fastball and a biting slider, he posted a combined 10-5 record with a 2.13 ERA in 26 starts. In 135 innings, he struck out 165 batters with 33 walks. The performance elevated him to the No. 1 pitching prospect in the organization.
Because of his workload and a case of mononucleosis, Gilbert didn’t pitch in the 2018 season after getting selected with the 14th overall pick of the 2018 draft out of Stetson University. The Mariners chose to let him rest and build up for 2019. It’s why his professional debut came in the Cactus League instead of the Arizona Rookie League or with short-season Everett months earlier.
Servais can laugh about the situation.
“I remember going to get the ball from him on the mound and the first thing I said to him, ‘Did you learn anything today?’ ” Servais said. “At that point his eyes were about as big as they could get, and it was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, here’s the ball. I’m out.’ ”
Unlike his debut, Gilbert has known about this situation well in advance. He was originally supposed to pitch on Tuesday, but the Mariners pushed him back after the Cactus League opener was rained out.
It’s a little different than his debut.
“I think the day before or a couple days before I got a call asking if I wanted to face hitters in a game,” he recalled. “Well, of course I wanted to throw in a game. So I got up here to the field and I asked, ‘Where am I throwing?’ And they said, ‘You’re in the stadium today.’ I was like, ‘Oh, cool, that should be fun.’ But I got out there and it wasn’t so fun. It was still a cool experience.”
The Mariners didn’t tell Gilbert about it on purpose because they didn’t want to overwhelm him.
“Maybe that’s on us,” Servais said. “Maybe it’s a good thing. There’s a reason why they didn’t tell him it was in the stadium. He’ll never forget it.”
Going back through the game broadcast of his outing is enlightening. You could see him taking multiple deep breaths before every pitch trying to slow himself down. He faced seven batters and threw first-pitch strikes to six of them. The adrenaline didn’t allow him to throw his breaking ball with any sort of command.
“It’s probably one of the more nervous times when I’ve been on the mound,” he said. “I came from a small college where we didn’t have a ton of fans and stuff. First time in a pro game and I get out there in front of like 10,000 fans in a spring-training game. Definitely nerve-wracking.”
He entered in the fifth inning when the Mariners were already losing 8-2. Gilbert bounced out of the bullpen and sprinted to the mound from the outfield. His 6-foot-6 frame gives him long strides, which carried him to the mound quickly.
He struck out the first batter he faced – outfielder Tyler Naquin – on four pitches. Naquin seemed surprised when Gilbert accidentally hung a 1-2 breaking ball and swung right through it.
From there it got out of hand. A walk to Kevin Plawecki on five pitches, despite throwing a first pitch strike. A laser of a line drive back up the middle from Matt Joyce for a single on a belt-high fastball. An RBI single from Oscar Mercado pulled down the third-base line past Ryon Healy.
At that point, then-pitching coach Paul Davis, and his less-than-fervish personality, meandered to the mound to talk to Gilbert.
The chat inspired Gilbert to hang a 1-2 breaking ball to Eric Stamets that was turned into a two-run double off the fence. Nothing was working. He finally recorded his only other out when Hanley Ramirez flew out to center.
That third out never came.
Gilbert’s last batter faced did the loudest damage, as Ryan Flaherty hammered a first-pitch fastball over the fence in right-center for a two-run homer that made it 12-2.
“More than anything, I think I was just like leaving it down the middle and leaving it up,” Gilbert said. “I was trying not to fall behind and walk guys. As a result, I was just kind of laying it out there. I definitely learned my lesson.”
Gilbert looks and acts like a completely different pitcher. His success this past season and his elevated status within the organization have given him confidence. There is a sense of belonging. His eyes aren’t quite so big in those situations. He will make his debut in the big leagues at some point this season.
“You always remember the first at-bat, the first couple hitters you face,” Servais said. “I’m looking forward to the first hitter and inning he has in Seattle. That’s the one that really matters.”