It was a month into last season, and Rene Rivera was already out of gas. To hear that about the Mariners backup catcher seems strange at...
PEORIA, Ariz. — It was a month into last season, and Rene Rivera was already out of gas.
To hear that about the Mariners backup catcher seems strange at first. After all, backup catchers are used to jokes about splinter injuries from riding the bench or neck woes from falling asleep during games.
Being worn out simply isn’t part of the image.
But going from catching 100-plus games per year in the minors to playing sporadically at age 22 took its physical and mental toll on Rivera last season. The Mariners expect much bigger things out of him in 2007, mainly at the plate, and Rivera is far more urgent about doing the little things to get there.
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“It’s tough doing that job because you’re used to playing 120 games and now they want you to play 25, 30 or 40 games,” Rivera said after his team’s latest spring workout at the Peoria Sports Complex. “You have to keep in shape and stay ready by doing some stuff on the side.”
Rivera started leaning more heavily on veterans like Adrian Beltre for tips on keeping his body conditioned and feeling less worn out as the season progresses. Beltre told him he had to do more away from the field, things like running and throwing, to compensate for not getting many chances to do those things during games.
Rivera hit .278 for Class AA San Antonio in 2005, then batted .396 in 16 games as a Mariners callup that September. But last year, in 35 games with Seattle, he hit .152 (15 for 99) with a .184 on-base percentage and six extra-base hits.
While backup catchers usually aren’t great hitters, Rivera’s offense was a black hole. During his struggles, he asked multi-position backup Willie Bloomquist for advice.
“When you’re not in there on a consistent basis, pitches that you’re used to hitting all of a sudden you’re missing,” Bloomquist said. “Why? I don’t want to say it’s because a guy’s not working. But you do have to work that much harder to stay sharp on those sort of things.”
Bloomquist told Rivera to start treating batting practice like an in-game at-bat instead of the “feel good” exercise some players make it. He told him to place himself in a game situation — like being behind in the count or needing to move over a runner — and work on what he’d normally do in a game so that the real thing wouldn’t feel so foreign the next time.
“To be honest, early on, a lot of guys were trying to tell him, ‘Hey, you’ve got to stay sharp,’ ” said Bloomquist, who leaned on players like Mark McLemore, Greg Colbrunn and John Mabry when he was first adapting to a utility role at age 25. “I don’t want to say he blew us off, but I think it took a while for it to sink in.”
Rivera now follows what others preach. He is well aware his big-league career will be short-lived unless he starts hitting at least marginally better on days regular catcher Kenji Johjima gets a rest.
“When you take Jo’s bat out of the lineup, you’d like to replace some of it,” Mariners manager Mike Hargrove said. “And we didn’t at all last year. Rene offensively just didn’t do that at all. So, it’s important that we get more offense out of him.”
Rivera is now doing all he can to fix that problem. He has already been praised for his work handling Felix Hernandez — Rivera caught him all through the minors — but now must improve the parts of his game that aren’t so second nature.
“It’s hard,” he said. “Hitting is the hardest part of the game. The regular guys, they take 600 at-bats, play every day. But a backup guy has to work hard during BP [batting practice] time. Do early hitting, work in the cage or on the side.
“Those are the things I’m doing now to keep ready and be prepared. It’s hard to go 4 for 4 when you don’t play for two weeks.”
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org