There were times this spring when Darren Bragg wondered if he’d have to bat 1.000 to make it to the Kingdome for Opening Day 1996.
Or if even that would be enough.
But when Randy Johnson let fly his first fastball on Sunday evening, there was Bragg in left field - against all odds and, tougher still, economics.
Only three times in the Mariners’ 20-year history has the same left fielder started on consecutive opening days - Phil Bradley in 1985-87, Greg Briley in 1989-90 and Bragg.
“I’d like to be out there 10 more years,” said Bragg, “but I’m taking it one day at a time.”
Good idea. All spring, manager Lou Piniella insisted that Bragg was a longshot to make the 25-man roster - and it took an unlikely parlay for it to come to pass.
One, Bragg scorched Cactus League pitching - hitting .433 with a .733 slugging percentage, 10 doubles, two homers and 12 RBIs. Only Edgar Martinez was hotter.
And two, Piniella softened and kept just nine pitchers for Opening Night, optioning Rafael Carmona to Tacoma to make room for Bragg. He had planned on bringing 10 pitchers north, and could wind up with an 11-man staff before the season is too old.
“The schedule gives us several days off the first two weeks,” said Piniella. “We were going to leave (No. 4 starter Edwin) Hurtado in Arizona to make another start, but we brought him with us and he can be in the bullpen in case we need another pitcher.”
That skewed the numbers that were going to, uh, skew Bragg.
Of the M’s “marginal” position players, Bragg was the only one who had an option left - that is, the Mariners could send him to the minors without risking him to waivers. Though they have a surplus of infielders, the Mariners have not been able to trade shortstop Felix Fermin - and don’t wish to eat his $850,000 salary by giving him his release.
But Bragg gave Piniella a reason to cut veteran Luis Polonia in the last week of spring ball and - at least for the time being - rethink the planned left field platoon of Rich Amaral and Alex Diaz.
“He earned it,” Piniella shrugged. “We didn’t just give it to him. He forced the issue.”
Bragg admitted to feeling some relief - but knows only too well how temporary this can be.
After a month and a half last year, he was hitting just .163. He was optioned out in the middle of June, recalled briefly in July and then again in September. He wound up hitting .234 - and .307 in Tacoma.
“I’m just excited to get the season going,” Bragg said. “I did what I could to win the job in the spring, but spring’s in the past now. It doesn’t mean a thing if I don’t do the job now.”
Would you believe Plan B?
The foregone conclusion of the spring was that pitching poverty would force the Mariners to seek another starter via trade- though vice president Woody Woodward always maintained the M’s would dance with the ones they brung to Arizona.
Still, the talk continued that the M’s were seeking help - in particular Mark Clark from Cleveland or Scott Kameniecki of the Yankees, both on the bubble to make their respective starting rotations.
Well, if the Mariners are shopping, they’ll have to shop elsewhere. On Sunday, the Tribe traded Clark to the Mets. And Kamaniecki remained in Florida when the Yankees headed north, continuing to rehabilitate an elbow that underwent surgery last October.
Mark April 12 on your calendar
That’s when the M’s open a three-game series in Toronto - and possibly some wounds left over from their exhibition finale in Las Vegas Friday night.
Benches cleared in that one after Blue Jays pitcher Pat Hentgen threw four straight inside fastballs to Alex Rodriguez, hitting the M’s shortstop with the last one. Piniella is convinced the Jays were throwing at Rodriguez, in retaliation for Bob Wolcott hitting Joe Carter on the hand with a pitch earlier.
“That one got away from me,” said Wolcott. “They can’t think it was intentional - no one wants anything to happen like that at this point.”
Around the horn
The Mariners begin the season with eight players who did not appear in a game for them last year: pitchers Sterling Hitchcock, Edwin Hurtado, Mike Jackson and Paul Menhart, catcher John Marzano and infielders Russ Davis, Ricky Jordan and Paul Sorrento.
For the spring, the M’s hit .322 as a team - best in the American League. They also amassed a 5.96 ERA worst in the A.L.
Seattle finished the Cactus League second in the majors in attendance, averaging 7,467 fans per game. The Yankees were tops at 10,186 in new Legends Field, but the M’s were the hottest road draw at 7,733.
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