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Vargas will be critical cog for Mariners

Jason Vargas starts against the A’s when the teams re-open the regular season at Oakland tonight. (Associated Press)
Jason Vargas starts against the A’s when the teams re-open the regular season at Oakland tonight. (Associated Press)

SEATTLE – Mariners pitching coach Carl Willis was walking to the ballpark one day on the road last season when he quizzed fellow coach Jeff Datz. 

“Can you name the American League leader in shutouts?” he asked. Datz went through all the usual suspects – Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, even Felix Hernandez – before Willis revealed the answer: Jason Vargas.

Vargas didn’t hold on to that distinction – James Shields and Derek Holland wound up tied for the A.L. lead with four. But the Mariner’s three shutouts (plus a no-decision in Baltimore in which Vargas pitched nine scoreless innings of a game that went into extra innings) were next. More than Verlander, Weaver and Hernandez.

That number underscores that Vargas can be a tough day at the ballpark for opposing hitters.

The left-hander, who takes the mound tonight in Oakland when the Mariners reopen the season, is a critical cog as the No. 2 starter behind Hernandez.

Vargas has battled injury, inconsistency and late-season struggles, but at age 29, he is trying to establish himself as worthy of that status. The shutouts, he said, give him confidence that he can do just that.

“It was huge for me,” Vargas said. “I would think it would be for any pitcher. I’m not young, I’m not old. At the same time, I haven’t been in the league consistently for a super long time. When I was pitching like that, I felt like I could go out and do that every time. The goal is to get closer and closer to that.”

Vargas’ 2012 season got off to a promising start with a strong effort against the A’s in their second game in Tokyo. He allowed just two hits and one run in 6 1/3 innings, but the bullpen couldn’t hold the 1-0 lead he handed off.

After flip-flopping with Hernandez in the rotation, Vargas is technically starting back-to-back games. It’s the first time a Mariners pitcher has done that against the same team since Freddy Garcia started against the Angels on Sept. 10 and Sept. 18, 2001, when the season was interrupted by the 9/11 tragedies.

Vargas starts the year with the innovation that turned around his 2011 season – a hip swivel, a la Hernandez, that he instituted in September. Vargas had been struggling in the second half for the second consecutive year, but after the move, finished strong.

“Last year, he was three different pitchers,” Willis said. “He came in as a traditional pitcher, doing what he had always done. He got to a point midseason where he kind of backed off and tried to pitch below hitting speed. And then, just in trying to create a little more balance over the rubber, during a throwing program he came up with this turn.”

Willis said the turn not only helps Vargas mechanically, but gives him more deception by hiding the ball, and also limits the running game by improving his move to first base.