April 14, 2012 in Columns, Sports

Blanchette: Jack Z nimble in making this M’s quick fix

By Correspondent
Colin Mulvany photo

John Blanchette.
(Full-size photo)

SEATTLE – Jack Zduriencik rode the elevator down to field level with reporters Saturday night, deflecting even perfunctory congratulations after the Seattle Mariners actually managed to score, you know, a run.

It had been a while.

Shut out by the Oakland in Friday’s home opener and in the last two games of 2011 by the very same A’s, the Mariners had gone 30 innings – and 200 days – without a run at Safeco Field. This, possibly, is why the second night audience was all of 21,071, down some 9,000 fannies from the matching Saturday encore a year ago.

Funny commercials aren’t going to be enough. There will have to be more – and on this night, anyway, there would be. A few hits, a few runs, some slick pitching – and victory, 4-0 over the bothersome A’s.

And yet maybe the best moment came after Zduriencik exited the elevator and headed toward the M’s clubhouse, only to be stopped by a security guard alert that the general manager wasn’t wearing his access badge – while reporters long ago indoctrinated in the routine breezed on past, all highly amused.

He didn’t recognize Jack Z?

The man with the plan?

The guy who picked the pockets of the New York Yankees for Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi, the evening’s heroes?

Sounds like a one-way ticket to loading dock duty for Sgt. Stickler, if anything does.

The history of the Seattle Mariners has been short on blockbuster trades, the most famous being shotgun divorces (Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr.), the worst being acquisitions of stinkbombs (Heathcliff Slocumb, Kevin Mitchell) and the best renowned mostly for being a joke on “Seinfeld” (Ken Phelps for Jay Buhner).

That made the dither over the January trade that sent pitcher Michael Pineda to the Yankees for Montero and Noesi almost charming, the hand-wringers out there having become so attached to the powerful right-hander in just 28 starts that kindling was being stacked for the Zduriencik effigy fire.

Sure, the M’s needed a bat, it was reasoned – but not at the cost of Pineda.

Now here it is April. Montero has a hit in all but one of his games as a Mariner. Noesi, after an ugly debut in Texas, was stunningly sharp in his Seattle coming-out. And Pineda is on the disabled list in New York after a messy spring during which he seemed to have nothing in the way of velocity, location or movement.

No, hardly a big-picture view. Well, you know what you can do with your big picture.

Whatever Noesi contributes here will be something of a bonus, especially if all the young pitching the M’s have backed up in Double-A turns into the trove it’s reputed to be. But Montero has to be something, and he pretty much has to be it now.

That’s why the roar was so loud when he smoked a thigh-high fastball from Tommy Milone 415 feet over the center-field fence in the second inning – his first extra-base hit as a Mariner.

“They’ve been saying nobody can hit it out of center field,” Montero said, “so when I hit a home run, I was impressed.”

Also impressive was the two-run double that fattened the lead in the sixth, a nice piece of hitting that saw him sizzle a shot the opposite way down the right-field line. Given that Justin Smoak has yet to even remotely justify his notices as a Next Big Thing, it may not be long before Montero finds himself batting cleanup.

Wherever he hits, he’s here to hit.

It’s been suggested that Montero is a classic “CINO” – catcher in name only – and that he’ll never master the position defensively enough to play there regularly.

This is a concern that barely merits a shrug.

The Mariners need offense, however it comes. If Montero can become adequate behind the plate, great. But even if he does, it’s altogether likely, if he becomes the kind of hitter people think he will, he’ll eventually be shifted to another position anyway to lessen the wear and tear catching puts on a body. It’s happened to countless productive-hitting catchers. Minnesota’s Joe Mauer is all of 28 and he’s already presumed to be finished as a catcher – at least if he wants to remain a hitter.

“Whatever opportunity they give me, I’m here to hit and here to catch – I just want to help the team,” Montero said. “Whatever they decide, I’ll just do the best I can.”

Outside of an ugly throw on an Oakland steal, his best was the very best Saturday night. But as a drama in 162 acts, the baseball season is all incremental victories and death by picked scab. One-night judgments are foolish, ever the more so in April.

“Just a ballgame,” Zduriencik said on his elevator ride.

And you have to show your credentials every night.

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