M’s bullpen delivers triple-digit heat

Stephen Pryor, second from left, is part of a hard-throwing Mariners bullpen. (Associated Press)
Stephen Pryor, second from left, is part of a hard-throwing Mariners bullpen. (Associated Press)

The two newest flamethrowers in the Mariners’ bullpen each achieved pitching’s ultimate status symbol for the first time this season while toiling in relative obscurity in the Southern League.

After an appearance in Huntsville, Ala., while with the Jackson Generals, Stephen Pryor heard from a teammate who had been wielding the radar gun that he had hit 100 mph.

“It was exciting,” Pryor admitted. “It doesn’t mean everything, but it’s a goal you personally want to have, I guess.”

Carter Capps, Pryor’s Jackson teammate in the first half of this season, reached the triple-digit club during an outing in Pensacola, Fla., against the lyrically named Blue Wahoos.

“It’s cool, but it’s no different than anything else,” Capps said. “You still have to hit your spots with it.”

That’s true, especially in the major leagues, where Pryor and Capps are now part of the Mariners’ bullpen. They’re giving an enticing preview of what the organization foresees as a shutdown power relief corps, with closer Tom Wilhelmsen also capable of reaching 100 mph.

But as pitching coach Carl Willis points out, when you throw that hard, the spots you have to hit are not as compact.

“You allow yourself a little more room for error, even though in the big leagues, that room isn’t very large no matter how hard you throw,” Willis said.

The ultimate goal is to create a “Nasty Boys” dynamic, epitomized by its originators, Randy Myers, Rob Dibble and Norm Charlton of the 1990 Reds.

It’s way too early to say the Mariners will be successful, considering that Pryor and Capps have a combined 10 major-league appearances (eight by Pryor), and Wilhelmsen has only been closing since early June. But those three have the arms for it.

“In today’s game, it has progressed to where when you see the contending clubs, it seems like every time the bullpen door opens, from the seventh inning on, you’re seeing plus-velocity and power-arm type guys,” Willis said.

Manager Eric Wedge said he likes power arms in the pen, “but I don’t think they all have to be. I like different looks coming out of the bullpen.”

The Mariners have diversity with the likes of Shawn Kelley, Lucas Luetge, Charlie Furbush, Oliver Perez and Josh Kinney. But as “Chicks Dig The Long Ball” when it comes to hitting, it is the purveyors of high heat who capture the fancy. And few in the majors throw higher heat than Pryor and Capps.

“Just jaw-dropping. It’s pretty impressive,” Wilhelmsen said of the duo.

Both have had a meteoric rise to the majors. Pryor, 23, was a fifth-round draft pick in 2010 out of Tennessee Tech after a stint at Cleveland State Community College in Tennessee, where he met his wife, Christian. She was an All-American softball pitcher, which gives her insight into his profession — and the ability to gently critique.

“If I have a bad outing where I walk a couple, she lights me up, telling me I need to throw strikes and not get behind hitters,” Pryor said with a laugh.

Pryor didn’t become a full-time pitcher until his senior year in high school, and he was still sitting in the low 90s when he arrived at Tennessee Tech.

“The pitching coach really worked with me on being explosive with my legs, and that’s when I started gaining velocity in a quick matter of time,” said the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Pryor. “It helped put me in the scouting reports, and helped me get drafted.”

Capps, who turned 22 this week, was a catcher throughout high school, barely dabbling in pitching. But when he arrived at Mount Olive College in his home state of North Carolina, his coach, Carl Lancaster, took one look at Capps’ lanky, 6-5 frame and realized that he was well-suited to be a pitcher.

Capps was initially reluctant but warmed to the idea during a redshirt season in which he warmed up pitchers in the bullpen, then threw off the mound himself. He had to learn not to “short arm” the ball, like a catcher, but Capps took to it. At the end of the redshirt year, he let Lancaster decide whether he should pursue pitching or catching.

“I wanted to do one or the other,” he said. “I didn’t want to be mediocre at both. I’d rather be good at one.”

That was 2010 — just two years ago. Capps rolled off 24 straight victories for Mount Olive, pitched the first nine-inning no-hitter in school history, and captivated scouts by dominating the U.S. national team in an exhibition.

The Mariners selected him in the third round of the 2011 draft, and he became that draft’s second player to make the major leagues. His first pitch, to the Yankees’ Russell Martin, was 100 mph.

At the beginning of this season, the Mariners converted Capps to the bullpen, and he thrived in the short-relief role. He and Pryor were a lethal combination at Jackson, combining to strike out 96 in 66 innings with a 1.23 earned-run average.

Now the Mariners hope they will bring the same Nasty-ness to the Mariners.

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