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Mike Baxter’s homer helps Brewers defeat Mariners

Bob Dutton Tacoma News Tribune

Mike Baxter hit a two-run homer in off the batter’s eye screen behind center field during the Seattle Mariners’ 5-2 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers on Friday in Phoenix.

Wily Peralta and Chris Capuano each pitched two scoreless innings for the Brewers, who have allowed three runs in two wins to start the exhibition season.

Mariners starter Taijuan Walker allowed one run and two hits in two innings.

Hernan Perez had two hits, including an RBI single, and Andy Wilkins hit his first home run of spring training, a two-run drive off Myckol Guaipe that traveled more than 400 feet and landed halfway up the grass berm in right field.

Eric Young Jr. hit an RBI single in the sixth.

Montero’s ready for challenge

Jesus Montero saw the steady stream of first basemen added by the Mariners in the off-season and figured … well, not much really.

“I don’t know what they’re going to do,” Montero said. “They control their team. They control their game. They control everything. So I don’t know. I have nothing to do with that.

“What I can do is control myself. Do as well as I can. Try to hit balls. Try to look good on first base. Try to be ready for every opportunity.”

The words are soft-spoken and modulated. There is no hint of irritation, exasperation or even puzzlement.

Montero, at 26, is into his second season of a reformed lifestyle after a series of incidents produced suspensions and threatened to wreck a promising career. He is at peace with himself and his surroundings.

“Everybody obviously knows what happened to me in the past,” he said, “but that taught me a lot of things. Now, I’m ready for the opportunity that they’re giving me. And that’s what I want, to be ready for that opportunity.

“And I am ready.”

This spring amounts to the latest defining moment in Montero’s career. He is out of options, which means he can’t be sent back to the minors without clearing waivers.

While predicting waiver claims is often tricky, Montero amounts to an increasingly rare commodity: a right-handed hitter with pop. He overmatched the Pacific Coast League last season at Triple-A Tacoma.

His potential still tantalizes.

“It’s a big bat,” manager Scott Servais said, “and we certainly have a spot open for a right-handed bat at first base. He’s in that competition.

“He’s had some decent stretches, where it’s worked out pretty well for him, and he’s struggled at other times. He’s going to get plenty of opportunities.”

That said, the Mariners certainly hedged their bets.

They acquired Adam Lind from Milwaukee in a December trade, signed Dae-Ho Lee, Gaby Sanchez and (just this week) Efren Navarro as minor-league free agents. They also shifted outfielder Stefen Romero to increased time at first base.

The camp battle, effectively, is to determine a platoon partner for Lind, a left-handed hitter who pounds right-handed pitchers. Navarro is also a left-handed hitter and figures to open the season at Tacoma.

That leaves Montero, Lee, Sanchez and Romero as candidates to pair with Lind.

Romero has an option remaining and also projects to open the season at Tacoma, but Lee and Sanchez each have opt-out clauses in their contracts that permit them to become free agents.

Lee’s clause triggers later this month, but Sanchez must wait until mid-season – if he’s still with the organization. Signing Navarro could make Sanchez expendable.

As for Montero, his career splits suggest he’s a good fit as a right-handed platoon player: a .292/.341/.429 slash (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) against left-handed pitchers.

Ask him if he’d be comfortable in that role, and he said he’ll be comfortable with whatever comes.

“What I can do is control myself,” Montero said. “Do as well as I can. Try to hit balls. Try to look good on first base. I played a lot of first base last year at Tacoma. That was good for me because I learned the process of the position.”

Montero credited Tacoma manager Pat Listach for aiding that improvement.

“He taught me a lot of things,” Montero said. “Now I can see things differently. Before, I was in a rush. All of the time. Whether I was at first base or hitting or whatever I was doing, I was always trying to do too much.

“This year, I’m just trying to calm down and keep it easy.”

Infield defense shifts

Look for the Mariners to alter their default infield defense this season by shifting their off-side middle infielder about three steps closer to second base.

“You’re going to see it throughout our system,” Servais said. “You’ll see our minor-league kids doing it. It’s something I believe in. Some organizations do it top to bottom. Oakland does it. Houston does it.”

The change means the second baseman will shift on right-handed hitters, and the shortstop will shift on left-handed hitters. This is for the club’s base defense. The Mariners will also employ defensive shifts when data dictates doing so.

“When you go out and start watching hundreds of minor-league games like I have,” Servais said, “they have no data there and they’re doing it. It’s working. It’s something we’ve played around with in the past. We’ll be doing it this year.”

The change to the base defense will not affect the outfield.

“It’s pretty much an infield thing right now,” Servais said. “Outfielders are reading swings. They’re reading the bat. Is he fouling the ball off late? Instinctive-type stuff.”

Hernandez appears on schedule

Right-hander Felix Hernandez continued to track toward a March 14 spring debut by throwing his first round of live batting practice before the Mariners departed Friday for their game against the Brewers in Maryvale.

Hernandez threw 38 pitches and pronounced himself pleased.

“I was just getting the feel for my pitches,” he said. “It was good. I threw a lot of strikes. I’m happy.”

Hernandez has taken the same go-slow approach in spring training for the last four years. Plans call for him to make his first Cactus League appearance with a three-inning start March 14 against Colorado at Peoria Stadium.

That game will be televised by Root Sports.

Friday’s throwing session offered an interesting twist when minor-league outfielder Tyler O’Neill appeared to say “got him” after launching a homer against the King.

O’Neill later denied saying that but, whatever he said, Hernandez wasn’t pleased.

“Big one,” Hernandez said. “He hit a fastball, a fastball inside. … He didn’t want to hit again.”

Players add flexibility

Infielders Luis Sardinas and Chris Taylor are in line for duty at new positions to enhance flexibility as utility players.

Taylor started Friday at third base against Milwaukee, while Sardinas is ticketed to spend time at some point in center field. Taylor has 11 innings of pro experience at third base. Sardinas has never played the outfield.

“Making a decision going forward with those guys?” Servais said. “Who can help us the most right out of the chute? It may got back and forth throughout the year. They both may be on the roster at one point.”

Romero expected back soon

Stefen Romero is expected to return Saturday to workouts after suffering a deep bone bruise on his right knee when hit by a sharp grounder Thursday while playing first base against San Diego.

The ball caromed off Romero’s knee to shortstop Tyler Smith, who tagged second for a force out before throwing the ball back to Romero to complete a double play. Romero left the game after the play.

“(Infield coach) Casey Candaele termed it the knee-six-three double play,” Servais said.