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Larry Stone: Hunter Strickland hopes fresh start with Mariners results in positive vibes

San Francisco relief pitcher Hunter Strickland, now with the Seattle Mariners,  prepares to work against the Los Angeles Dodgers  on Sept. 30, 2018, in San Francisco. (John Hefti / Associated Press)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

PEORIA, Ariz. – When Hunter Strickland talks about his fresh start in 2019, it’s about more than changing teams and leagues.

The new Mariners reliever, who is the front-runner to replace Edwin Diaz as Seattle’s primary closer, has a closet-full of baggage he is trying to shed.

Mention Strickland’s name, and chances are you’ll think of one of three things:

The time he started screaming at Kansas City’s Salvador Perez in the 2014 World Series – after Perez scored on Omar Infante’s home run.

The time in 2017 he started a brawl by hitting Bryce Harper with a pitch in apparent retribution for Harper staring at a home run 2 1/2 years earlier, in the ’14 playoffs. Michael Morse, Strickland’s Giants teammate, suffered a career-ending concussion during the fight.

The time last June when Strickland derailed a promising season as Giants closer by punching a wall after a blown save, breaking his pitching hand.

Strickland owns up to his reputation as a hothead with a lack of self-control. It may have contributed to the Giants choosing to release him after the season, though financial factors no doubt played into it as well.

It was the latter incident that seems to have hit home most meaningfully with Strickland, who not only vows to change his ways, but said he did the work this offseason to make it happen.

“I think what clicked is what happened last year,” he said. “Obviously, that hurt a lot more than myself. That hurt my family, that hurt my teammates, the organization. I see how that turned out. I think that in itself was a big enough eye opener for me.

“It was all mistakes on my part, for sure. I think I’ve learned a lot from that, and I’m ready to prove myself in that aspect.”

After the incident, which required surgery and sidelined him for two months, Strickland apologized on Instagram for what he called a “stupid, split-second decision.” In talking to reporters, he said he didn’t think he “necessarily” had an anger problem, but rather his emotions “get the best of me sometimes because I care what I’m doing.”

In the same interview, Strickland vowed to do whatever it took to harness his emotions.

“I don’t think you’re ever going to lose the competitive spirit, because obviously, between the lines, that’s our jobs,” he said earlier this week in Mariners camp. “That’s how we put food on the table for our families. At the same time, we’re doing something we love and we’re passionate about.

“But being able to channel that when things don’t go your way is something in itself. I think that’s one thing I’ve been working on a lot this offseason just trying to understand the mental game a little bit better and kind of controlling the emotions and focusing on a different aspect.”

Strickland said he worked with an uncle who is a life coach for a lot of high-end companies, as well as doing extensive reading and “just studying up and trying to control what I can.”

With 14 saves last year, and 19 in his career, Strickland has the most closing experience of anyone on the Mariners staff, and manager Scott Servais has said that he won’t necessarily pick one person to exclusively work the ninth, but may rather go by matchups.

“In a perfect world, some guy grabs the role and wants to run with it,” Servais said. “But there could be situations where the best matchup could call for the guy that has the most saves to pitch in the eighth inning.”

In whatever fashion he’s used, Strickland feels he can handle the first tense moment that doesn’t go his way – a reality for any late-inning pitcher.

“I feel like I’m ready, honestly,” he said. “I feel I’m a lot more aware and ready for those situations. I’m not worried about it at any point.”

Servais has been impressed with Strickland’s receptiveness to new ideas and the way he’s carried himself in camp. Strickland has a career 3.53 earned-run average in 177 career appearances.

“I think, hopefully, sometimes you put a different uni on and hit the reset button and it’s a fresh start,” Servais said. “I hope he takes it and runs with it.”

Strickland, 30, has one thing no other player in Mariners camp has – a World Series ring from the Giants’ seven-game triumph over the Royals in 2014. Though he gave up a record six home runs in that postseason, he believes that being part of a championship run is something that he can use to help this young Mariners squad.

“I was blessed to be with a lot of good players, a good organization to make that happen,” he said. “But to have the experience and to know what it takes and the grind it does take on everybody, I think that definitely plays a key role.”

Asked to assess his strength as a pitcher, Strickland said immediately, “Competitiveness. I don’t feel I’m going to back down. I think that’s the key to this game. It’s not always going to go your way, obviously. But you’ve got to keep competing, keep believing in yourself.”

The Mariners are counting on Strickland to harness that competitiveness in a more positive way.