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After two years, Matt Festa’s ‘unorthodox journey’ ends with a return to the Mariners bullpen

Seattle Mariners pitcher Matt Festa throws during spring training baseball practice Thursday, Feb. 13, 2020, in Peoria, Ariz.  (Associated Press)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

MINNEAPOLIS – Matt Festa’s first outing in his return to the big leagues didn’t go exactly as planned. Giving up a solo homer in each of his two innings of work in Sunday’s 10-4 loss to the Twins is less than ideal.

But in those two innings, it was also clear that the Mariners reliever has returned as a changed pitcher with better weapons to stay and find success in the big leagues. Of his 36 pitches, 26 were strikes with nine swinging strikes.

“I thought Matt Festa threw the ball great except for the two left-handed hitters that got him,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said.

Indeed, Festa started the third inning, replacing starter Marco Gonzales. Festa struck out Gary Sanchez and Ryan Jeffers, displaying his increased fastball velocity and reworked slider that can generate swings and misses.

That slider also hurt him against left-handed hitters. An 0-1 slider to Max Kepler broke straight into Kepler’s swing path and was turned into a solo homer to deep right field.

In the fourth inning, Festa got Carlos Correa to line out to left field for the first out. After getting up 0-2 on switch-hitting Jorge Polanco, Festa left a 95-mph fastball over the inner half of the plate, resulting in another solo blast to right field. Festa then came back to strike out Gio Urshela and Miguel Sano.

Festa seemed like a long shot to make the Mariners bullpen in the early days of spring training. He was a nonroster invite on a minor-league contract and was actually cut from camp March 29.

But when Casey Sadler was lost for the season due to shoulder surgery and Ken Giles suffered a strained tendon in his finger, and with expanded 28-man rosters to start the season, the Mariners brought Festa back to compete for one of the last spots in the 10-man unit. He battled with right-handers Devin Sweet and Wyatt Mills for the last bullpen spot until the final days of spring training.

“I was fully prepared for either decision to happen once I got returned back to (MLB) camp,” he said earlier this week. “I was fully OK with going to Tacoma and starting there or starting here and getting a jump on things and helping the team win, whichever way that meeting went. Obviously, I’m happy to be with the team and on the opening-day roster, my second one. It’s a lot of fun.”

Festa had been a forgotten pitcher in the organization. He made his MLB debut July 14, 2018, at Coors Field. Called up from Class AA Arkansas to the big leagues, he made eight appearances in 2018 with varying success. The performances were similar in 2019 when he made the opening-day roster, but rode the shuttle from Tacoma to Seattle, making 20 appearances with a 5.64 earned-run average.

He was designated for assignment Feb. 2, 2020, when the team claimed Jose Siri off waivers and almost a month later underwent Tommy John surgery in New York to fix an ailing elbow.

Due to the spread of the coronavirus, Festa’s procedure, which was performed by Dr. David Altchek, the team doctor for the New York Mets, was the last elective surgery at the Hospital for Special Surgery in Manhattan and one of the last in New York City.

With daily physical therapy not possible because of COVID-safety guidelines, Festa was able to go to HSS two days a week. The rest of his rehab was done on his own. He built a home gym and studied rehab exercises and plans on the internet.Festa returned to the mound in late July. He made 19 appearances for Tacoma, posting a 4-1 record with a 2.95 ERA. In 211/3 innings, he struck out 31 batters with just three walks.

Since he was not on the 40-man roster, Festa was not subject to the MLB lockout and participated in the February minicamp, impressing the Mariners with increased velocity and a better slider that he started working on before being injured.

“First thing we saw was a spike in his stuff,” Servais said. “His fastball velocity was up in the 93-94 range. Before he was always like a 90-91 guy with some deception. The break on his breaking ball has gotten better with a little bigger sweep than it had in the past. He does have a little bit of Major League experience, but he’s a different pitcher now than he was last time that we saw him, which is a credit to him. He’s worked his tail off.

And while getting called up the big leagues for the first time will always rank higher, returning to the big leagues has a special meaning.

“This one I just feel a lot more prepared and confident in myself,” he said. “I’m a different pitcher. I know myself and understand what I need to do to compete. The journey was definitely unorthodox, but it’s well worth the wait.”