PEORIA, Ariz. — Seattle Mariners left fielder Jason Bay won his first spring-training battle merely by getting up again after crashing into the outfield fence.
It was early last week during a routine drill that Bay forgot where the fence was and soon found out the hard way. Considering how his two concussions suffered with the New York Mets contributed to three disastrous seasons and his early release, you’d think he would have been worried to be on the ground again.
But Bay insists otherwise.
“That was more like ‘You’re an idiot,’” Bay said, laughing. “Usually when I’m right near the fence, I know where it’s going to be and I’m ready to take my medicine. But that one, I didn’t really even know it was there. Everybody looked at me like I had three heads.”
Surviving a battle with the fence might prove far easier than outlasting Casper Wells for the fifth and final outfield spot this spring.
Bay took his first steps toward that Saturday with a two-run, first-inning homer in an 8-6 win over the San Diego Padres in Cactus League action. He needed to see just two pitches from Padres starter Tyson Ross in his very first at-bat before launching a 1-0 offering over the wall in left-center.
But while that blast quickly altered the numbers on the scoreboard, it didn’t change the score where Bay and the Mariners are concerned. Wells is out of options, so he either must make the team this spring or will likely be snatched up by another team on waivers or by a trade.
With Michael Morse, Michael Saunders, Franklin Gutierrez and Raul Ibanez all but guaranteed jobs, it’s a Wells-Bay battle for that fifth spot. Further complicating things, Bay plays only left field while Wells can handle all three outfield positions.
Wells is also still making the pre-arbitration minimum and could be here for years to come, unlike Bay, in his mid-30s and on a one-year deal paying $1 million if he makes it and $500,000 if he doesn’t.
And if Gutierrez ever got hurt again, Saunders would have to play center full-time and Wells would be the only capable backup at all three spots. In other words, Bay has to give the Mariners a real good reason to keep him around.
Wells upped the ante in Friday’s spring opener, hitting a two-run homer in the ninth. So, in some ways, Bay’s homer only matched that feat. And simply equaling Wells probably won’t be enough.
Bay knows all about the math. He knows who he’s competing with. But for now, he insists the only name he’s concerned with is his own.
“I’m more worried about what I can do,” he said after Saturday’s home run. “I understand there’s a limited number of people and a limited number of spots. I’m not so concerned about ‘Who does this?’ I’m worried about me. I was under that impression when I came here. I’ve still got to make the team.”
Bay says he “isn’t looking for guarantees” and wants to play only if he deserves it. The Mets are already paying him $22 million to stay away this season, so it’s not like he needs the money.
Instead, it’s more about pride. The whole “trying to save face” thing he found himself constantly attempting in New York without success. This time, he hopes the change in scenery helps him show he can still play at the highest level.
This isn’t going to be another Carlos Guillen spring retirement like last March. Bay admits he has thought about his age and recent struggles and wondered about how much longer he has.
“I’d be lying if I told you I hadn’t,” he said. “But this is what I do. It consumes me. And I feel that I have something left. I know there’s going to come a time when somebody comes up and tells me I can’t play anymore. I just don’t think I’m there just yet.”
Bay insists he feels no lingering effects from the concussions. He says it’s more all the missed time, rather than physical hurt, that contributed to his .165 batting average and on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .536 last year.
“He’s a proven veteran and he’s just had some issues with injuries the past couple of years,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “He’s healthy now, he looks good and he’s in great shape. He’s short to the ball with some pop.”
Bay said it’s more a case of him finding his old swing again rather than deliberately shortening it. His struggles with the Mets pushed him to constantly tinker with the swing until it was ruined.
“I got so far away from doing what I did before that I forgot how to do it,” he said. “So, the last part of last year and this whole offseason before I got here was spent trying to get my rhythm back to what I’ve always done. So, what may appear a little bit different from last year is probably what it was three or four years ago.”
The results of that swing will also have to be what they were pre-New York if Bay wants to stick.
* Justin Smoak also hit a two-run homer against the Padres in his first Cactus League action. Smoak’s blast came while batting left-handed, which was a struggle for him much of last season.
* Blake Beavan tossed two shutout innings of two-hit ball to start the game. He’s been focused on throwing the ball at a more downward plane this spring to induce more grounders.
* Danny Hultzen struck out a pair of batters to start a 1-2-3 fifth inning in the second Cactus League outing of his career.
* Taijuan Walker pitched a scoreless fourth inning.