GOODYEAR, Ariz. — The competition in the opposing dugout had been buried before Brandon Maurer could even break a sweat.
But every pitch thrown by the Mariners pitching prospect on Monday afternoon nevertheless had plenty of purpose behind it. On a day his Mariners destroyed the Cincinnati Reds, 16-0, Maurer was still in an inning-by-inning contest with an ever-shrinking field of candidates to land a spot in Seattle’s starting rotation.
And by the time his five shutout innings were done, Maurer, the Class AA prospect with the cool head and four-pitch repertoire, had given the Mariners little reason to scratch his name from the field. In fact, his continued strong work to limit damage with runners on base might have clinched a final rotation spot.
“I’m not sure if I’m doing anything different, or if I’m just making pitches when I need to make them,” Maurer said of how he pitches with runners on base.
Maurer, who has a 0.90 earned-run average this spring, gave up six hits and a walk, most of the base runners coming in the first few innings when the score was still reasonably close. But he escaped with help from seven strikeouts and agreed he likely bears down more after he allows runners.
“Maybe, a little bit,” he said. “Just knowing that there’s a guy in scoring position, it’s like, ‘OK, now it gets down to where it counts.’ “
Mariners manager Eric Wedge said he continues to be impressed by the youngster’s steady work.
“I wouldn’t say it’s anything we haven’t seen,” Wedge said. “But it reaffirms some things we’ve seen in regards to making pitches in big situations. Even early on, if they put something together in those innings and they erupt for a few runs, it’s a different ballgame. So, for him to pitch the way he pitched and to settle in and have the time he had on the bench today and go out there and still be effective, it was very impressive.”
Wedge confirmed after the game that Erasmo Ramirez would spend the final days of camp building his arm strength back up after he was scratched from a scheduled outing this week. That eliminates Ramirez from rotation consideration to start the season, meaning the door is wide open for Maurer.
Ramirez went six innings in a start on March 16, but is said to have had trouble recovering from that game. The Mariners used him in a bullpen role five days later and he was lit up by the Chicago Cubs for four runs in two innings.
He was scratched from a scheduled start three days after that. The Mariners plan to have him throw 50 pitches in a relief outing behind Felix Hernandez today.
Wedge said the team’s priority is to build Ramirez’s arm strength, not to prepare him to throw out of the bullpen once the season starts. The only real way for him to build innings by that point would be in Class AAA.
“We know he’s capable of pitching in the bullpen for us. He did that for us last year as well as starting,” Wedge said. “But right now, I just want him to go out and pitch healthy. That’s the most important thing. My focus is on that right now.”
Wedge will begin the season with Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Joe Saunders in the rotation, in that order. After that, he’s got Blake Beavan built up to 100 pitches, Maurer at 90 pitches after his Monday start and nonroster veteran Jeremy Bonderman, who pitched Tuesday.
Bonderman hasn’t pitched in a Cactus League game since March 15, though he threw 76 pitches over five frames in a minor-league game Wednesday.
Bonderman hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2010. Some in the organization would like to see him spend time in Class AAA to build his arm up to where he consistently throws 90 or more pitches multiple times. Bonderman could retire rather than accept a minor-league assignment, but he has yet to say what path he would choose.
Another nonroster veteran, Jon Garland, gave younger competitor Maurer tips on escaping jams when Garland was still in camp. He opted out of his Mariners deal last week and signed with Colorado, clearing the way for Maurer.
“He told me (to think) ‘Can I get one out?’ ” Maurer said. “So, that’s kind of my thought. I’ll turn around and look at the light (tower) and ask myself ‘Can I get one out?’ Well, yeah, I can get one out. And I’ll just work one hitter at a time.”
An as the pool of rotation candidates dwindles — one pitcher at a time — Maurer’s next escape just might be north with the Mariners when camp ends.