It would be so easy for Shawn Armstrong to have stewed with every passing day he was stuck at Triple-A Tacoma, dominating hitters so much that he earned a spot in the Triple-A All-Star Game.
By the time the Mariners finally selected Armstrong to make his Mariners debut on Aug. 28, he had gone 25 of 26 outings with the Rainiers without allowing a run, was 14-for-14 in save opportunities and had a 0.66 ERA in that span.
Over almost 50 Triple-A appearances, Armstrong had 82 strikeouts in 56 innings pitched. That shouts big-league worthy, especially since he’d pitched in parts of the past three seasons as part of a stacked Cleveland Indians’ bullpen.
“It’s just the business side of things,” Armstrong said at his Safeco Field locker on Sunday. “They had a very veteran bullpen here in Seattle and the guys who did have options were pitching really well. So, I mean, you’re down there and you just have to keep playing your best.”
A mature response from the 27-year-old.
Armstrong is out of minor-league option years, and it wasn’t like being optioned 21 times, he said, between the Indians and their Triple-A affiliate was all that fun, either.
“It’s baseball,” Armstrong said. “You got live each day with where you’re at.”
And he said he had some help with that from veteran right-hander Ryan Cook, who is now in his second stint in Seattle from the Rainiers this season.
“The way you’re going to act here is the way you should act everywhere – Ryan Cook told me that,” Armstrong said. “You got to be the same person here as you are in the big leagues. If you let the frustrations of not coming up and everything build, it’s only going to make it worse.
“Sometimes it still works its way in, but at the end of the day I have a job. I have buddies who have been out of baseball who are really good players and deserve jobs and they don’t have one.”
One of the reasons Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto traded for the right-handed reliever in December in exchange for $500,000 in international bonus pool money was for his strikeout numbers and wondering if Armstrong had been stashed in a deep Indians bullpen.
But Armstrong’s fastball velocity was down during spring training and the Mariners wanted him to work on some mechanical adjustments.
Now he’s touched 95 mph with his fastball, adds a cutter but maybe the biggest reason he’s been so productive in his time with the Mariners – he hasn’t allowed a run over six appearances and 7 1/3 innings pitched, including two scoreless innings on Saturday and another two-thirds of an inning Sunday – is the best curveball he said he’s ever had.
He said he’s only started utilizing it recently since being brought up and that he developed it with help of Trackman data and video in Tacoma and studying the plane of the pitch and the axis of his release.
“You see guys like Mike Leake who don’t have super overpowering stuff but they can sink it and cut it and manipulate it,” Armstrong said. “Even a guy like Colome with a fastball and the cutter with the bottom that falls out. So for me, I’ve been able to get that and instead of side to side this is a pitch with some depth to it and it’s been really good for me.”
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The pitch trackers call it a slider, but he and Mariners manager Scott Servais say it’s more of a curveball.
“It’s a hard curveball and it’s going to be really important for him going forward,” Servais said.
“And it’s nice when you have that with the 95 mph once in a while and the cutter. It’s exciting stuff and he’ll continue to get plenty of shots in that role.”
That role is mostly seventh-inning middle relief. Mariners relievers, according to Fangraphs, have a 5.13 season ERA combined in the seventh inning of games, which was the fifth-highest in baseball entering Sunday.
Felix Hernandez exited his start after four-plus innings on Saturday night against the Yankees with tightness in his right hamstring.
Servais said Sunday that they’re waiting to assign his next scheduled start and will likely push him back a few days to get him extra rest.
“We’re carrying six starters, so we can slide someone else in that spot and not miss a beat,” Servais said. “And then plug him in when he’s available.”
The Mariners are off on Monday before Tuesday’s two-game series opener against the San Diego Padres. Left-hander Marco Gonzales will make his first start off the disabled list in Tuesday’s 7:10 p.m. meeting at Safeco Field and LHP Wade LeBlanc is scheduled to start Wednesday’s 3:40 p.m. game.
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