Rookie catcher was ready for almost everything
Standing ovation surprises newcomer Brandon Bantz
Times staff columnist
The 26-year-old catcher anticipated he might make his major-league debut Saturday, so he spent several days building a rapport and a game plan with scheduled starting pitcher Joe Saunders. When Bantz arrived at Safeco Field last Wednesday, he let his nerves run the bases so they wouldn’t be a factor when he got a chance. For someone who could barely dream of being a big-leaguer even a week ago, Bantz was prepared.
And then the craziest thing happened at the apex of his crazy week.
Before his first at-bat, a good chunk of the 38,252 fans in attendance stood and clapped for him. For Bantz, a former 30th-round draft choice. For Bantz, who was hitting .178 in Class AA Jackson just three weeks ago. For Bantz, who wouldn’t even be here if not for double Jesus (Montero, Sucre) misfortune.
He got goose bumps.
“That was something I honestly didn’t expect at all,” Bantz said.
He didn’t know how to react. Home-plate umpire Laz Diaz told him, “You’re not getting into that box until you give them a wave.”
Bantz tipped his helmet. It felt awkward. It looked adorable. And then he grounded out to New York Yankees shortstop Jayson Nix to end the third inning.
Hey, the fairy tale had to end somewhere.
“It’s something I’ll never forget,” Bantz said.
Yes, the Mariners (27-36) are ailing. Yes, they couldn’t get through a 3-1 defeat to the Yankees on Saturday without losing their best hitter, Kendrys Morales, to a stiff back. Yes, Bantz’s debut underscores some organizational depth issues.
But let the young man have his day. You have 99 more games to wince and whine and worry. For one Saturday afternoon, Bantz served as a reminder that sometimes, in the wild, weird and wonderful game of baseball, an everyman can realize his dream, with thousands clapping on the soundtrack.
Bantz is a delightful aberration, a big-leaguer from Dallas Baptist University who is a career .228 minor-league hitter. Three weeks ago, he was backing up John Hicks, a promising and athletic Class AA catching prospect. Then, he was called up to Class AAA Tacoma after the Mariners demoted Jesus Montero and promoted Jesus Sucre. Because the Mariners wanted to flirt with Montero at first base, they needed a backup catcher in Tacoma, and the choice was Bantz, who appeared in 34 Class AAA games a year ago.
Last Tuesday, Sucre was hit by a bat on the backswing, injuring his left hand. At first, the Mariners thought he would miss three or four days. Saturday, he was placed on the 15-day disabled list, and the Mariners recalled infielder Carlos Triunfel.
Kelly Shoppach, the Mariners’ current starting catcher, had played in four consecutive games and started the past three, including the 16-inning affair Wednesday with the Chicago White Sox. He was overdue for rest. Just as Bantz had calculated, Saturday would be his opportunity if Sucre hadn’t healed.
“It’s the big leagues,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “There’s no story bigger, to have an opportunity to come up here and now play, to be in the book. It’s not a job. It’s a dream. He has an opportunity that 99 percent of people can only dream of, so good for him.”
Bantz was 0 for 2 with a strikeout against Yankees veteran Andy Pettitte. But the entire team couldn’t handle Pettitte, who needed only 85 pitches to throw 71 / 3 innings. The 40-year-old lefty allowed one run on three hits.
On defense, Bantz was solid. Wedge was happy with Bantz as a receiver, and he thought he worked well with Saunders to call a nice game.
Saunders allowed three runs on seven hits in 61 / 3 innings.
“We talked a lot beforehand,” Saunders said of Bantz. “We had an inkling he’d be in there. It was pretty much a crash course, if you will, in what I like to do and in how he calls pitches. I thought he called a good game and did a good job.”
Bantz was good enough for Wedge to declare that he’d have no concerns about the catcher continuing to serve as the backup until Sucre is healthy. So this unlikely story will have multiple chapters.
Bantz will take it. He didn’t expect this, but he will enjoy his big-league stint for as long as it lasts.
It might be the only chance he receives during his professional career, especially in a Mariners organization that already has Montero, Hicks and Mike Zunino as young catchers. Bantz will control the controllable and prepare for anything.
Except another standing ovation.
Some things are best left to spontaneity. Like goose bumps.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or email@example.com. On Twitter @JerryBrewer
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