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Originally published February 29, 2012 at 8:32 PM | Page modified March 1, 2012 at 8:48 PM

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Mariners' spring optimism takes a hit after injury news

The giddiest story of spring, Franklin Gutierrez's revival after two lost years of stomach ailments and other assorted mishaps, goes poof.

Seattle Times baseball reporter

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PEORIA, Ariz. — It could have been a day of hope and dreams for a Mariners team that has been so recently lacking in both.

In their intrasquad game on Wednesday, the three-headed pitching monster of James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen gave a tantalizing glimpse of a brighter future.

Each looked poised as a vet and as polished as fresh-faced kids — one of them still in his teens — could be expected to look. Each flashed the kind of explosive stuff that made it easy for the mind to wander ahead to an ace-filled rotation topped by Felix Hernandez and teeming with young contenders to his throne.

It was spring training at its speculative, optimistic, Pollyannaish best. Manager Eric Wedge did the appropriate amount of gushing: "There's no denying their stuff."

Adam Moore, who has caught them all spring, said of the trio: "They just look like they belong."

But the reverie was shattered not long after the game ended, when 1,500 miles away, back in Seattle, Dr. Edward Khalfayan studied Franklin Gutierrez's MRI and came to a grim conclusion. The bad news came late and packed a wallop: Gutierrez has a partially torn pectoral muscle and won't even resume baseball activities for four weeks.

Suddenly, the giddiest story of spring, Gutierrez's revival after two lost years of stomach ailments and other assorted mishaps, had gone poof.

It was devastating news, on multiple fronts. Though it's impossible to pinpoint even a best-case scenario for Gutierrez's return, he won't be around when the season starts, and then it's cross-your-fingers time. Just ask Tarvaris Jackson how troublesome pec injuries can be (though Gutierrez doesn't have 300-pound defensive tackles bearing down on him).

For Gutierrez, it has to be just a thoroughly demoralizing turn of events. Finally having conquered his irritable bowel syndrome, he worked out like a zealot all winter, adding about 17 pounds of solid muscle. The buzz actually started in January, instigated by Wedge and others: "Wait until you see Guti. You won't believe it."

And sure enough, he looked like a new person when he arrived in camp two weeks ago. Everyone who saw him for the first time did a double take.

"I'm back to me, man," he told me. "I'm just really happy."

It was the buzz of camp, and when Wedge told anyone who would listen, "I really feel he's going to have a heck of a year for us," it was hard not to think he was onto something. Especially when Gutierrez bashed the ball with newfound authority in early BP, then continued to crush the ball in the instrasquads.

Then came the fateful fielding drill on Tuesday, when Gutierrez made two feeble throws, walked off the field, and departed ominously in a car with trainer Rob Nodine.

Once again, Gutierrez's future is clouded, and the Mariners are scrambling to figure out how they will fill the center-field spot that yielded negligible production last year.

For the Mariners, it's devastating because while Paxton, Walker and Hultzen are expected to be the engines of future success, every scenario of immediate improvement in 2012 centered around a Gutierrez revival.

If he could somehow regain — or even surpass — the form that once made him a rising star in the American League, then the Mariners suddenly had turned a position of weakness into one of strength.

No one ever doubted Gutierrez's defense, and Wedge clearly hoped that he would be an integral part of the new and improved offense the manager has been touting.

It still might happen, of course.

If his pec heals without setback, Gutierrez could be back for the bulk of the season and fulfill the comeback that seemed, until Tuesday, to be in progress with a vengeance.

But now it's all shrouded in a fog of medical updates, dependent on a rehab that no one can predict.

Spring training is the best time to play the "what if" game, and it was a wondrous pastime for a while on Wednesday, as their precious young arms fired blazing fastballs.

But at the end of the day, the Mariners were left asking an exceedingly unwelcome question as this reality check of a news bulletin counteracted the optimism that had reigned: What if Franklin Gutierrez has another hard-luck year?

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @StoneLarry


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