Mariners' Chris Jakubauskas will be at home Sunday in start against Angels
Seattle pitcher grew up in Orange County, then found pitching success in independent league and helped a teenager with his game.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Mariners next five games
Today | @ L.A. Angels
7:05 p.m., FSN
Vargas (1-0, 1.29) vs.
Lackey (1-0, 6.00)
Saturday | @ L.A. Angels
6:05 p.m., FSN
Hernandez (5-3, 3.76) vs.
Palmer (5-0, 4.82)
Sunday | @ L.A. Angels
12:35 p.m., FSN
Jakubauskas (3-5, 6.45) vs.
Santana (0-2, 7.82)
Monday | vs. Baltimore
7:10 p.m., FSN Washburn (3-3, 3.45) vs. Hill (1-0, 6.14)
Tuesday | vs. Baltimore
7:10 p.m., FSN
Bedard (3-2, 2.48) vs. TBA
FULLERTON, Calif. -- It wasn't so long ago that Dillon Bryant refused to even think about making it big on a baseball field.
He was more worried about sticking with his high school team back in 2006, when the freshman infielder worked overtime on his game a couple of nights a week with a former college player rooming at his family's home. They'd spend an hour or two on his throwing, his glovework, or in a batting cage.
It seems far removed from just last week, when Bryant, now 17 and the leading hitter for Orange Lutheran High School, was featured in a story and photo in The Orange County Register after a game-saving catch in the playoffs. And now, Bryant seems equally as excited about this coming weekend, when he'll reunite with that older player he once lived with and turned to for baseball advice: Mariners starting pitcher Chris Jakubauskas.
"My game always needed some improvement and he was just there to help me," said Bryant, who will be at Angel Stadium with his family on Sunday when Jakubauskas makes his first start in his native Orange County, the place where his improbable climb to the majors really took off. "We just went out to a field and he'd throw to me a little bit. We'd work on my throwing. Then, we'd go down to the cages and he'd hit some balls to me, or we'd work on my hitting."
It was in 2006 that Jakubauskas, now 30, began playing with the Fullerton Flyers of the independent Golden Baseball League. He'd spent three seasons in the Frontier League, but jumping to the Flyers was about the equivalent of moving from Class A to AA.
Jakubauskas had been a first baseman for the University of Oklahoma. But his bat wasn't good enough for a professional career so he switched back to pitching and finally put it all together in Fullerton, a community adjacent to where the Angels play in Anaheim.
He went on to become the Golden League's pitcher of the year, then was signed by the Mariners a few months into the following season. Throughout that breakout season in Fullerton, he lived with Bryant and his parents, Pam and Kevin.
"They were so good to me the way they took me in," Jakubauskas said this week. "There were a lot of people who helped me get to where I am today and they were part of it. I got to know them pretty good and we'd do things together."
Jakubauskas knows this homecoming of sorts will mean a little more than the average start.
"Yeah, it will, but to be honest, I'm trying to stay away from that just so I don't make it a bigger start for me than it already is," he said with a laugh. "The biggest thing for me is just trying to bounce back after the debacle the other day."
Jakubauskas was pulled after only 3-1/3 innings against the Oakland Athletics on Monday. His start on Sunday could determine whether Jakubauskas remains in the rotation, with Jason Vargas doing well and Ryan Rowland-Smith expected back off the disabled list in early June.
But still, Jakubauskas admits the day will be special either way.
"It's definitely going to be fun pitching there," he said. "My buddy called and there are about 20 friends and family coming. I'm sure there could be more. It's going to be a circus."
Pam Bryant had been working in the Flyers' office in 2006 and offered to take Jakubauskas in because his parents lived too far away from the ballpark.
The Bryants did not require Jakubauskas to pay rent. But Dillon was just starting out as a high-school player and Pam and Kevin figured their new tenant could serve as a fantastic role model.
"Our son was trying to accomplish a lot of the things that Chris had already done," she said. "We told him 'You don't have to pay us. But go out and hit some balls for Dillon. Go out and work with him on his game.' He was just such a great influence and it was great for Dillon to see. He's a funny guy and the people around here just loved him."
Dillon remembers Jakubauskas teaching him the best arm positioning for making strong throws. He still uses that technique as a second baseman and left fielder for Orange Lutheran, where he led this season's team with a .326 batting average and 18 RBI in 28 games.
In their spare time, he and Jakubauskas would sit around the house playing video games.
"He's really friendly and he's a real funny dude," Bryant said.
The thing he most remembers is how hard Jakubauskas worked at bettering his own game.
"You could just tell in his emotions that he carried around the house with him," he said. "He just cared so much about how he was playing and what he was doing."
Dillon hopes to land a college baseball scholarship. He knows that ticket is far from guaranteed, but is willing to work as hard as he has to. After all, few thought Jakubauskas would ever be standing on a mound at Angel Stadium.
And when the Bryant family, lifelong Angels fans, head to the ballpark Sunday, they'll be wearing Mariners blue. Not because they have a new favorite team. But in tribute to a pitcher who showed them dreams can come true.
"I didn't think he was going to make it here," Bryant said. "I thought he might be stuck in the minors for a while, but he made it. It just goes to show you what can happen when you work at something."
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or email@example.com.
Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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