David Aardsma, Mark Lowe shore up bullpen
Two relievers support seven strong innings by Ryan Rowland-Smith. Manager Don Wakamatsu seems to have starting lineup all set.
Seattle Times staff reporter
PEORIA, Ariz. — Going in back-to-back outings for the second time this spring was not the biggest test David Aardsma faced on a low-scoring day.
Instead, a second day of battling a cold that's left his chest constricted and his voice a lot more hoarse than usual provided more of a challenge. But Aardsma, like counterpart Mark Lowe the inning before him, was up to the task and likely has Mariners fans exhaling just a little.
With all the question marks facing the starting rotation and offense, the two big arms in the back end of the bullpen say they're rounding into regular-season form and feel as good as at any time last season.
"I think it's better that I have the cold," Aardsma said. "It forces me to have to pitch. It forces me to get ahead and not have to beat people with stuff. When you're broken down and beat down like this, you have to throw good pitches."
Aardsma and Lowe capped off an outstanding Sunday on the mound for the Mariners, led by seven innings of one-run ball by Ryan Rowland-Smith. The offense, however, couldn't manage anything in a 1-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs on a day dominated by the men on the mound for both teams.
Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu all but named his opening-day lineup Sunday, stating that he prefers Ken Griffey Jr. in the No. 5 spot behind clean-up hitter Milton Bradley and No. 3 hitter Casey Kotchman. Jose Lopez will likely bat sixth and Franklin Gutierrez seventh — at least to start the season against right-handers — in a lineup that could see plenty of alternating and tweaking as the season progresses.
Wakamatsu said Sunday that Erik Bedard will begin throwing off a mound this week, though in more of a controlled setting than a regular bullpen session just to give him a feel for the throwing motion again. The team is pleased with Bedard's strong flat-ground throwing and hopes to get him on the road to rejoining a rotation that's taken a hit with Cliff Lee's injury and needed the strong outings by Rowland-Smith on Sunday and Ian Snell on Saturday to ease some mounting concerns.
On the bullpen side, Wakamatsu said things appear to be falling into place with the season opener just a week away.
"I thought Lowe was outstanding," Wakamatsu said. "And it was good to see Aardsma on back-to-back days and even being better (Sunday). I thought his fastball had more life."
Lowe looks to be getting stronger with each outing. He's hasn't walked anyone in his last four appearances and has issued just three free passes all spring, two of them in the same game.
"I'm throwing it just like I did last year," he said. "I've just worked on a couple of mechanical things that have really helped me repeat my delivery every single time and get better plane on my ball. And the result is, I'm throwing more strikes."
The biggest switch was coming into a set position with his hands lower down. He says he feels like he isn't even throwing hard when on the mound even though his velocity has consistently been up in the 96-98 mph range.
"I've never been that high in spring training, ever," he said.
Aardsma knows there's been some teeth-gnashing about the 10.13 earned-run average he had heading into Sunday. But much of that is the result of just one game, when he yielded four runs in two-thirds of an inning against Texas on March 17.
"Against Texas, I gave it up," he said. "I was trying to over-pitch, getting behind guys and I got killed. Other than that, bloopers, infield base hits. I don't care about those. I'll give up those. It means I'm making my pitches."
And while he's worked on honing his secondary pitches — a slider and splitter — down here, he's still primarily throwing fastballs just like he would during the regular season.
"I'm still going out there and throwing my normal game," he said. "In certain counts, I may be throwing different pitches than I normally would. But this late in the spring, you've got to start coming at people the way you normally would."
And if this is the way the back of the bullpen keeps coming at opposing hitters, the Mariners will have one less thing to worry about in the opening month.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners
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Seattle Times transportation reporter Mike Lindblom describes some of the factors that may have led to the collapse of the I-5 bridge over the Skagit River in Mount Vernon on Thursday, May 23.