Brandon League, Michael Pineda become sudden All-Stars
Heading into the season, League was not expected to be the closer and Pineda was battling for a spot in the rotation.
Times baseball reporter
PHOENIX — Felix Hernandez's presence at the All-Star Game is hardly a shocker, considering his status as the reigning Cy Young Award winner.
But on Monday, at the annual All-Star media session, Hernandez found himself flanked by two Mariners teammates whose ascension to All-Star status this season is indeed a surprise, if not a shock.
Felix gestured to his left at Brandon League, and nodded to Michael Pineda on his right.
"I'm proud of them both," said Hernandez, who is ineligible to play on Tuesday because he pitched on Sunday.
League was forecast to be David Aardsma's setup man again this season, while Pineda battled Luke French and David Pauley all spring to win Seattle's fifth starting spot.
Both are fully aware, and duly appreciative, of the remarkable turn their seasons took en route to Phoenix.
"I didn't even go into spring training expecting to be the closer," said League. "All-Star was the last thing on my mind."
"It's unbelievable," added Pineda. "In spring training, I was just trying to make the team. And today I'm in the All-Star Game. I say, 'Wow. Thank you, God.' "
League's road to Chase Field began to take form when Aardsma came up with a hip injury in the offseason that required surgery. It was initially thought that League would merely be the interim closer until Aardsma's expected return early in the season. But Aardsma developed arm problems that have prevented him from pitching at all this year, and League in the meantime has become ensconced as Seattle's closer.
He's interim no longer. League is second in the American League with 23 saves (to Jose Valverde's 24), and survived the most horrific stretch imaginable for a closer. In a five-game span from May 8-13, League blew three saves and suffered four defeats — each one in walkoff fashion. Many fans were incredulous when manager Eric Wedge, after a short break, stuck with League as Seattle's closer.
It was the sort of nightmare that could have done irreparable damage to any pitcher's psyche. But League not only survived, he thrived, converting his next 14 save opportunities. He acknowledges that his reaction to the adversity — historic in its devastation — was going to make or break him as a closer.
"Exactly. It definitely didn't break me," he said. "I'm fortunate enough to have a good support system at home, and a support system in the clubhouse. A lot of good teammates, a lot of good friends.
"I didn't come back as quickly as I wanted to. Ideally, I would have come back the next day and gotten a save, or thrown a scoreless inning. But I got over it."
League got over it to such an extent that his peers voted him onto the All-Star team via the players ballot. League's pitching coach in Toronto, Brad Arnsberg, once spoke of League's "God-blessed arm," and told reporters, "If you stand there with your back to him, you can hear the whip of the arm coming through. He has the quickest arm going forward I have ever seen."
But in 2007, League lost his velocity and nearly his career because of rotator cuff problems. His speed dropped to the mid-80s. He pitched in just 14 games that year and got raked for a 6.14 earned-run average, but all League cared about was that after several months of grueling rehab, his velocity returned at the end of the season.
"It was a miracle, I guess," he said, adding, with echoes of Arnsberg, "I don't know, maybe God touched my arm again, and I started throwing 98."
To Cliff Lee, League's teammate last year until his July trade, the stuff was always there, just waiting to be harnessed.
"With the action he's got on the ball, I don't know anyone else who throws that hard with that kind of sinker," Lee said Monday. "He's had All-Star-closer potential for a while. It's just getting the opportunity and taking advantage of that opportunity. This year, he's done that."
As has Pineda, he was a revelation from his first major-league start, a tough loss to Texas that was followed by four straight victories.
"He's the real deal," said former Mariner Adrian Beltre, now an All-Star for the Rangers. "He has really good stuff — great stuff. He throws strikes, throws hard, competes. When he gets more experience, and his body becomes more used to pitching 32 starts, he's going to be something special."
Some would argue his specialness has already emerged. Pineda, 22, has displayed a maturity beyond his years this season. For the most part, he has remained poised in the face of rare adversity (though he seemed a bit flustered in his last start against the Angels after a seeming double play was negated by a non-call on a checked swing). Pineda's work ethic has won over his veteran teammates, who have ingrained skepticism for every hotshot phenom.
"I heard all these good things about him, and he's lived up to them," League said. "The thing I like best about him is his composure, the way he goes about his business. Being a young guy, he's still working hard every day.
"He's not the loudest guy in the clubhouse — we have a lot of those — but it's just his work ethic. It's unbelievable. The guy loves to work. When someone's doing good, the easiest thing is to shut down. He just wants to get better. That's what I love most about him."
Hernandez says similar things about Pineda, who in spring training adopted King Felix as his role model. He watched Hernandez's every move and tried to emulate them all.
"I'm very proud of him," said Hernandez. "He's young, but smart. He knows what he's doing."
Pineda seems to care about doing things the right way. He's been diligent about learning English and insisted on doing interviews without a translator, even when one was offered him by the team. And when Pineda was added to the All-Star team on Sunday, too late for his family in the Dominican Republic to obtain the visa needed to fly to Phoenix, he asked mentor Jaime Navarro, the M's bullpen coach, to accompany him. Navarro was Pineda's first pitching coach as a teenager in Class A Wisconsin, and the two have developed a father-son closeness.
"There isn't anyone more proud of him than me," Navarro said. "He's worked his butt off to get where he is now and have the season he's had. I told him this is just one step of many."
A step that Pineda is savoring.
"Oh, wow," Pineda marveled. "I'm feeling very excited. It's my first All-Star Game. Some of these guys have been in three or four or even more. I'm trying to soak it all in."
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com
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