Mariners shortstop Brendan Ryan has a plan to stay healthy
It goes against his instincts but Mariners shortstop Brendan Ryan will take it easy — when prudent — in an effort to stay on the field more this season.
Seattle Times staff reporter
PEORIA, Ariz. — A slight uneasiness comes over Brendan Ryan as he attempts to explain how he'll stay on the field this season.
His first year as a Mariners shortstop last season saw Ryan become a fan favorite for his all-out hustle, which included eye-popping defense and unbelievable baserunning decisions in which he caught opposing defenders napping.
But there was a price Ryan paid for going all-out, all the time. Physical setbacks torpedoed his second half and caused him to spend much of the winter rethinking the energetic approach that made him so popular in the first place.
"I think it's good to play the game hard," Ryan said. "It's important. (But) I think there are times when you might be doing the smart thing and it might not come off as you playing hard."
No player enjoys admitting they might pull up on a play near the wall at the expense of not catching a foul pop-up they have minimal chance at. Or not run as hard to first base on a routine grounder when they have sore legs.
There were visiting scouts at Safeco Field last September astonished to see Dustin Ackley seemingly loafing a little too casually down the first-base line on such grounders he'd hit. One longtime veteran looked at his stopwatch and suggested Ackley was either hurt or displaying traits that didn't bode well for his future.
Turns out, he was hurt.
But such perceptions are the reason players hesitate to do anything but go all out. However, the counterargument is that fans won't be feeling anything about these players if they can't make it on the field.
For every popular player lauded for extra effort, there are guys like Corey Koskie, the popular former Twins third baseman whose injury-plagued career, played with reckless abandon, was eventually cut short by a concussion. Or Padres infielder Orlando Hudson, who had to learn to stop diving for every un-catchable grounder hit his way in order to stay on the field long enough to win multiple Gold Glove awards.
Mariners manager Eric Wedge warned late last season that several Mariners would have to become more in-tune with their bodies and learn what it takes to stay on the field. Ryan spent the winter thinking about how that related to his own setbacks with a herniated disk in his back caused by a collision with Adam Kennedy chasing down a pop-up.
"I think fans or media can tend to get a little critical of guys who might not be hustling down the line," Ryan said. "But there may be guys like Ackley, with a little bit of the hamstring at the end of the year there. He might not be doing his four (seconds) flat to first base, but it's things like that. Knowing your body, knowing yourself. And that's something Wedge is really reminding us of every day. Knowing when to push yourself, knowing when to guard yourself."
The pain from the initial back injury gradually spread up to Ryan's neck, leaving him unable to turn his head. It also impacted his trapezius muscle near his shoulder, making it painful to throw to first base.
He spent the winter building strength and rehabilitating the injured area, but nonetheless arrived in camp still unable to throw pain-free. The Mariners eased him in, waiting until Tuesday before allowing him to partake in all aspects of infield drills.
Wedge said he plans to start Ryan at shortstop Wednesday in the team's final intrasquad game before Cactus League play. But again, only if Ryan arrives in camp Wednesday morning and says his body feels up to it.
"It's a concern for us," Wedge said of Ryan's ability to stay on the field.
Part of the concern is Wedge's knowledge that his shortstop will never fully be able to change his aggressive play.
"That definitely comes into play but you're not going to alter that," Wedge said. "You play the way you play and he only knows how to play one way. With his throwing motion and how aggressive he is and how physically he plays the game. All of those are factors that are going to contribute."
For now, Wedge said Ryan is doing all he can to prepare his body and is pleased with his rehab and conditioning.
Ryan purchased a home near downtown Seattle to be closer to Safeco Field and so he can arrive early for pregame treatments and regular work. He'll stay on a pitcher's throwing regimen all season to keep his arm strong.
But he wants to be smarter, too. Over the weekend, he fouled a Brandon League pitch off his foot and immediately pulled out of an intrasquad game, while Jesus Montero did the same thing moments later and remained in the contest.
"I know if I went back in there with that terrible sinker he throws, I would have done it again," Ryan said. "So, it being February, there's no reason."
Ryan woke up the next day with his toenail slightly discolored from a contusion, but did his regular workout with the team. Had it been more serious, Ryan said, he would not have resumed working out.
But even the knowledge he's doing the right thing to try to stay on the field longer doesn't make it easy. Ryan is aware of lingering perceptions about his durability and doesn't want the added attention every time he tries to protect his body.
"It's a little embarrassing with all this stuff," he admitted. "Like, geez, you don't want to feel like a glass house or whatever, but you need to address the stuff."
And so, he does. Hoping that being able to stay on the field from season's start to finish this time will do the explaining for him.
• Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma threw a perfect first inning, then couldn't get an out in the second inning of an intrasquad game. Iwakuma yielded three runs — two earned — on three hits and two walks in the frame. He landed only 19 of 38 pitches for strikes and said afterward he needs to work on his control. Michael Saunders hit a three-run homer off Shawn Kelley to pace Iwakuma's team to a 7-3 win after trailing 3-0.