PEORIA, Ariz. – He is a man who never turns down an interview request, and this spring they have all been the same – they ask Ryan Rowland-Smith about Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee, about surfing and being from Australia.
Rowland-Smith grins and answers, rolls his eyes occasionally but does so with such charm that no one is ever offended.
And then he reads every word online.
“I know you’re supposed to say you don’t pay attention, but I read everything,” Rowland-Smith said Sunday. “I read that we have Felix and Cliff Lee and after that we’re in trouble. I don’t feel that way.
“I mean, I’m not about to pull someone aside and say I’m as good as those guys, but I think I can pitch.”
Against the Chicago Cubs on Sunday, Rowland-Smith went seven innings and was the losing pitcher in the Seattle Mariners’ 1-0 loss. Afterward, his manager was more relieved than disappointed.
“We’re getting close to the regular season and letting our starters go,” Don Wakamatsu said. “We had Jason Vargas give us a good game, Ian Snell went six (Saturday) and today Ryan gave us seven great innings.
“Ryan threw 77 pitches, then another 18 in the bullpen. He had his command today, he mixed his pitches. He looked like he did at the end of last season. He was calm, in control of his emotions.”
For Rowland-Smith, it was another step down a familiar path.
“It’s a progression every spring, and you chip away at it,” he said. “Today, I was coming inside, throwing the fastball in, using my change-up, getting quick outs. I had good tempo, good command.
“Down here you hear excuses about the air and the ball. I don’t care if I’m pitching on Mars or down here, a run is a run. If you throw strikes and keep the all down, you’re OK.”
Now 27, Rowland-Smith has made 27 major league starts in a professional career that began in 2001. A year ago, he began the season in the starting rotation, pitched 3 innings against Oakland and went on the disabled list with a tender left arm.
It gutted his season, threatened his sanity – Rowland-Smith made 15 starts in Tacoma before getting another chance with Seattle.
“Last year was tough, but I dealt with it. It teaches you that it’s all in how you pitch,” Rowland-Smith said. “Nothing else matters from April through October. Last year, I was a ghost for most of the season. I dealt with that, too.”
He is considered a free spirit among teammates, a man who loves to travel, waves of all sizes and experiencing anything new.
Recalled last July, Rowland-Smith made 10 starts with the Mariners and went 5-4 with a 3.74 earned run average – he’s now 11-7 in his career. And that wasn’t the best thing that happened to him.
Late in the season, he went to a pub with closer David Aardsma and a few other friends. Joining them that evening was Aardsma’s sister, actress Amanda. Rowland-Smith spent his time talking to her, saw her again when Seattle visited Anaheim and the two have been an “item” since.
“I was very respectful about it. David and I are friends, not just teammates, and there’s never been any tension,” he said.
“What’s great is she understands baseball, she gets it – what we go through, what it can be like. She’s driven, herself. When we talk, honestly, I enjoy talking about her business more than I do about mine.”
Rowland-Smith has learned a great deal about his own business in the past few years.
“Every spring you have to work the kinks out. You spend all winter visualizing success, and then it’s like ‘I suck’ the first few games. You have to deal with giving up runs. You have to deal with losses. It’s part of baseball,” he said.
“Once the regular season begins, from Day One, you’ve got to be good. If you’re going to get to the postseason, you’ve got to be good every time out.”
Rowland-Smith has now pitched 172/3 spring innings and has one more start before the regular season. Going seven innings Sunday was hardly uncharacteristic – in his 15 starts with the Mariners in 2009, he struggled early and then was remarkably durable.
Over his last 11 games, he went at least six innings nine times. He went at least seven innings eight times overall, and had consecutive eight-inning starts – the only pitcher other than Hernandez to do that all season in Seattle.
“I think I can eat innings every time I go out there, I think I can win games,” he said. “I get outs, and I can get them in a lot of ways without always overpowering the hitter. I can say that all day long, but until I do it, no one has any reason to believe me.
“I’m competitive. If Felix wins a game and I’m next to pitch, I want to pitch just as well and keep it going. I look at how our rotation could be when Cliff comes back, when Erik (Bedard) comes back.
“I want to be thought of as part of that rotation – a strong part of it.”