Two pitchers whose baseball careers are headed in different directions met at an intersection called Cheney Stadium on Thursday night.
The Tacoma Rainiers’ Danny Hultzen, in his first summer as a pro ballplayer, is trying to reach the big leagues. Las Vegas’ Jamie Moyer, in his 28th summer as a pro ballplayer, is trying to return. Enticed by their Mariners connection – Hultzen, 22, was the No. 2 overall draft choice in 2011, and Moyer, 49, won a team-record 145 games for them during the 11 years he wore a Seattle uniform – an overflow crowd of 7,435 showed up to witness the odd-couple showdown.
The idea of the May-December duel, it turned out, was much better than the duel itself. Hultzen showed he isn’t as close to joining the Mariners as his remarkable Double-A stats suggested he was a few weeks ago. And Moyer? He showed he still can frustrate overeager hitters with the sort of bait-and-snag repertoire he has turned into an art. But for somebody who used the evening as part of a two-game audition for a spot on the Toronto Blue Jays’ staff, Moyer finally might think about acquiring a day job.
At least the left-hander lasted long enough to qualify for a victory, which had less to do with his mastery of the Rainiers – he gave up seven hits and three runs in five innings – than the Rainiers’ stooge-like defensive gaffes in the top of the fifth, when the game deteriorated into a succession of costly bloopers. Well, costly at first. The inning began with Tacoma owning a 3-1 lead. It ended with Tacoma looking at a 7-3 deficit.
By then Hultzen was long gone, having piled up a four-inning pitch count of 90. While his first game in Cheney Stadium was an improvement over his Murphy’s Law debut in Triple-A last weekend – whatever could go wrong at Colorado Springs, went wrong at Colorado Springs – Hultzen struggled, once again, to throw strikes.
That he’s got talent is not a question: Hultzen showed why he’s considered the most advanced pitching prospect of a farm system rich in pitching as soon as he took the mound. The lefty struck out leadoff hitter Adeiny Hechavarria on a 93 mph fastball, and then fanned Anthony Gose for the second out on a slow curve that danced over the plate. A line drive caught in center made it three-up and three-down, but after that the start came apart.
A hit off the bat of Jackson High graduate Travis Snider preceded a walk to Yan Gomes, a one-out walk to Eric Thames, and still another walk, which drove in a run. Hultzen was able to minimize the damage by limiting Las Vegas to a run, but pitching in perpetual crisis mode, and constantly working from the 3-0 and 3-1 counts that accompany an uncontrolled fastball, assured manager Daren Brown would be going to the Rainiers bullpen sooner than later.
Hultzen had no such difficulty finding the strike zone in Double-A. During his final three starts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Generals, he walked five batters in the month of June.
On Thursday, he walked three batters in 20 minutes.
Chatting with reporters before the game, the Rainiers’ manager noted the temerity Hultzen demonstrated in Colorado.
“A very level-headed kid,” Brown said. “Nothing seems to bother him. His first start didn’t go the way he wanted it to ... and yet he stayed out there in the dugout the rest of the game, talking to teammates. It wasn’t like he crawled into a hole and didn’t know what happened.
“It’s not anything he can’t handle.”
As for Moyer, he not only won the game, but carried the unofficial edge in the Cheney Stadium popularity contest. During pregame introductions, while Hultzen’s name drew polite applause, Moyer’s got a roar. And when he ambled from the left field bullpen to the visitor’s dugout before the national anthem, the crowd applauded in the manner of golf fans acknowledging a legend – Jack Nicklaus, say, as he walks from the fairway to the 18th green.
Moyer didn’t deliver a pitch measured faster than 81 mph, but his signature style of changing speeds and throwing to a precise location wasn’t a fair match for the likes of Alex Liddi, whose ungainly swings made it clear the Italian-born first baseman never has seen a pitcher as subtle as the guy who’s won 269 games in the big leagues.
But Moyer isn’t holding out hope for a chance to challenge such Triple-A batters as Alex Liddi. He’s holding out hope for a major league job with the Blue Jays.
It may not be in the works. If Moyer finally decides to retire, he can take consolation there are worse ways to end a career than to hear Cheney Stadium fans regarding him as a legend.
Among Moyer’s many admirers was the pitcher he faced.
“That was awesome to watch and really cool,” Hultzen said. “Not only to get to play against him ... but against a guy you looked up to growing up.”
Who knows? Give Hultzen 20 or 30 years, maybe he will be looked up to the same way.
But after a long night spent in search of the strike zone Thursday, that day is far firstname.lastname@example.org