Reliever Dominic Leone was told three days before this season began that he would not be a part of the Seattle Mariners’ opening day roster, and that he would instead be optioned to Triple-A Tacoma in favor of hard-throwing right-hander Carson Smith.
The move was unexpected due to its timing, but the rationale behind the decision was obvious: Leone simply wasn’t very good during the spring, allowing 17 hits and 10 earned runs in seven innings.
Those numbers stood in contrast to a successful 2014 season, in which the right-handed reliever posted an 8-2 record and a 2.17 ERA in 57 appearances.
So Leone headed back to work with the Rainiers, determined to retool his mechanics and prove himself worthy of rejoining the Mariners’ bullpen.
“Getting told that I wouldn’t be with the club, it definitely hurt, but it motivated me,” Leone said on Saturday afternoon before Seattle’s game against the Texas Rangers. “And it helped me almost keep that mindset of, ‘All right, well, if I figure some stuff out, there’s no reason why I can’t be back up there.’ So my mindset going into Tacoma was, ‘Don’t be bitter. Don’t be a sour apple. That’s not going to get you anywhere.’ It was just to go down and really work on my stuff, and hopefully that phone call came earlier than later.”
The call came on Monday, when reliever Tom Wilhelmsen was placed on the 15-day disabled list due to a hyperextended right elbow. Leone was recalled, and pitched 21/3 innings in a 6-5 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Leone took the loss after allowing a run in the 10th, but Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon termed his performance “outstanding.”
A bad bounce on a grounder to third base allowed a run to score during Leone’s second appearance, which spanned 11/3 innings in Friday night’s 3-1 loss to Texas. But his command is considerably better than it was in Arizona.
So, what’s changed?
“(I’m) just really getting back to the mechanics that I used not only last year, but two years ago,” Leone said. “I felt like this spring, I was working on a lot of things — trying to keep the fastball down, fastball command — and I think that kind of just got me out of my rhythm, got me out of my mechanics.
“So after the send-down, and I think even throughout spring training, I was really trying to get back to that point of feeling comfortable and feeling strong out there on the mound, and I think when I went down to Tacoma was when I really started to see some progress and some change that ultimately helped me get back up here.”
During spring, he noticed himself “leaking” toward home plate instead of keeping his weight on his back leg and gathering for a strong push off the rubber. His pitches wandered too high in the strike zone, “and obviously, these guys can capitalize on that kind of stuff.”
“So it was really just kind of getting back on my back leg, really loading up and getting my arm out, and making sure that my hand’s on top of the ball coming down,” he said. “It helped me just make sure the ball is down in the zone, and I have better control that way, too.”
McClendon has noticed.
“He’s actually thrown better since he’s been back,” he said. “(When) we made the decision to send him out (to Tacoma), he was really elevating the ball quite a bit. I think he’s found his groove. The sinker worked real well (Friday) night.”
MILLER’S DEFENSE BETTER
Aside from a mental gaffe during Seattle’s series against the Dodgers on a ball hit to the outfield that allowed a runner to take an extra base, Brad Miller has played 10 clean games at shortstop so far this year.
That’s encouraging, considering he committed 18 errors in 107 games last season.
“He’s played very well,” McClendon said. “Looks a lot more relaxed out there. Made a nice play in the hole (Friday). Made every play a shortstop should make.”
McClendon said Tacoma Rainiers center fielder James Jones suffered a concussion on Friday night after sliding headfirst into the knee of El Paso third baseman Brett Wallace.
Jones was placed on the seven-day disabled list. He must clear concussion tests before returning to action.
Jones batted .250 with 27 stolen bases in 108 games with the Mariners last season.
Left fielder Dustin Ackley batted in the No. 2 spot in the lineup on Saturday for the second time this season. “I’m just trying to spark our lineup, see if a change will help get us going a little bit,” McClendon said. “That’s all.” … The first 20,000 fans through the gates on Saturday received Felix Hernandez bobblehead dolls, featuring King Felix wearing a red robe and a crown. ... The Mariners will debut their alternate, cream-colored uniforms during the game Sunday.
The three-game series against Texas concludes with Mariners left-hander James Paxton (0-1, 5.11 ERA) facing Rangers lefty Ross Detwiler (0-2, 9.00) at 1:10 p.m. on Root Sports.