As reliever Dan Altavilla blew through three Chicago batters Saturday in his major-league debut, the least surprised person at U.S. Cellular Field might have been his former Double-A Jackson teammate.
"His stuff is amazing," Mariners closer Edwin Diaz gushed. "You saw it (Saturday). They made him a reliever in spring training before me, and he’s gotten better and better. Now he’s got the chance to be here."
The Mariners converted Diaz and Altavilla to relievers this season in the belief that their stuff would spike upward by trimming their repertoire to two pitches: a fastball and a slider.
Club officials put Diaz, their most-advanced rotation prospect, on a fast track after moving him to the bullpen in early May. He made just 10 relief appearances, while allowing no earned runs, before gaining a June 4 promotion to the big leagues.
By Aug. 2, he was the Mariners’ closer and entered Sunday with 11 saves in 11 chances while compiling a 2.15 ERA overall in 36 appearances and striking out 69; in 37 2/3 innings.
But at Jackson, Altavilla was closer — even as Diaz was learning the ropes. Altavilla made the switch in spring training and unlike Diaz, had previous experience as a reliever.
"I closed in college," he said, "so I was very familiar with it. I don’t think it’s that big of a transition. But it was definitely a little different at first, getting comfortable at coming out of the pen in big situations with guys on base."
More than comfortable, judging from the numbers. Altavilla compiled a 1.91 ERA in 43 games at Jackson with 16 saves in 20 chances. He also kept a close watch on Diaz’s big-league efforts.
"I keep updated with him every night," Altavilla said. "I’d check the boxscore. If a guy has it on video in the clubhouse, I’ll watch him. Edwin is definitely a special guy. I saw what he could do in Double-A, and I kind of molded my game after him.
"I just took it from there and stayed positive throughout the journey. And now I’m here."
Manager Scott Servais cautioned early Saturday against judging Altavilla against Diaz’s performance but seemed to soften that view, at least a little, after watching Altavilla’s impressive nine-pitch debut.
"Electric stuff," Servais said. "I don’t know what they’re drinking down there in Tennessee, but they throw pretty hard. Glad to get that one out of the way for him. We’ll see where he fits in our bullpen going forward."
Altavilla pitched again Sunday and retired both batters he faced, including one on a strikeout.
Diaz said he saw the same guy he saw in Jackson while noting one key difference: "He proved (Saturday) in that inning that he can pitch here."
MAKING A PUSH
Servais seemed to suggest he plans to modify his cautious approach in using Diaz as the calendar moves toward September.
Asked whether Altavilla would get the same don’t-overuse consideration, Servais said: "He’s pitched a little bit more. He’s a college guy. He hasn’t been in the program as much as Diaz has. I’m going to watch both of those guys carefully."
Servais then added: "I think we’re also at the point in our season where every day is important. If you look up, and you’re not really in contention on Sept. 15, then you can rest them all you want.
"Right now, they’re all available today. That’s how I look at it."
MARTIN AT LEADOFF
Center fielder Leonys Martin, a left-handed hitter, batted leadoff for a third straight game — all against left-handed pitchers: Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and Carlos Rodon.
"The one thing that’s interesting is how he’s hit against left-handed pitching," Servais explained. "That’s kind of why I stuck him at the top. That and based on the other options that we have. Batting average-wise, it’s near the top on our team."
The very top, prior to Sunday, among the roster’s current players. Martin was batting .284 against left-handers (38-for-134). Nelson Cruz ranked second at .282, followed by Robinson Cano at .266.
Martin ranked fifth among current players with a .315 on-base percentage against lefties. That trailed Mike Zunino, Cruz, Chris Iannetta and Franklin Gutierrez.
"The walks aren’t quite there against left-handed pitchers," Servais agreed, "but he gets a good swing. He jumped on one (Saturday) night and got us off to a good start in the first inning. We’ll keep him up there for the time being."
The Mariners are scheduled to face two left-handers in their upcoming series at Texas.
Short-A Everett right fielder Eric Filia boosted his Northwest League-leading average to .347 entering Sunday after going 8-for-9 in his last two games.
Filia, 24, held a 14-point lead over Salem-Keizer (Giants) outfielder Heath Quinn (.333) with 12 games remaining. Everett third baseman Nick Zammarelli was third at .327.
The Mariners selected Filia in the 20th round this year in the MLB Draft. They chose Zammarelli, 22, in the eighth round.
Hi-A Bakersfield, a Mariners’ affiliate for the last two years, played the final regular-season home game Sunday in its 75-year history when it faced Stockton (Athletics) at venerable Sam Lynn Ballpark.
The franchise is folding after this season. The Mariners are expected to shift their Hi-A affiliation next year to Modesto after buying a controlling interest in that franchise. Modesto is currently affiliated with Colorado.
There might be more baseball this season in Bakersfield, which entered Sunday with a four-game lead atop the California League North Division with eight games remaining.
It was 26 years ago Monday — Aug. 29, 1990 — that the Mariners signed free-agent outfielder Ken Griffey Sr., who had been released Aug. 18 by Cincinnati. The move set up the first father/son set of teammates in big-league history.
Griffey Sr. batted .327 for the Mariners with four homers and 27 RBIs in 51 games over parts of two seasons before concluding his 19-year career at age 41 on May 31, 1991.
Former Mariners manager Lou Piniella turned 73 on Sunday…third baseman Kyle Seager reported no significant day-after problems with his bruised right foot after playing Saturday for the first time since Tuesday. He was back in the lineup…Dan Altavilla, on Saturday, became the 60th different player used this season by the Mariners. That’s one shy of the club-record 51 set in 1999 and matched last season.
The Mariners open a three-game series against first-place Texas at 5:05 p.m. Pacific time Monday at Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas.
Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma (14-9 with a 3.81 ERA) looks to break a two-game losing streak when he faces Rangers right-hander Yu Darvish (4-3, 2.91).
The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on the Mariners Radio Network, which includes 710 ESPN.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners