Lance Painter won’t say that he’s surprised by the emergence of Christian Bergman as one of the top starting pitchers in the Pacific Coast League so far this season.
But the Rainiers pitching coach certainly likes what he has seen.
“I’ve been very happy with the results,” Painter said before Tacoma’s Friday night game against the Sacramento River Cats at Cheney Stadium.
Entering Friday’s action, Bergman was one of only two pitchers in the PCL with four victories – which, combined with his 1.96 earned-run average and sterling strikeout-to-walk ratio of 20-to-5, makes him one of most pleasant developments for the Rainiers through the season’s first month.
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“I just didn’t know what we had,” Painter said before Tacoma’s Friday night game against the Sacramento River Cats at Cheney Stadium. “And now that I’ve watched him and seen how he works, how he studies, no, I’m not surprised that he’s having results.”
Bergman, a 28-year-old right-hander from Glendale, California, signed as a minor-league free agent with the Seattle Mariners in December after spending seven seasons in the Colorado Rockies organization. He spent parts of the past three seasons in the big leagues, appearing in 55 games with 15 starts while posting a 7-9 record and 5.79 ERA in 147 2/3 innings.
Bergman served mostly as a long-relief, spot-start option out of the Rockies’ bullpen. When he became a free agent last winter, his biggest priority, he said, was finding a team that would let him focus on being a starter.
He described pitching at hitter-friendly Coors Field the past three seasons as “a learning experience.”
“It’s not so much fly balls turning into home runs,” Bergman said. “Most of the balls that are hit that go for home runs are hit well. The adjustments are just the way the ball moves. It doesn’t move as much when you’re at altitude, so you have to make adjustments knowing that.”
In Tacoma, he said, he’s been able to develop his curveball as a reliable fourth pitch, something he didn’t feel he could do as a reliever.
“It’s hard to do that out of the bullpen, because you’re not going to go out there with your fourth-best pitch and get beat,” Bergman said. “So I’ve found a lot more chances to use it, so I’m using it a lot more, and I’m pretty happy with how it’s developed so far.”
Painter said he’s been most impressed by the way Bergman prepares for his starts, “kind of going back to the era that I threw in, where we watched a lot of film, looked for things that we could pick up on in a hitter, and I think he does that very well.”
Those habits were developed throughout a minor-league career that began in 2010, after the Rockies drafted him in the 24th round.
“When you get to the big leagues, there’s information overload as far as numbers and charts and all that stuff,” Bergman said. “But I think the most important stuff is what you can see on the field, and that just comes from playing for a number of years. You start to see things and start to learn from hitters and what they’re trying to do.”
There’s no “magic pill” to explain his early-season success, Bergman said, and he tries not to focus on the results, anyway. Painter said if Bergman makes the move to the big leagues this season, it will likely be in a role similar to the one he played in Colorado.
Bergman would prefer to be a starter, obviously. But he isn’t picky.
“If the opportunity comes to do something else, I’m obviously open to that. I’m not going to tell them no,” Bergman said with a wry laugh. “I’m enjoying starting right now, and I feel like it allows me to better utilize all my weapons and tools.”
Tacoma continues its five-game series against Sacramento with a 5:05 p.m. game Saturday at Cheney Stadium. Right-hander Sam Gaviglio (0-3, 3.66 ERA) is slated to start for the Rainiers against right-hander Dan Slania (0-2, 7.36) for the River Cats. The game can be heard on 850-AM.