Justus Sheffield has five weeks in the Seattle Mariners clubhouse before this season comes to a close, and he knows exactly what he wants to do with them.
“I want to go out there, and pitch, and show them that I belong here,” he said Friday night at T-Mobile Park, following the first start of his young major-league career. “It’s been a long year for me, and a pretty weird year with everything going on.
“I know that I can pitch up here. I’ve just got to show it.”
Friday’s first chance at wowing the Mariners wasn’t perfect — four innings pitched, seven hits, three earned runs, three walks and three strikeouts on a taxing 86 pitches — and the 24-year-old rookie was quick to note that. But, he did show glimpses of what he could become in Seattle’s future starting rotation.
“I thought he handled it really good,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “We’ve got to be patient. This is a learning process. Certainly with young starting pitching. So much is put on starting pitchers. They take the ball and get the game rolling in the right direction. They put a lot of pressure on themselves sometimes.”
Sheffield did run into early trouble in the first inning against the visiting Blue Jays, allowing back-to-back singles to open the game before striking out American League Rookie of the Year candidate Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for the first out. He then got a fly ball for the second out, but more traffic followed.
Justin Smoak’s run-scoring single was just out of reach of Mariners shortstop J.P. Crawford, and Teoscar Hernandez doubled in a second run the next at-bat. Sheffield then issued a walk to load the bases before ultimately striking out Brandon Drury on three pitches to end an inning that was on the brink of disaster.
But, Servais focused less on Sheffield’s rising pitch count in the first inning — he threw 37 pitches and faced eight batters — and more on how the young left-hander regrouped enough to manage three more innings.
Sheffield didn’t get a decision, leaving when the game was tied at 3-3, but did enough to help position the Mariners for an eventual 7-4 win.
“He did a good job to give us a chance,” Servais said. “Four innings, first big-league start, I think he learned some things. ... We’ve got to be patient with these guys. It’s certainly going to be a learning process. He’s certainly got the stuff to get them out in the big leagues, it’s just going to be the consistency and the command of his pitches as he goes along.
“But, I really like the pitcher. I’ve liked him ever since I saw him in spring training, and how he goes about his business. He’s got a lot of upside, and we’ve got to help him achieve it.”
Sheffield saw just four batters in a much more efficient 17-pitch second, pitched through more traffic in the third, limiting the damage to one more Toronto run on a Hernandez single, and got out of a scoreless fourth on 10 pitches despite issuing a four-pitch walk.
“Definitely not what I wanted (in the first inning), but I just wanted to settle in and keep the game as close as possible, and give us a chance to win,” Sheffield said. “I felt good all night, honestly. I felt like I threw some good pitches. I felt like I mixed in and out pretty well, and stuck with the game plan.
“Left some pitches over the plate. Mistakes get hit here. (There’s a) learning curve. But, I’m ready to get back out there, and hopefully it will be a bit of a better showing next time.”
The energy Sheffield showed in his final three innings is what the Mariners hope to continue to develop. Zac Grotz started warming in the bullpen twice before finally relieving Sheffield in the fifth, and Servais was pleased to see Sheffield battle enough to salvage an uneven start.
“Just keep learning,” Servais said. “The environment in this clubhouse, that’s what we’ve been about all year — keep learning. Pick up some things here or there that are going to make you better along the way. You’re going to see some really good outings. You’ll see some rough ones. Tonight (Sheffield) being able to get through four innings after that shaky first was good to see.”
Sheffield has displayed this type of moxie elsewhere this year. He was the top prospect in Seattle’s organization entering the season, after coming over in the deal that sent former ace James Paxton to the Yankees, and had high expectations out of the chute.
He broke spring camp with Triple-A Tacoma, but labored through two months there, struggling in most starts to establish command, and posted a 2-6 record and 6.87 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) while walking 41 and striking out 48. He was reassigned to Double-A on June 15, and is now considered the organization’s No. 9 prospect, but didn’t let setbacks hamper his season.
It was with Arkansas that Sheffield finally started having consistent success, going 5-3 with a 2.19 ERA in 12 starts, and striking out 85 while walking just 18.
“I just took it for what it was,” Sheffield said. “It was kind of hard at first just because of getting demoted like that. But, it turned out to be a positive for me. I don’t think it was anything too much besides just me resetting and doing what I do best, and that’s getting out there and competing.”
During the handful of starts he is planned to make during this final stretch with the Mariners — including being tentatively scheduled to oppose Paxton in Wednesday’s homestand finale — Sheffield wants to attack batters and work ahead in more counts because “good things will happen when that happens.”
“I want to get better every day and finish the year strong no matter where I’m at,” Sheffield said. “Luckily I’m here, and I’ve just got to work every day to get better.”