The impact of the Nov. 12, 2015 trade that brought veteran reliever Joaquin Benoit to the Mariners for two minor-league players could shape the club’s bullpen for years to come.
Not for anything that Benoit did directly on the field. He was mostly an injured bust for four months before a trade last July 26 sent him to Toronto for veteran reliever Drew Storen, who departed last winter as a free agent.
Benoit and Storen posted a combined 4.43 ERA last season in 45 appearances as Mariners. Not much of a return on an $8 million expenditure.
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It was Benoit who taught Edwin Diaz a new grip on a slider that turned Diaz, still just 23, from a promising fireballer into an emerging lockdown closer. And this spring, Diaz and fellow reliever Tony Zych helped Dan Altavilla refine his slider.
As with Diaz, the change for Altavilla, at least initially, is similarly dramatic.
Altavilla, 24, now also sports a killer breaking ball to pair with a high-octane fastball. The result positions him as a viable option for duty as the bullpen’s top setup reliever and a logical backup closer to Diaz.
"I love the way he’s throwing the ball and how he’s going about it," manager Scott Servais said. "He’s not backing down on anybody. The improvement of his slider has really been the difference.
"He’s going to pitch a lot of important innings for us."
Altavilla worked three scoreless outings in the season-opening, four-game series at Houston while striking out five in 2 2/3 innings. Four of the five strikeouts have been on his slider.
"It’s not much of a change," he said, "but I tweaked my slider grip a little bit after talking to Diaz and Zych about it. It’s been big for me this year. It has more depth to it, and it’s getting a lot more swings-and-misses."
Altavilla’s slider is averaging 89 mph, which gives it a fastball look before it bites. It also makes his fastball, which sits at 96.4 mph while reaching 99.4 mph, look even faster.
"We saw it in spring training," Servais said. "There were a couple of outings when he went out there on 2-0 and 3-1 and threw sliders. When you can do that, in my eyes, you can pitch in the big leagues.
"I think that’s the difference with the minor-league player who gets behind in the count and, `OK, now I have to go to the fastball.’ We know how that works out in this league. You've got to be able to spin it and spin it in all counts."
The $8 million investment in Benoit keeps paying off.
A CAREER FIRST
It took Jarrod Dyson just four games to accomplish something with the Mariners that he never achieved over parts of seven seasons in Kansas City.
Dyson’s game-winning RBI single in Thursday’s 4-2 victory at Houston marked the first time in his career that he delivered a game-winning hit in the ninth inning or later.
Servais said once he opted to rest Martin, it was an easy call to put Dyson in center instead of Heredia, who is also a natural center fielder.
"Jarrod actually grades out as one of the best center fielders in the game," Servais said. "Leonys does a great job, too. That’s why we’re fortunate to have to speed we have out there.
"It’s kind of a no-brainer to put Dyson in center and let him run around."
Note again: The start of Saturday's game will be delayed 10 minutes to 7:17 p.m. because the Angels are staging a pre-game ceremony to present outfielder Mike Trout with his 2016 Most Valuable Player and Silver Slugger awards.
Trout has a growing hardware collection. He also won the MVP in 2014 (and finished second in each of his three other full seasons). He won a Silver Slugger award in all five of his full seasons.
He was also the American League Rookie of the Year in 2012 and was picked in 2014 and 2015 as the All-Star Game’s most valuable player.
***Hernandez is 16-16 with a 3.34 ERA in 50 career starts against the Angels, including 5-6 with a 2.93 ERA in 25 starts at Angel Stadium. Nolasco is 1-4 with a 4.60 ERA in five career starts against the Mariners.
***Hernandez’s matchups in the past with Mike Trout have been mano-a-mano affairs. If Trout gets the bat on the ball, he wins. He is 29-for-52 (.558) with seven homers and 19 RBIs on balls in play. But Hernandez has struck him out 24 times.
***Robinson Cano is 6-for-12 with two homers in his career against Nolasco. Nelson Cruz is just 4-for-15 but three of his hits are homers. Smaller sample sizes: Leonys Martin is 4-for-5, Mike Zunino is 3-for-6, and Jarrod Dyson is 3-for-8.
It got rained out, but the Mariners’ plan to have Zych make a one-inning start Thursday for Triple-A Tacoma at Sacramento (Giants) confirms Zych is close to being ready for big-league duty.
Zych, 26, spent most of the spring on a go-slow program while he recovered from October surgery for a biceps tendon transfer.
***Double-A Arkansas wasted six superb innings from right-hander Andrew Moore in a 2-1 loss to Corpus Christi (Astros) in Thursday’s season opener in Little Rock.
Moore allowed just one hit in six shutout innings while striking seven and walking two. Lefty reliever Zac Curtis gave up a two-run single in the eighth inning. It was the Travelers’ first game as a Mariners affiliate.
***Gianfranco Wawoe’s two-out RBI single in the 14th inning lifted Hi-A Modesto to a 3-2 victory at Lake Elsinore (Padres). It was also the Nuts’ first game as a Mariners affiliate.
Felix Hernandez turns 31 on Saturday. Former Mariners catcher Chris Iannetta, now with Arizona, turns 34…rehabbing right-hander Steve Cishek is ready for game action in extended spring training as the next step in his recovery from October surgery to repair a torn hip labrum. Cishek is still tracking for an approximate May 1 return to active duty…when Yovani Gallardo took the mound Friday in the first inning, it meant all 25 players on the Mariners’ opening day roster have played in a game. The only current player, through the start of Friday’s game yet to appear is left-hander Dillon Overton, who rejoined the club Thursday after three days of paternity leave.
It was 40 years ago Saturday — April 8, 1977 — that the Mariners posted their victory in franchise history by scoring two runs in the ninth inning for a 7-6 walk-off victory over the California Angels at the Kingdome.
Bob Stinson and Larry Milbourne had RBI doubles in the ninth inning against John Verhoeven. The Mariners failed to score in their first two games in losing to Frank Tanana and Nolan Ryan, who each pitched complete-game shutouts.
The first run in franchise history, after 21 scoreless innings, came on Dan Meyer’s RBI double in a three-run fourth inning against Angels starter Gary Ross.
The Mariners and Angels continue their three-game series at 7:17 p.m. Saturday at Angel Stadium. Right-hander Felix Hernandez (0-1 with a 3.88 ERA) will face Los Angeles right-hander Ricky Nolasco (0-1, 4.76).
It’s the Angels’ home opener, and the game will start 10 minutes later than usual because Angels outfielder Mike Trout will receive his Most Valuable Player and Silver Slugger awards in a pre-game ceremony.
The game can be seen on Root Sports Northwest and heard on 710 ESPN and the Mariners Radio Network, including mariners.com (for subscribers to MLB.tv).
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners