PEORIA, Ariz. — The ongoing emphasis to change the culture this spring in the Mariners’ clubhouse took on a physical presence Friday in the form of a new pool table.
The idea surfaced earlier in the week after manager Scott Servais, in one of the club’s daily get-acquainted gatherings, asked reliever Tony Zych about his hobbies. Zych mentioned pool.
"I said, `Are you any good?’ Servias recalled. "And he said, `I’m OK.’ I asked Charlie Furbush and a few guys who had been around Tony, and they said, `He’s really good.’
"I said, `OK, what do you guys think about getting a pool table?’ Of course, everybody said yeah. I said, `OK, Tony, you’ve got three days. I want a brand new pool table right here.’"
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Zych’s first thought was "that’s going to be expensive." But reassured he wouldn’t have to foot the bill, Zych went to nearby Prestige Billiards in Phoenix, found what he wanted and arranged to have it delivered and set up.
"I knew close to what I wanted," he said. "I probably got a mid-range house table, but I upgraded the felt and the rails, so it’s going to play a little better."
When Zych presented the bill, Servais turned to the clubhouse and found a benefactor in second baseman Robinson Cano, who claims he can play "a little bit."
Zych said, "He said he’d take care of it, so that’s a little weight off my hands." Zych then christened the table with a game against Servais — and smoked him.
"I made one ball," Servais said, "and he ran the table. He’s a very good pool player. He’s a shark."
Truth is, Zych held back a little.
"I felt bad at first," he admitted. "It was an awkward situation. I tanked one shot to let him get one shot. Then he missed, and I was like, `All right, well…’"
Action on the table will be limited to time before and after workouts and games, but plans are already in place for a tournament.
"It’s playing really well," Zych said. "It’s got to break in a little bit in the pockets. Other than that, it’s actually shooting pretty good."
KING ON THE HILL
Right-hander Felix Hernandez threw roughly 40 pitches Friday in his first bullpen session and already believes he is finding a comfort zone in a small change to his delivery.
"Just staying closed," he explained. "Not opening the front side. It feels different, but it feels good, too. It felt good today. It felt like everything came out easy. It felt like the pitches were all there, so I’m happy about it."
Hernandez felt the need for a change after his ERA jumped last season from 2.14 to 3.53. He also saw a spike in home runs allowed: 23 in 201 2/3 innings after just 16 the previous year in 236 innings.
"You saw it, man," he said. "Last year, I was inconsistent. I left a lot of balls up. Gave up a lot of homers. So I decided (to make this change) to keep the ball down and fix my mechanics."
Hernandez typically starts his throwing program later than other pitchers. Plans now call for one more bullpen workout, a session of throwing live batting practice and pitching in a simulated game before taking the hill in a Cactus League game.
"I don’t think I need to throw a lot of innings in spring training," he said, "to be ready for the season."
HEREDIA IN CAMP
Cuban center fielder Guillermo Heredia arrived in camp and has a locker in the big-league clubhouse, but the Mariners have yet to make an official announcement on signing him to a contract.
"I would assume in the next two or three days he’ll be in (uniform) and ready to roll," Servais said. "Speed and defense first. He’s a plus defender. I don’t know a ton about the player, but I know our scouting department is really high on him."
The Mariners are expected to clear space for Heredia on their 40-man roster by placing catcher Jesus Sucre on the 60-day disabled list. Sucre suffered a broken leg in January and is expected to miss most of the season.
Heredia is 5-feet-11 and 180 pounds. Once a switch-hitter, he now bats only right-handed but throws left-handed. He batted .285 in 374 career games at Matanzas in the Cuban league with 57 doubles, 15 triples and 23 home runs.
After playing for Cuba in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, Heredia was suspended after playing just one game for Matanzas in 2014. That suspension is believed to be the result of an unsuccessful attempt to defect.
The Mariners reached agreement Monday with Heredia, a 25-year-old who defected in January 2015. A physical examination and final governmental paperwork prevented the deal from being official.
While Heredia received a major-league deal, he hasn’t played competitively for nearly two years and is likely to start the season either at Triple-A Tacoma or Double-A Jackson.
Right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma and lefty reliever Danny Hultzen also threw bullpen workouts instead of live batting practice. Regarding Iwakuma, Servias said: "It’s a veteran thing. (Joaquin) Benoit, Felix and Kuma, those guys have been around. They know what they need to do to get ready. So I think it’s important that we listen." The Mariners appear to be taking it slow with Hultzen, who has missed most of the last three years because of shoulder problems…Outfielder Franklin Gutierrez switched back this spring to No. 21 after wearing No. 30 a year ago. Gutierrez wore No. 21 from 2009-13 before sitting out 2014 because of health issues. When he returned last year, former manager Lloyd McClendon was wearing No. 21…Another number change you might have missed: first baseman Jesus Montero is wearing No. 10 after wearing No. 63 in his four previous seasons.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners