(Apologies for the ancient and obscure Steely Dan reference in the headline, aimed mainly at my daughter, Jessica, a loyal blog reader and Dan fan).
Chris Jakubauskas is fast emerging as the heartwarming longshot story of the spring for the Mariners. Every camp has one, right? But Jakubauskas, who has pitched his way into having a legitimate shot at making the Opening Day roster out of the bullpen, has a particularly compelling tale to tell.
He was a position player in college — right field and corner infield — at the University of Oklahoma. And then…
“My swing left me,” Jakubauskas said earlier this spring. “It’s funny — when I say it, people laugh, but it just disappeared one day. I was thinking about hanging it up, but my mom and college roommate said, ‘Why don’t you start pitching again?’ ”
So Jakubauskas, who had pitched in high school, went to Florida and participated in a tryout camp, showing enough to get signed by the Florence (Kentucky) Freedom of the independent Frontier League. The year was 2003.
“I was told by a number of major league teams, go put up some numbers for a couple of years, and you may get a shot. Here I am.”
Well, it was a little more complicated than that. Jakubauskas toiled three years for Florence and one more for Fullerton before finally catching the eye of a Mariner scout. They signed him to a minor-league contract on June 13, 2007. Jakubauskas went 0-4, 4.94 in 16 games for West Tennessee (AA) in ’07, but really blossomed last year. He was a combined 8-1 for West Tennessee and Tacoma, compiling a 3-0 record, 0.83 ERA in six starts at AA, and 5-1, 2.59 mark in 12 games (nine starts) for Tacoma.
Now, there are many wise and knowledgeable analysts who caution not to get too excited about Jakubauskas. However true that might be, it’s still hard not to get behind this story from a human-interest standpoint. In 16 2/3 innings this spring, he has a 2.16 ERA and a .211 opponent’s batting average.
“After 4 1/2 years in the Indy League, you start to think you’re getting lost in the shuffle,” said Jakubauskas, who is now 29. “But a couple of years ago, I decided I’m over-worrying about it. I’m just going to go out and have fun. Not everyone gets to put on a uniform.”
The key to his development, Jakubauskas said, was coming up with a changeup last spring.
“They worked with me a lot on just throwing the changeup,” he said. “They didn’t care where it was in the count; just get comfortable throwing it, and that really helped. I got real comfortable with it in Double-A, and when I went up to Tacoma, it really helped with the better hitters they have up there.
“I definitely turned a corner a lot just developing that changeup. I’m really comfortable with it right now.”
Jakubauskas, who will start against Cleveland tomorrow (Tuesday), has about one week to make the Mariners comfortable enough to keep him on their roster to start the season.
(Photo by Getty Images)