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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

July 10, 2012 at 2:36 PM

All-Star notes: Matt Wieters on old buddy Justin Smoak, Adrian Beltre on hitting at Safeco

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(Photo by Getty Images)

(The word from American League manager Ron Washington is that he doesn’t plan to use Felix Hernandez tonight, even though Hernandez offered to pitch. Washington is sensitive to the fact that Hernandez threw 113 pitches against the A’s on Sunday. “”If he was our guy, we wouldn’t want them to use him,” Washington said before the game. But Hernandez pointed out that today is his normal bullpen throw day, and said he doesn’t think it would be a risk to pitch. “I’m healthy, and I’m fine,” he said. “It’s a good day, because I (am scheduled to) throw a bullpen today. We’ll see what happens.” I suppose there’s a chance Hernandez can talk Washington into using him for a batter. As Felix said, we’ll see what happens.)

I had a nice conversation before the game today with Matt Wieters, the Orioles catcher who is playing in his second All-Star Game. Wieters and Justin Smoak are childhood friends from Goose Creek, S.C. who attended Stratford High School together (Wieters one year ahead), and were both first-round draft picks after highly successful collegiate careers at Georgia Tech (Wieters) and South Carolina (Smoak). Wieters was the No. 5 overall pick by Baltimore in 2007, Smoak No. 11 overall by the Rangers in 2008.

Both were highly touted coming up through the minors, but while Wieters, now 26, has had his breakthrough, Smoak, at age 25, is still struggling to make his, much to the consternation of Mariners fans. Wieters remains a staunch believer in his buddy.

“Smoaky’s a good player,” he said. “He’s going to hit. I know it’s taking longer than everyone wants, but he’s going to hit. He has that kind of ability and that kind of talent. I don’t want to throw out excuses for him, but it’s a tough hitters park, it’s a tough place to play. I think once you get over all that and go about hitting the ball hard – which from the games I’ve been able to watch lately, he’s hit some ball hard that haven’t fallen in.

“It’s a difficult game and no one has reasons why things come at a certain pace, but my belief is that his ability and his talent, which I’ve seen all the way growing up, he’s going to hit at this level.”

I asked Wieters if he detected frustration in Smoak when the Orioles were in Seattle during the last homestand.

“I think he’s far enough along in his career he knows that frustration is not going to help him out any,” he said. “It’s just a matter of putting in the work and the effort, and ultimately, whenever it is the time, it will be the time. But last year, when I talked to him, I think he might have been even more frustrated than this year. This year, he knows what he needs to do and that he needs to keep working to get better.”

Wieters, of course, was well-acquainted with Keith Smoak, Justin’s father, who died of cancer in late April, 2011.

“I can’t even imagine (what Justin went through),” he said. “Him and his dad were so close. It really hurt me to see him have to go through that. And me, too – his dad was a great guy who was there for every step of his baseball career. There’s got to some adjustment process to trying to move on.”

But Wieters has no doubt Smoak’s breakthrough will come.

“I believe in him,” he ssaid. “Absolutely. He’s the same guy. He’s a great guy, who’s going to hit, and he’s got ridiculous power. I still see that he’s going to figure it out and get to where he can be as a player.”

Wieters also talked a bit about what it’s like to hit at Safeco Field, where the Mariners have been struggling mightily all season, and opponents aren’t doing much better.

“You can hit a ball good there and it won’t even be close to going out,” Wieter said. “It’s a tough home-run field. You’re going to get some base hits because the outfield is so big they’ll fall in. But that’s the frustrating thing — when you do drive the ball, and you think it’s going to be a double or a homer, and it just hangs up and gets caught. It can be frustrating, but it’s all about winning the game. Hopefully, your pitcher can get some of those balls to be run down, too.”

I addressed the same topic in the AL clubhouse prior to the game with Rangers All-Star Adrian Beltre, who was an offensive dynamo before he arrived in Seattle (48 homers for the Dodgers in 2004) and after he left (three straight All-Star seasons with Boston and Texas). But during his five years with Safeco Field as his home ballpark, he didn’t come close to matching those numbers.

“It’s not easy,” he said about hitting at Safeco. “I know for sure, it’s not easy. But I can’t really tell what it is. For some reason, whoever goes there, they don’t hit. It’s a tough ballpark for hitters. We all know that. We don’t know the reason exactly why that is.The ball doesn’t carry. The weather doesn’t help. All the elements.”

I asked Beltre if the ballpark gets in hitters heads. The Mariners usually say no when asked that question, but Beltre is now in a position to speak more freely.

“Oh, yeah. For sure. It’s different when you sit at home plate and face a guy, and you know in your head, if you make good contact, solid contact, and hit it in the air, it might go out. But in Seattle, you don’t get that feeling when you sit at home plate. If you put a good swing on the ball, even you put it in the air, you know it might be an out. It’s just a different feeling. Confidence has a lot to do with results. If you’re confident, you perform better.”

Finally, I asked Beltre if he thought the fences should be moved in. He lit up.

“I would like that,” he said. “I’m not playing there now, just visiting. I would like that, of course. It plays a little big, and it might help their team.”

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