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July 30, 2010 at 3:40 PM

Mariners checking out Target Field; Justin Smoak adapting to realities of struggling in big leagues

Did a quick video for you of the setup here at the new Target Field, home of the Twins. The Mariners catch a break tonight in that Justin Morneau is out with a concussion.
Speaking of guys named Justin who aren’t playing, Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak is getting a day off, maybe more. The Mariners are being very cautious with Smoak, who has struggled mightily of late. They don’t want him to be overwhelmed by all the pressure he’s faced trying to break into the big leagues as the centerpiece in the Cliff Lee deal. So, he’s getting a night off to work on some things with his swing as well as take a mental break.
Smoak told me this has been the most difficult adjustment he’s ever had to make in baseball.
“Right now, I’m just trying to figure things out,” he said. “I have different days. Some days I feel great. The next week I feel terrible. I’m just trying to go through the ups and downs, trying to figure things out. And hopefully, it gets a lot better here soon.”
Smoak said he isn’t all that concerned about stats.
“I’m just trying to get comfortable,” he said. “Some days, I’ll get comfortable and the next day I won’t. I’m just trying to find a happy medium and hope to go forward from there. I’ve never been this bad before in my life.”
Smoak said it’s a matter of identifying the one or two hittable pitches in each at-bat that he can take advantage of. He hasn’t been doing that. He’ll go into so many counts, he said, and quickly fall behind 0-1 and 0-2 because he letas good pitches go by, or swings at bad ones.
“A big part of my game is drawing walks,” he said. “I can’t even remember the last time I drew a walk. I think my strikeouts are so much higher than my walk totals now and I can’t remember that ever happening to me.”
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Smoak said it isn’t so much the difference in pitching compared to Class AAA, though he admits the pitchers up here make fewer mistakes and limit a hitter’s chances to take advantage of them. Instead, he said it’s simply a matter of not letting what’s happened to him in so short a time become overwhelming.
Remember, he was drafted just two years ago and is already in the big leagues.
“It’s trying to do too much in certain situations a lot of the time,” he said. “Especially when you’re a young guy. You push it. You want to be here and show everybody what you’re capable of doing so you end up trying to do too much.”


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Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said it’s important for the team to keep conveying to Smoak that he doesn’t have to be an MVP his first season.
“Absolutely,” Wakamatsu said. “Especially the way the offense is. We’ve kind of put some pressure on him, moving him up as much as we can without putting him in the four-hole. In fairness to him, I talked about it earlier, again, with the limited amount of professional at-bats, the trade with Cliff Lee and everything else. We remind him every day that it takes some time.
“We talk about other players that have gone through it. I look at certain guys like Robin Ventura from my time. He hit .143 for half a season and then they put him back in there and he ends up hitting .300 in the second half and ends up being a solid major league hitter for a pretty long time. Those are the kinds of discussions we have with him to sort of put it into perspective.”
Michael Saunders went through similar struggles last year when he first came up. No matter how good a player’s Class AAA numbers may be, many of them do struggle when trying to adapt to big league life for the first time. The Jason Heywards of the world are the exception, not the rule.
Saunders wound up sitting out for most of several weeks trying to make adjustments behind the scenes. For now, it’s just day-to-day with Smoak.
“I don’t see it to the degree of what we did with Michael Saunders last year, but it’s kind of the same situation where it’s still an adjustment period for him and you’ve got to make that evaluation,” Wakamatsu said. “Mentally, do you give him a day here and there? But also from the physical part of it of being able to make some adjustments.”
Shawn Kelley threw 36 pitches in a simulated game today, then another 20 to 25 pitches in the bullpen.
Kelley said it was important for him to see how his arm would respond going at full-throttle against live hitters. Ryan Langerhans, Smoak and Rob Johnson stood in there for him.
“I felt great,” Kelley said. “My stuff was there. My command was there.”
Now, he’ll head to Tacoma and throw an inning on Monday. Then, depending on how that goes, possibly a two-inning outing.
“They really wanted to focus on not rushing it back,” Kelley said. “So, they were taking it step by step, really slow.”
Wakamatsu said the number of rehab stints will depend on how Kelley looks. But again, he said, the team won’t rush him back.
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Jarrod Washburn showed up in the clubhouse here and down on the field while the team was warming up here. He popped his head into the pre-game pitchers’ meeting and got a standing ovation.
Washburn lives about a 90-minute drive away in Lacrosse, Wis. Looks like he’s been working out. Not an ounce of fat on him.
“Been working hard on the farm,” he said with a laugh.
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