The man who holds the key to the Mariners’ quest to return to contender status might be a lanky 6-foot-6 newcomer with arresting deep-set eyes searching for redemption in the game’s highest-leverage situations.
Steve Cishek is a right-hander with a sweeping side-arm delivery who, at 29, is just one year (and two clubs) removed from ranking among the game’s elite closers.
A year ago, it took only two bad months at Miami to strip away that status before Cishek found equilibrium as a setup reliever for the Marlins and, after a July 24 trade, the St. Louis Cardinals as a prelude to his first taste of free agency.
Now, he is ready for another opportunity at the back of the bullpen — in a new league and on a different coast because the Mariners, in need of a closer, were the only club to offer such a chance.
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“When the first time they called my agent,” Cishek said, “they said they were thinking about using me for their closing job because it was open, I wanted to hear more. Obviously, I want to be back in that role again.
“I enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes with it and the pressure. I wanted to give it another shot. I couldn’t have been happier when I signed the deal to have this job. I’m just going to pitch to the best of my ability and see what happens.”
The Mariners signed Cishek to a two-year deal for $10 million Dec. 14 to serve as the focal point of a rebuilt bullpen that could have six new faces in a seven-man unit.
The departures included Tom Wilhelmsen and Carson Smith, who each spent time as the closer after veteran Fernando Rodney faltered. A late August trade sent Rodney to the Chicago Cubs.
Many of the new additions, like Cishek, are looking for bounce-back seasons.
“We did pack it with a little bit of volume,” Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto acknowledged, “so that in the event that one of the guys that we hope bounces back doesn’t, there are other options.
“I think it’s important to make sure that you’ve built enough depth to absorb the likely outcome, which is they’re all not going to bounce back and have good seasons. … The bullpen is about as unpredictable as it gets.”
Accordingly, Dipoto acquired an alternative closer in veteran right-hander Joaquin Benoit through a November trade with San Diego. Benoit had 24 saves in 26 chances for Detroit in 2013.
But the Mariners are likely to turn to Benoit only if Cishek has another extended early-season stumble. By then, though, the Mariners might find themselves scrambling to escape a deep hole.
Remember what happened last year.
The Mariners yanked Rodney from the closer’s role on June 6 — exactly two months after the season started. He had three blown saves at that point in 17 chances. That’s actually a fairly quick hook for a proven closer.
Even so, the Mariners were 24-31 when they made the move and 9 1/2 games out of first place in the American League West. The season was pretty well shot.
“Rookie managers, and I’m in that category right now,” Seattle’s Scott Servais said, “the thing that makes you look good is a really good bullpen. Those guys are going to be key for us in the one-run games, keep us there, hold leads.
“The biggest thing is instill confidence in them and give them the ball. I think we’re going to be just fine. I really do.”
Maybe so — but only if Cishek is in top form from day one. Servais needs the guy who had 88 saves in 98 chances for the Marlins from 2012-14 while compiling a 2.72 ERA in 204 games.
Dipoto finds reason for encouragement by pointing to Cishek’s track record and the way he rebounded last season by compiling a 1.75 ERA over his final 40 appearances.
“Steve Cishek, prior to last year, was one of the premier closers in the game for the previous two seasons,” Dipoto said. “His 2014 season is on par with just about anybody we can talk about as a premium free agent.
“There is no reason to expect him to return to that level, but there’s no reason to expect that 2015 is his new talent level. Steve’s still a young guy. He’s healthy, he’s got his physical ability and, most important, he has a confidence level in who he is.
“Frankly, after what was a really rough start last year, he was able to get the train back on the track and posted a season that was definitely viable.”
Cishek insists he knows what went wrong last year and, from hard-earned experience, how to make a quicker fix if problems arise in the future. St. Louis ace Adam Wainwright provided a key tip.
“It’s a long delivery,” Cishek said. “I’ve thrown this way, pretty much, my whole life. I do a lot of video work, but if I’m throwing well, and I’m in a good spot, I’ll watch the video but not tinker with stuff.
“Wainwright noticed there was an extra step in my delivery than in years past. So I just need to focus on staying more compact and driving the ball through the bottom of the zone like I had throughout the rest of my career.”
Cishek admits his confidence took a beating early last season because it marked the first time in his nine-year pro career that he found himself dealing with repetitive failure.
“When you’re pitching in the ninth inning and, mechanically, you’re not very comfortable,” he said, “it’s pretty hard to have the confidence that you’ve had in years past. I just lost a little confidence early.
“I didn’t feel the same, and it reflected in my performance. It was a bummer, but it was great for me mentally because it made me handle adversity. So if this problem comes up in the future, I’ll know how to take care of it quicker.”
That lack of confidence surfaced repeatedly in his matchups against left-handed hitters, who compiled a .384 on-base percentage in large part because he issued 17 walks in 99 plate appearances.
Before last season, left-handed hitters reached base against Cishek at a .317 rate, including only .274 in 2014. As with many things, his performance last year seems a statistical anomaly when measured against the rest of his career.
“It was one of those things,” he said. “We talked about mechanics, and that hurt my slider, too, which is something I relied on a lot in years past — throwing sliders to both sides of the plate.
“I just didn’t have that command last year, especially early on. That hurt my approach with (lefties) a lot. I was in a hitter’s count a lot with lefties, and they put good swings on it. That’s kind of what happened.”
All of that, Cishek contends, is now in the rearview mirror as he enters spring training with a new club and a new opportunity.
“I want to have a good spring every spring,” he said. “But I guess you want to prove yourself to your new teammates, coaching staff and front office. But for me, for the most part, I try not to make it that big of a deal. I like to keep it simple.
“If I’m worried about impressing others, I’m just going to be tight out there. I’ve been down that road before. Actually, that’s why I carry Scripture in my back pocket that says, ‘Whatever you do, work for the Lord and not for men.’
“I keep that as a reminder in the back pocket just to keep everything in perspective and so I don’t go down that path again.”
What Cishek wants, more than anything, is the ball again in the ninth inning.
“The team is relying on you just to get three outs,” he said, “and it sounds simple, but it’s not the easiest three outs. It can be pretty difficult at times. But that’s what makes it so much fun, having all of that pressure.
“Actually, I enjoy being on the road with that pressure, too. When the fans are getting pretty rowdy, it’s my job to keep them quiet. There’s nothing more gratifying … if you’ve secured the game for your team.”
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners