BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — The man in the middle never gets enough credit.
Seattle Mariners prospect Justin Seager knows a little about that, the affable, salt-of-the-earth first baseman never quite getting his just due relative to his more famous brothers, even in spite of his own exceptional nights for the High-A Bakersfield Blaze.
Mariners catching prospect Tyler Marlette knows a thing or two about that, too, having been stuck in second gear at High-A for a few years before finally getting promoted to Double-A Jackson after a recent hot streak.
More than either of them, though, Blaze reliever Isaac Sanchez has been figuring out how to navigate a man-in-the-middle role in every way imaginable this summer. The 23-year-old righty has proven to be a force in the middle of games in 2016, pitching to a 3-5 record with two saves, 73 strikeouts, and a 2.97 ERA through his first 63.2 innings. Not a starter (just 14 starts in seven pro seasons) and never really the go-to closer, Sanchez has thrived in the sixth, seventh, and eighth innings in Bakersfield this summer—largely a thankless role, but one integral to the club’s now nearly-clinched California League playoff hopes.
“I’ve always told myself that whenever I come in, just treat it like the ballgame is 0-0,” Sanchez told Today’s Knuckleball outside the Blaze clubhouse after a recent game. That echoes the attitude of many middle relievers who appear night after night in such wildly variable circumstances.
“Whether we’re up ten or down ten, I always treat it the same, because my outings are going to affect the results of the game one way or another, whether it’s good or bad.”
Marlette understands that intensity, especially when it comes to a pitcher like Sanchez who’s new to the organization and proving himself to the Mariners for the very first time.
“Yeah, there are some nerves, and I know he wants to show them what he has, but at the end of the day we play one-hundred-and-something games, so he’s going to get plenty of opportunities to show himself,” Marlette reasoned. “If he has one bad outing, that really means nothing. Just come out the next few times and throw well. And he’s done that.”
That Sanchez also found himself right in the middle of Bakersfield’s historic no-hitter earlier this season is a piece of delicious irony. Not the starter (Osmer Morales), or the man that got the final, tense outs and the win itself (Jake Zokan), Sanchez tossed a perfect six outs in the sixth and seventh innings of that memorable win over Modesto. Arguably the least-recognized of the three pitchers that night, and yet integral to the finished product there, too, Sanchez was again the man in the middle of it all.
But middle relief isn’t the only limbo in which the pitcher has lived recently; the righty is in the middle of a career crossroads after that offseason move from the Pirates—where he’d been since he was 17—to the Mariners in the minor league phase of the Rule 5 Draft. Not yet a full season into his Seattle tenure, the soft-spoken pitcher is still navigating his new home after abruptly leaving the one that developed him for so long.
“At first I was a little shy, I didn’t know anybody,” Sanchez, who is bilingual, conceded. “I started talking to people one by one, getting to know them, and after a lot of time, it kind of felt the same as the Pirates. I worked hard to fit in with the guys. Hispanics, Americans, I tried really hard to get along with everybody. Coming over to the new organization, I’m just really glad they accepted me and took me into their family.”
Accepting an outsider like the Mariners did with Sanchez all started with one man: Seager. The first baseman was the first man to walk up to Sanchez at the start of spring training and say hello. A simple act like that made all the difference in the world for the new relief pitcher, and Sanchez quite literally raved about Seager, and the pair’s unlikely friendship, when asked.
Seager, however, had a different explanation.
“Ah, that’s a really easy one to answer,” the first baseman said when asked about his relationship with Sanchez. “I gave him $10 to say something nice about me. That was it, honestly.”
All joking aside, and whether he made the connection to his own life or not, perhaps Seager was the perfect Mariner to reach out to Sanchez, because the North Carolinian intuitively understands being a man in the middle. And even though Seager downplayed his role in welcoming Sanchez to his new home, it’s plain to see that Justin takes his teammate’s well-being very personally.
“It’s not like the rest of us have never been there, because everybody is new at one point,” Seager said. “I saw him the first day of spring training walking in with his gear, and he was just staying to himself in his locker unpacking. I let him settle in a little bit, and then I just went up to introduce myself.”
“It was kind of one of those things that I didn’t really think about,” Seager continued, shrugging away the importance of being the first person to reach out. “I just wanted to go over and help him out, you know?”
That meeting did wonders for Sanchez’s immediate time with the Mariners, and it’s given him a friend for life in Seager, but it also helped usher along something greater for the pitcher. A Spanish speaker from birth who learned English in school, Sanchez’s thoughtfulness, good nature, and language skills have always put him in the middle of the disparate cultures one finds in a professional clubhouse.
“When it comes to baseball, [being bilingual] helps me a lot, because I understand both cultures,” Sanchez said. “When there’s an American guy that can’t understand a Hispanic guy, or vice versa, I’m always the guy that, ‘oh, Sanchez, come here.’ It feels good to be in the middle of both nationalities. And with the Latin players, when they have trouble with something, if it’s going out to eat and ordering food or anything, I’m glad they can come to me and ask for my help.
“That is one thing the Pirates showed me, that leadership,” he added. “They always established that in me since I was able to speak both languages. They always pushed me to be a multi-cultural bilingual leader in the clubhouse.”
Always in the middle, even in a leadership role.
If there’s one area where Sanchez is not in the middle, though, it’s in the physical act of facing down a hitter. Nothing he throws goes straight, so staying out of the middle of the plate with his hard, running two-seamer and sharp, sweeping slider has proven no problem. Really, it’s combined to give him a nice wrinkle in a difficult hitters’ league.
“My two-seam is working really well, and that’s the pitch I go to whenever I’m behind in the count, or in a tough situation looking for a ground ball or whatnot,” Sanchez, who throws the pitch from 90-93 mph, said. “That’s my pitch. I trust my stuff well enough to know that wherever I want that pitch to land, it’s going to be a swing and a miss, or weak contact.”
Like Seager, Marlette raved about Sanchez as a person, but the catcher was also quickly taken aback by the new pitcher’s stuff, immediately keying in on that exceptional two-seam fastball.
“He’s fun to catch because really all you have to do is throw fastballs, and guys get themselves out because it moves this much,” Marlette said, holding his hands up with nearly two feet of space between them. “It’s tough to even want to call a slider or a changeup because his fastball is so dominant, and it’s firm. It’s unreal, to be honest.”
In this one instance, ironically, not being in the middle has been the norm for Sanchez—and it’s no doubt played up his results this summer thanks to refined command.
“I’m actually surprising myself with how well I’ve been able to command that pitch to my glove side,” he admitted about his fastball, which he pairs with a low-80s slider. “I used to get in on lefties and it would run right to the middle of the plate, but this year it’s been different, and the location to both sides of the plate has been a huge jump from last year.”
In so many ways, 2016 has been a revelation for Sanchez. On Thursday, his good work earned him a promotion to Triple-A Tacoma to help fill out a bullpen light on depth. But whether that’s permanent, or if he returns to Bakersfield in the next two weeks for the club’s playoff push, he’s already made a home in the Mariners’ organization.
“They let me play ball, man,” Sanchez said about his parent organization, smiling. “There’s not a lot of pressure, they don’t suffocate you, they don’t come at you trying to change everything. It’s just, see what happens, and if it’s going good, they let you ride.
“I know how they picked me up, and I know people have their eyes on me as I prove myself,” he continued. “I want to show them they did not make a mistake by getting me, and that in the long run, by picking me, it’s going to be worth it.”
In some ways, it’s already been more than worth it for the reliever, and not only on the field. Watch him joke with his teammates one day before a game, and you quickly see that once again, Sanchez finds himself in the middle of something—this time the middle of a new, tight-knit family.
“The minors can be tough, because guys are just trying to get their own stuff done, but it can be a lot more fun when you have a group of guys you enjoy being around, and that you root for,” Seager said. “Yeah, he’s a relief pitcher, and I’m a first baseman, and we don’t interact that much on the field, but it’s nice knowing we’ve always got each others’ backs.
“At this point, he’s not even a teammate,” Seager continued, smiling. “He’s a friend. I’ve got a friend for the rest of my life. It’s nothing but good.”
The interview over, I shake Seager’s hand and thank him for the time.
“If you gave him ten bucks to say nice things, Justin, how much did he pay you to say all that?”
“Five bucks,” Seager responded, flashing a grin. “Yeah, he got me for cheap.”