Friday, August 17, 2012
SEATTLE — The sight will resonate forever in Mariners history — Felix Hernandez’s ecstatic embrace of catcher John Jaso after completing his perfect game Wednesday.
Hernandez was effusive in his praise of Jaso afterward, saying that he basically just threw whatever the catcher called. It helped, of course, no matter what finger Jaso put down, the resulting pitch was explosive. But Hernandez said his trust in Jaso’s strategic acumen allows him to concentrate fully on pitching.
“He caught an unbelievable game. Once again,” Hernandez said. “Good thing I followed him.”
While most of the focus now is rightly on Hernandez and his masterful outing, Jaso’s stature has been on a slow but steady rise since he was virtually invisible in spring training, and rooted to the bench early in the season.
And when it comes to Mariners history, Jaso wants to be part of it for a long time. Count him as one of their happiest campers since arriving in a November trade with the same Tampa Bay Rays ballclub that Hernandez dominated.
“I like playing here,” Jaso said. “I like living here. I like the guys I’m surrounded by. It’s just a good feeling.”
Jaso, who turns 29 next month, had a slow rise through the Rays’ farm system before bursting into prominence as a dynamic rookie leadoff man in 2010. But just as quickly, Jaso fell out of favor last year, when he hit .224 and there were questions about his defense behind the plate.
The Rays, despite a lack of catching depth, dealt Jaso to the Mariners for reliever Josh Lueke, who has appeared in just three games this season. Jaso welcomed the change as an opportunity to reinvent himself in Seattle.
“I think it was cool getting a fresh start over here,” he said. “Nobody really knew who I was, so I got to build my own personality here.”
He has become known as a guy who gives what manager Eric Wedge has called “the best professional at-bat on the team.” And he’s gained a reputation as one of their best clutch performers, which doesn’t surprise his former Tampa Bay manager, Joe Maddon.
“He’s not at all taken by big moments or perceived difficult situations,” Maddon said. “He’s kind of the same cat, regardless.”
Maddon calls Jaso “kind of a Big Lebowski kind of guy,” a reference to the laid-back Jeff Bridges character known as “The Dude.”
“It’s sincere,” Maddon said. “It’s not an act, by any means. I heard he was going to come to our camp this year in dreadlocks, and I would have appreciated that if it had happened. I like the little craziness about him. Mikey (his nickname with the Rays — long story) sees the world from a different lens, and I love that about him. I’m really happy he’s doing well. I like this guy a lot.”
So does Wedge, but it took awhile for Jaso to earn his playing time with the Mariners. He started just four games in April.
“I think I went three weeks without playing, just catching bullpens,” Jaso said. “I don’t even know if I pinch-hit.”
But here’s the kicker: Jaso understood, and he was content.
“That time when I was on the bench and spending a lot of time in the bullpen, I was really getting to know the pitchers,” he said. “I liked working with them at the time. Because I didn’t have any other responsibilities or anything. I kind of just started talking to pitchers and trying to help them as much as I could, with the knowledge I’ve gained over the years I’ve played.”
Slowly, Jaso earned more and more playing time, becoming a fixture in Wedge’s lineup, at catcher or designated hitter, against right-handers. Jaso leads the Mariners with a .286 average, .397 on-base percentage, and .482 slugging percentage.
“It was a matter of putting the work in and getting my mind right,” Jaso said. “I went from hitting .224 and being a bench guy to the manager feeling comfortable hitting me fourth.”
The key, he said, has been a change in focus, from obsessing on the craft of hitting to concentrating on the psychology.
“I think it’s just my mindset going up there,” he said. “I’ve kept things more simple, I guess. I haven’t stressed myself out in the batting cage, trying to get on top of the ball or things like that. Now, it’s more my approach and what to look for.”
For now, Jaso remains a platoon player, one with a career .174 average against lefties — just .138 in 36 plate appearances this year. He could develop into an everyday player, but Maddon cautioned, “You could try to force that, but then again, you might not like him as much. I think he’s going to hit the right-hander better if you don’t let him face too many left-handers that might get him off his game.”
However his role evolves, Jaso wants it to be in Seattle. “I would really like to hopefully have a career here,” he said. “I like it that much. I’d be happy being here for multiple number of years.”
If the Mariners agree, well, The Dude abides.