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The markers of time that help differentiate the days and months during the regular season don’t really exist in the Cactus League, especially over the first couple of weeks. Starters only pitch a couple innings, and position players last only half the game. Every game is day game, every first pitch is just about at the same time, and the weather varies little. The scores are of no consequence.
When a non-roster invitee shows up on the mound, there aren’t many cues whether it’s the third inning or the eighth, on March 4 or March 16. It only adds to the disorientation when the third inning lasts as the first and second combined.
And when that non-roster invitee shows up and brings order back to the proceedings, I wonder if that work makes an outsized impression on the manager. They’re the same circumstances that led Ozzie Guillen to call D.J. Carrasco his MVP back in 2009 …
“A lot of people say, ‘Well the MVP is the person who has the best numbers.’ Well, the manager’s MVP is the guy who helped him out the most. When I said in 2005 that Tadahito Iguchi was my MVP, people didn’t believe me. Carrasco was picking garbage from everybody.”
… and maybe it’s even greater during the spring, as the pitchers are tasked with getting the others off the field as they push forward toward the games that actually count.
This line of thinking has surfaced a couple times this spring. There’s Jeanmar Gomez, who has thrown 5⅔ scoreless innings so far. Two of them came on Friday after a disastrous outing by Joakim Soria triggered a 65-minute fourth inning. Gomez restored sanity to the proceedings, and the game wrapped up in a reasonable three hours and 44 minutes, all things considered. Could that put him ahead of other relievers competing for the open spot? Maybe it’s a tiebreaker.
And then there’s Sunday.
Theoretically, Carson Fulmer could have pitched worse, but I don’t know if he could’ve been more frustrating. He allowed four runs on four hits and four walks in an inning and three batters, which speaks for itself. The crazy thing is that he spent most of his afternoon well ahead in the count. He started seven of eight hitters with a strike, and he had two-strike counts on three of his four walks. He also gave up three of his four runs on 0-2 mistakes — a homer to Manuel Margot and a two-run single to Fernando Tatis Jr.
Then Hector Santiago came in and got the game into the fifth inning, throwing three comparatively easy frames of one-run ball (although he had his own two-strike facepalm when he plunked Franchy Cordero).
Both of Fulmer’s spring outings have been rough ones, and his tenor has changed from the first …
“I was able to pound the strike zone (and) I got ahead of a lot of hitters,” Fulmer said. “With two strikes, I tried to be a little too fine. With it being my first outing, I was flying open just a tad and the ball caught the plate a little bit. (There were) a lot of positives. I induced two or three ground balls. Obviously, with the leadoff homer, I felt like I was down. Good one to build off of regardless of the results.”
“It’s really frustrating,” Fulmer said. “Just like the last outing, I got ahead of a lot of guys, either 0-2 or 1-2, and I just wasn’t able to put them away. I fell back behind in counts, left balls over the middle of the plate. It’s easy to say to let this one go and get ready for the next one, but it’s tough. It’s tough, especially in the position that I am, and to be in a position to make an impact on this team, I have to put away guys. I have to use this outing and build off of it as much as I can and then get ready for the next one.”
Fulmer’s first start was sabotaged by ugly outfield defense, which has been persistent this spring and required Rick Renteria to hold a back-to-basics workout. Nobody’s going to hold that line against him. Regarding Sunday, though, Fulmer was on an island, and it’s the kind of outing that puts a dent into his margin for error, especially when another potential fifth-starter candidate is having an easier time ramping up his workload. Spring results might not matter to the number, but Fulmer is pitching so poorly that he’s only been able to log two innings, while Santiago has thrown eight.
Fulmer has the most logical case for the fifth-starter job out of the gate. He pitched well to end the year, he won’t necessarily benefit from more time in Triple-A and he doesn’t have much experience out of the bullpen. If he takes a beating, he can be replaced without much debate, whether by an unexciting option like Santiago or a fun one like Michael Kopech. A logical case isn’t a lock, though, and it becomes harder to sell if he’s lagging behind in innings, walks and strikeouts.
The consolation is that it’s still early. He’s making life difficult on himself since every dud confirms everybody’s worst fears, but one good start will get him back on track. You can lose football and basketball games in the first quarter, but you can’t lose a spring training positional battle that early here.