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Originally published March 15, 2010 at 10:02 PM | Page modified March 16, 2010 at 12:27 AM

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Larry Stone

Mariners' David Aardsma ready to handle extra pressure

Mariners closer David Aardsma has a new contract and a baby on the way.

Seattle Times baseball reporter

PEORIA, Ariz. — David Aardsma arrived in Mariners camp last year about half a slide-step away from completing a dreaded transition: From highly touted prospect to career journeyman.

He had been traded that winter, from the Boston Red Sox, for the fourth time in 3 ½ years — for a Class A pitcher, even more humbling.

Never mind competing for the closer's job last spring with Seattle; Aardsma was fighting for a roster spot on his fifth team since getting drafted in the first round (No. 22 overall) in 2003 by the Giants. Aardsma said Monday he knew for sure he had made the team when he was lining up on the baselines in Minnesota on opening day.

His career plight was quaintly familiar in baseball annals: Too erratic to make his mark, but enough life in his arm to entice the next team in line.

Aardsma, as we all know, rerouted the story line in 2009. He got his chance, and seized it. Strangled it. When Brandon Morrow was finally, mercifully, removed as closer after two horrendous flameouts in Texas, Aardsma, 28, quietly ascended to the job May 15.

So quietly, Aardsma said, that he was never quite sure he was really and truly the Mariners' closer, even as the lockdown saves mounted.

"I was pretty much never told," he said Monday after a workout at the Peoria Sports Complex.

"Morrow had the arm problems, and I got my chance. I was closing, and about a month into it, I went up to Rick (Adair, the pitching coach) and I said, 'Hey, am I the closer?' He goes, 'Well, you're throwing the ninth inning, so I guess, until you're told otherwise.' But that's the way to think about it. Don't worry about a title."

The contrasts in the spring of 2010 couldn't be any greater for Aardsma nor, seemingly, the pressure. He is not only firmly entrenched as the closer, in title and deed, but he has the security of his first hefty contract ($2.75 million for one year, not huge by baseball standards, but a healthy raise from last year's $419,000).

Life is good for the man who ranks first alphabetically in baseball history, just ahead of Hank Aaron. Wife Andrea is pregnant with their first child, and his baseball career is soaring.

"It's definitely nice having a job, no question about that," he said. "It's nice not having to worry about every outing, but I'm not going to look at it any differently. I'm trying to bust my butt every day. I want to get better. I want to earn it.

"I understand at the end of the day, as long as I'm healthy, I'll probably have the job. I want them to sit back and go, 'Yes, he deserves it.' "

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The Mariners have a team built to win now, with growing expectations that they can do just that. Nothing can derail a team more quickly, and painfully, than blowing a ninth-inning lead, yet Aardsma says he senses no extra burden.

"I don't feel any different from I did last year," he insisted. "I just want to go out and pitch and stay healthy. Just pitch. It's fun being out there."

The "healthy" part has already been an issue this spring, with Aardsma tweaking his groin in an appearance March 4. He returned to action last Thursday after missing a week.

Some analysts fear a regression in 2010 by Aardsma based on the high percentage of fly balls he allows and the control issues he fought throughout his career. But last year, in the process of saving 38 games in 42 chances, Aardsma seemingly conquered those issues by abandoning finesse and challenging hitters with the highest percentage of fastballs (87 percent) thrown in the majors.

The result was 80 strikeouts and just 49 hits allowed in 71-1/3 innings, with 34 walks. That's one fewer walk than Aardsma had with the Red Sox in 2008 in 22 fewer innings.

Aardsma also showed the essential ability to shake off the ghastly blown saves that afflict every closer, from Rivera to K-Rod. Two games in particular stand out — an 8-6 loss to the Angels on May 31, when Aardsma gave up three runs in the ninth, and a 5-3 loss to Baltimore on July 8 when he blew a 3-0 lead without getting an out.

But after the first meltdown, Aardsma responded with a victory and nine consecutive save conversions. After the second, 10 more conversions, with a victory thrown in. For a closer, handling adversity truly is the measure of ultimate success.

"You take something from it, you learn something from it, and you let it go," he said. "Good or bad, let it go and forget about it."

Spoken like a true closer. Which, it can now be said unequivocally, David Aardsma is.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

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About Larry Stone

Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

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