Vargas unexpectedly M's best spring starter

BY foxsports • March 26, 2010

Felix Hernandez. Cliff Lee. And ... Jason Vargas?

The former high school quarterback who quit baseball power LSU after just one season then became a sort of power hitter at Long Beach State has been the best spring pitcher among a staff of damaged and currently ineffective starters behind ace Felix Hernandez.

He's about to seize a starting job, perhaps the No. 4 spot in the rotation.

The 27-year-old laughs at what everyone else sees as a near certainty.

``When Wak (manager Don Wakamatsu) announces what's going to happen, then we'll know,'' Vargas said before Thursday morning's workouts.

The Mariners know this: After Hernandez, Vargas is the most consistent, healthy starter in Arizona this spring. Pain-free following elbow surgery in 2007 and hip surgery in 2008, he is going beyond the mere flashes of effectiveness he showed last season, when he went 3-6 with a 4.91 ERA in 23 games - 14 starts - for Seattle.

Cliff Lee, the AL Cy Young Award winner in 2008 acquired from Philadelphia this winter, said Thursday he still feels discomfort in his strained right abdominal muscle following another brief throwing session on flat ground. It's looking more likely the Mariners' prized winter acquisition will begin the season on the disabled list.

Erik Bedard, another veteran left-hander, may not pitch until June following shoulder surgery. A third lefty, Ryan Rowland-Smith, has allowed 20 hits and 11 runs in 11 2-3 innings this month.

Ian Snell, obtained in a trade from Pittsburgh last summer, has allowed 17 hits and 10 earned runs in 13 spring innings. His 6.92 ERA is just slightly better than Rowland-Smith's.

So when Vargas threw five shutout innings Wednesday night against San Diego, he looked Felix-like in comparison.

It was the fifth time in six outings he didn't allow an earned run.

``Just another year back off surgery. And it's the second year in a row I've gotten to work with the same pitching coach,'' he said when asked for an explanation.

Vargas had a bone spur removed from his pitching elbow in October 2007. Then came the discovery of a torn labrum in his left hip during spring training of '08. He had surgery that March and missed the entire season. That ended his two-game career with the Mets.

He's still pitching with sutures inside his hip. Right now, they look like they are made of gold.

The 27-year-old with nine major league wins and a 5.43 career ERA has a 2.89 ERA this month in homer-happy Arizona. It's that high only because he allowed six runs over two innings of one outing last week.

Vargas credits Mariners pitching coach Rick Adair for making a change last season that kept his back pitching leg more upright throughout his throwing motion. That raised his arm position when he threw. Suddenly, his pitches zoomed lower in the strike zone.

``He's a lot different this year,'' Adair said. ``Obviously, he was new to us last year, plus there was the fact he didn't pitch at all in '08. Anytime there's a history with a guy, it's good. You can set a plan in the winter for spring training. There's a comfort level.''

Not bad for a former quarterback at California's Apple Valley High School. The Twins drafted Vargas in the 43rd round in 2001, and when Minnesota didn't offer much money he accepted a baseball scholarship to national power LSU.

He made just 13 appearances for the Tigers in 2002 before, he said, ``I kind of didn't want to go to school anymore.'' Home sick, he returned to California and enrolled in Cypress junior college, about an hour south of Apple Valley.

Great move.

He was the Southern California junior college player of the year in 2003, earning him a chance with Long Beach State. He went 7-4 and hit .354 with 14 doubles and five home runs for the Dirtbags before the Marlins took him in the second round in 2004.

That brought a signing bonus far more to his liking.

What's not to love now?

``It's nice to be 100 percent strength,'' Vargas said. ``It's been a while.''

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