SEATTLE -- Of the many newcomers dotting the Mariners' roster for the upcoming season, the one with the most pressure to perform might be Steve Cishek. And that's just fine with the sidearming right-hander, who leaped at the chance to sign with Seattle once he heard it wanted him to fill the closer's role.
Cishek and the Mariners appear to be a fine fit. Seattle needed a ninth-inning man after a rough year in that department in 2015, and Cishek is seeking a chance to show that last year, when he lost his job after two and a half strong seasons as a closer with the Marlins, was a blip on his radar.
"The first time they called my agent and said they were thinking about using me for the closing job that was open, I wanted to hear more," Cishek said in a break during last weekend's FanFest at Safeco Field. "Obviously, I want to be back in that role again. I enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes with it and the pressure. I just wanted to give it another shot, and I couldn't have been happier when we signed the deal, just to have this job. I'm going to pitch to the best of my ability and see what happens."
The Mariners had one of baseball's best bullpens in 2014, when they finished second in the Majors in fewest blown saves with 12 as Fernando Rodney posted an All-Star season and set a franchise record with 48 saves. But the blown saves doubled to 24 last year, dropping Seattle to 25th in MLB, as Rodney struggled and eventually was replaced by Carson Smith and then Tom Wilhelmsen.
New general manager Jerry Dipoto felt that finding a proven, quality closer like Cishek available in free agency was a perfect solution, and he's confident the lanky right-hander can get back to the form that allowed him to post 73 saves with a 2.73 ERA and 158 strikeouts in 135 innings in 2013-14.
"Steve Cishek, prior to last year, was one of the premier closers in the game for the previous two seasons," Dipoto said. "His 2014 season is on par with just about anybody we can talk about as a premium free agent. Steve's still a young guy. He's healthy, he's got his physical ability, and most importantly, he has a confidence level in who he is."
Cishek believes he's a Major League closer, and he's eager to prove it again. He put up a 2.31 ERA in 27 appearances in a setup role with the Cardinals at the end of last season, though he still struggled with the control problems that plagued him in Miami at the beginning of the year.
Cishek says his long delivery got out of whack in Spring Training and he didn't get squared away until after losing his closer's job with the Marlins.
"When you're pitching in the ninth inning and you're mechanically not very comfortable, it's hard to have the confidence you had in years past," he said. "So I just lost a little confidence early because I didn't feel the same, and it reflected in my performance. Unfortunately, it kind of hurt the team a little early on as well, so it was a bummer. But also, it was great for me mentally because it helped me to handle adversity, and if this problem comes up in the future, I'll be able to handle it quicker."
Cishek is headed to Peoria, Ariz., on Feb. 11, looking to get acclimated before pitchers and catchers report on Feb. 19.
He knows this will be a big spring for him to show he's the ninth-inning man again, but he'll balance that with the knowledge that self-imposed pressure can be burdensome.
"I like to have a good spring every year," Cishek said. "I guess you want to prove yourself not only to your teammates, but your coaching staff and front office. But I try not to make that big a deal out of it. I like to keep it simple. If I'm worried about impressing others, I'm just going to be tight out there. I've been down that road before.
"That's why I carry a scripture in my back pocket that says otherwise. It says, 'Whatever you do, work for the Lord and not for men.' I keep that as a reminder just to keep everything in perspective so I don't go down that path again."
Cishek says his early throwing program has been good and he's just starting to test out his slider. The real tests won't come until Cactus League play begins, but he's confident things are on the right path there, as well.
"I feel great," he said. "I've been working tirelessly to get my arm to where it needs to be, and the ball is coming out great, so I'm ready to go. I can't wait to get started."