Fearless Zych boasts closer potential

Mariners prospect credits improved mechanics, mental approach for success

Fearless Zych boasts closer potential

PEORIA, Ariz. -- A year ago he was a castoff of the Cubs, a right-handed reliever with a big arm, but not much control. But Tony Zych finds himself in a far different scenario this spring, a 25-year-old rookie regarded as one of the Mariners' top prospects and a key figure in their bullpen plans.

What changed? When Zych joined the Mariners as a September callup last year, his claim to fame was becoming the last name in Major League Baseball's all-time alphabetical list of players. But his game quickly outshone his name as he flashed dominating stuff with 24 strikeouts and just three walks in 18 1/3 innings while posting a 2.45 ERA.

"It's not just one thing," Zych said of his turnaround. "Mechanics. My mental side has gotten a lot better with just how I approach hitters, how I approach the game. I'm not putting so much pressure on myself. It's kind of freed up a little bit, so that's nice."

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Mariners manager Scott Servais says it's pretty clear what jumps out when watching Zych, ranked as the team's No. 17 prospect by MLBPipeline.com.

"We all look at how he's attacking guys when he takes the mound," Servais said. "The fastball is 95-97 [mph], the slider has been very good for the most part. He's a two-pitch guy. I like the demeanor as well. He's not afraid. He's going to continue to go after them every day. He's wired like a late-inning reliever."

Zych strikes out Arenado

That doesn't mean Zych is lining up as a closer anytime soon. He's pitched in just 13 big league games and is still technically a rookie due to his limited playing time last year. But Servais isn't ruling out that sort of role in the future for the Chicago native.

"He's certainly got the stuff to do it," Servais said. "It's a little bit tougher sometimes getting those last three outs, but I think down the road there's no reason why he couldn't project being that type of guy. But that's not in our plans right now."

Zych said his nasty slider is "night and day" from where it was a few years ago and he credits Cubs standout Jake Arrieta with helping him with that pitch. And the heater? He's learned it's more about location than just rarin' back and throwing the upper-90s gas.

"Everyone knows it doesn't matter how hard you throw," he said. "Once you're in the big leagues, anyone can hit anything. It took me awhile to realize that because I was always a hard thrower and 96, 97 doesn't matter here. That alone is not going to get it by anybody.

"You've got to have the location and trying to implement and learn that, talking with guys like Jamie Moyer now about just little things about how to pitch; it's unbelievable what guys like that bring to the table. I spoke with Felix [Hernandez] a little last year and I've always tried to learn more about the pitching side, not just having velocity."

That point was driven home by the Giants in the Mariners' 5-4 Cactus League win Friday in Scottsdale when Zych came in for the ninth with a three-run lead and promptly gave up three straight hits, including a leadoff homer to Ryder Jones, before retiring the last three batters to secure the win.

"Tony gave up a few hits there, but he was aggressive and got it done at the end," Servais said. "He went to the slider. They were on the fastball. They were up looking for it and they squared a few up on him. That's why you've got to have a second pitch and the command of it to use it 3-1 and 3-2 with the tying run at the plate. That's a gutsy pitch [to strike out Grant Green to end the game], and he made it."

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB, read his Mariners Musings blog, and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.