PEORIA, Ariz. -- Wondering what one player might hold the keys to which way the season swings for the Mariners in 2016? The X-factor for a club with so many changing parts?
How about sidewinding closer Steve Cishek, the lanky right-hander who'll look to save the day both for the Mariners and a bullpen with a lot of question marks after general manager Jerry Dipoto's offseason overhaul.
Mariners fans certainly know what a shutdown closer can mean. Two years ago, Fernando Rodney set a franchise record with 48 saves in an All-Star season that helped Seattle surprise most folks by coming one win shy of a playoff berth.
But the wheels came off last year for Rodney and the Mariners doubled their American League-best 12 blown saves as a team in 2014 to 24 in '15. How big was that difference? The Mariners fell from 87-75 to 76-86 as they missed the playoffs by 10 games.
Rodney wound up getting traded in August, the team never was in contention and now the rebuilding process is underway again. No one player is ever responsible for everything, but a shutdown closer certainly helps. And blown saves late in games can seem fatal.
The Mariners will cast their closing lot now with Cishek, who was very good in that role for the Marlins from 2013-14, when he converted 73-of-79 save opportunities, but lost his own job last year after struggling early and was eventually dealt to the Cardinals. New manager Scott Servais doesn't want to put too much weight on Cishek, but he acknowledges that will be a key role.
"It's huge," Servais said. "But no matter who you put out there in the ninth, unless it's Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hoffman or somebody, there are going to be some nights you're on the edge of your seat. But I like where Steve is at right now. He's made some good strides [this spring]. He's in a good spot."
Cishek said he's returned to throwing his backdoor slider in critical spots, regaining confidence in a key pitch that he got away from a year ago. The ability to throw strikes and use his best weapons on both sides of the plate are critical to a guy who can make hitters uncomfortable with his unorthodox delivery.
"That pitch is huge, especially against lefties," Cishek said of the slider. "With all the mechanics issues I had last year, I wasn't able to locate it well. It was spinning out of my hand, and when I tried to get it across the zone, it would stay up and get hammered. So really, I just need to make sure I locate it well, and I've been able to do that so far this spring."
Cishek seems relaxed and ready, which is a critical state of mind for a closer. Confidence is king for the men who must stride in with the music blaring, the crowds roaring and games on the line.
"There's nothing else quite like it," Cishek said.
This is exactly the reason Cishek chose to sign with Seattle in the offseason and get another shot at closing. It's a job he craved. A high-wire act for a sidewinder who will play a big part in determining the Mariners' success this season.