A major stride for Fitzgerald

At spring training this year, Brian Fitzgerald’s new cutter nearly shielded him from being cut by the Seattle Mariners.

Fitzgerald, a left-hander who graduated from Potomac High School in 1992, started the 2002 baseball season on Thursday night as a member of the Triple-A Tacoma Rainiers. He was so effective this spring, though, that he made the Mariners’ brass think twice about sending him back to the minors.

“Lou Piniella, Pat Gillick, Lee Pelekoudas and Bryan Price filled me in on Saturday before one of the last games of the spring,” Fitzgerald said of his meeting with the Mariners’ manager, general manager, vice president and pitching coach. “They said, ‘You had a great spring and you showed us what you could do, but we just don’t have room for you.'”

In his six appearances covering six innings, Fitzgerald didn’t allow a run or even a walk. He picked up three saves, including one in a preseason tuneup in front of the home fans at Safeco Field. Fitzgerald allowed seven hits and struck out eight.

Room may open up for an extra left-handed reliever after next Tuesday, when regular fifth starter Joel Piniero will be elevated from the bullpen. With extra built-in off days in April, Seattle opened the season with a four-man rotation. Thanks to Piniero’s temporary move to the bullpen, Fitzgerald and fellow left-hander Matt Jarvis were both demoted late in spring training.

The Mariners kept only Arthur Rhodes as a left-handed reliever, and they’re still looking for a substitute for Norm Charlton, who’s out for the season with a shoulder injury. Fitzgerald and Jarvis, who had a 3.75 earned-run average and allowed 18 hits in 12 innings this spring, are the most likely fill-ins within the system. Neither is on Seattle’s 40-man roster and each is in the last year of his minor league contract.

The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Fitzgerald has reason for optimism that his major league debut will come soon, but he’s trying not to get too ahead of himself. For now, he’ll generally enter games in the sixth, seventh or eighth innings for Tacoma.

“I’m just going to go to Tacoma and plan on being here when I’m needed,” Fitzgerald said prior to the Rainiers’ opener at Omaha. “I’m not gonna count on anything, there are just too many variables. I’m not going to hold my breath, but if [a promotion] does happen, that would be great.”

Fitzgerald and his wife, Amber, are expecting their first child in three months. She works as a special education teacher at Featherstone Elementary School, and he finished his degree in exercise science from Virginia Tech in the most recent offseason.

The 27-year-old Fitzgerald throws a four-seam and two-seam fastball, a curveball and a changeup. Last year he began toying with the cut fastball, which acts as a sinker.

“I started working on it last year in Triple-A,” Fitzgerald said. “It goes to both sides of the plate. [Oakland A’s outfielder and Hylton High alumnus] Mike Colangelo and I worked out a lot together, and he helped me with it.

“He’s in the big leagues for a reason. He’d talk to me about it, tell me what looked good and what had a good tilt. He asked the same things of me. I always joke around with him that I’m going to get a percentage of your big league salary because I threw to you in the offseason.”

That joke may grow a little old if Fitzgerald’s also in the majors, which could happen — or not happen — any day when one’s pitching in Triple-A. Last year, Fitzgerald went 2-1 with a 3.89 ERA in 35 innings at Tacoma and 4-1, 1.96 in 41 innings at Double-A San Antonio.

“It would be unbelievable to play for Seattle,” Fitzgerald said. “The whole city’s just awesome. They love the Mariners and they have such a big following.”

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