Why have a position player pitch when you can have a pitcher play a position? Oh, ineptitude and injury risk? Where is your sense of whimsy?!
At some point in recent years position players pitching has become a capital-t Thing. This season, backup catcher Tom Murphy has pitched in two games for the Mariners, prompting Connor to call for him to officially become a two-way player. There have been 15 games in history, as of this writing, in which a Mariners position player has pitched. Have you ever wondered, as you sat up with glee and watched a position player take the mound if it has ever happened the other way around?
In fact, it has. While I wouldn’t call it typical, it does happen upon occasion in the National League with all their double switching strategery and such. What you might not know is that it has happened twice in Mariners history, and neither was during an interleague game.
Travel with me back to 1993, and relive two games in which the Mariners gave in to silliness and whimsy, and let a couple of pitchers loose in the outfield.
Jeff Nelson – July 15th, 1993
It’s possible Lou Piniella was a little confused. Or, given that it was his first season managing the Mariners after three seasons in the National League, maybe he just missed the ole double switch. Whatever the reason, Sweet Lou caused a real stir during the eighth inning in Boston.
The Mariners were leading the Red Sox by one run and the team was without closer Norm Charlton, who was serving the last game of a suspension for his involvement in a brawl. Jeff Nelson came on to start the eighth inning and quickly got two outs. But after giving up a base hit to the next better and with a lefty lumbering up to the plate, Piniella signaled to the bullpen. In came Dennis Powell and confusion ensued.
Instead of heading back to the dugout when his pitching replacement arrived Nelson was sent out to left field, and into designated hitter Marc Newfield’s spot in the batting order. Powell replaced left fielder Greg Litton (who, I imagine, felt a little insulted to be replaced defensively by a pitcher) in the lineup. Two pitchers in the batting order. Very normal in the American League. Nothing to see here.
Piniella himself may not have known exactly what he was doing, saying after the game, “It’s a play that Whitey (Herzog, former manager of the Cardinals) used to use in the National League all the time…I knew over here it involved the designated hitter somewhere.” The umpires and Red Sox manager Butch Hobson were confused by the move and huddled with Piniella for several minutes trying to make sense of it all (back in those days, umpires were specific to their leagues so these American League umpires didn’t have experience with double switches). “In seventeen years in the big leagues, I’ve never seen that,” home plate umpire Durwood Merrill said later.
Lou was confident in his decision, saying of Nelson, “He shags real well during batting practice.” Jeff Nelson seemed a bit less sure of himself, soliciting the advice of his teammates:
Powell, blissfully unaware that he had a pitcher behind him defending the Green Monster, would get his batter to pop up to second base and the inning was over without requiring Nelson to make any defensive plays.
Nelson came back out to pitch in the top of the ninth and he would again get the first two batters out. The third batter reached on an error, and Piniella pulled Nelson from the mound again. This time, he relied on a traditional pitching change and brought in rookie pitcher Mike Hampton to close it out (it would be Hampton’s only career save).
This wasn’t the last time Piniella would move a pitcher to a position in order to keep them in the game; however, he only ever tried it again in the National League. This day stands as the only time a Mariners manager has tried to save the bullpen and use a LOOGY at the same time.
Randy Johnson – October 3rd, 1993
It was the final game of the 1993 season. The Mariners had clinched a winning record, but had been eliminated from playoff contention. As such, it was a meaningless game, as many late season games are. The team just had to trudge through nine more innings against the Twins in Minneapolis, then they could head out for the offseason. 1993 was a breakout year for Randy Johnson. It was the first time he would record over 300 strikeouts in a season. He won 19 games and finished second in Cy Young Award voting. He also recorded his first career save, and was nearly traded to the Blue Jays at the deadline. Then, on October 3rd, having watched his fellow pitcher trot out to left field earlier in the season, Randy Johnson got an idea.
“He wanted to play first base,” Lou Piniella told reporters after the game. “(First baseman) Dave Magadan (Lou’s cousin) was due up in the top of the ninth, so I told him to grab a glove and head out to left field.”
Randy grabbed a glove and went out to left field, instantly becoming the tallest left fielder in baseball history, a record that still stands (in fact, he is the tallest position player in baseball history, although not the tallest pitcher). Randy said after the game, “I was hoping I’d get to go back to the wall and take a home run away from somebody, just like Junior.” The first batter of the inning would send a fly ball toward right fielder Dann Howitt. He dove to make the catch, and put Randy’s dreams of outfield glory to rest: “I was thinking if that ball had been hit to me, I wasn’t going to be diving at it.”
The rest of the inning continued uneventfully, with relief pitcher Kevin King inducing a groundout and a strikeout. The Mariners wrapped up the ninth inning quickly, going down 1-2-3 and sealing the loss in their final game.
The future was looking bright for the Mariners. Following his exciting season on the mound, Randy was ready to believe big. “Maybe next year I’ll get to win 20 games and get to play first base too,” he mused while looking ahead to 1994.
(Spoiler: he did not get to play first base in 1994.)
The Mariners finished the 1993 season with a record of 82-80, only the second time in franchise history that the team had finished above .500. Despite ending up 4th in the AL West, it was a season that marked the slow beginning of a team that could contend for division titles and post season berths.
It would also mark the beginning of an era in which the position that caused the most hand wringing by beat writers and sports radio hosts wasn’t the revolving door at first base, but rather the black hole in the Kingdome’s left field. Often sited as evidence of a problem that desperately needed fixing (as if these complainers had never watched the 90s Mariners bullpen pitch), was the presence of Jeff Nelson and Randy Johnson on the list of Mariners left fielders.
It’s unlikely that we’ll see another pitcher play a position. As it becomes more common for position players to pitch though, I like to imagine the resultant outcry if a Mariners pitcher were ever placed out in the field again.