Archive for Friday, April 21, 2006

After two-year absence, Appier looking for way back

April 21, 2006

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Kevin Appier has been an All-Star. He has won a World Series, in 2002 with the Anaheim Angels.

He is 38 years old. He has made tens of millions of dollars while winning 169 games in parts of 16 major-league seasons.

So why was he pitching two practice games against rehabilitating Class A and Triple-A prospects from Oakland and San Diego last week at the Seattle Mariners' extended spring training in Peoria, Ariz., in front of only the Mariners' Arizona Rookie League pitching coach and few of the prospects' girlfriends?

And why was Appier in Sacramento, Calif., on Wednesday afternoon, pitching a scoreless inning for the Tacoma Rainiers in a Triple-A game against the Sacramento River Cats before 8,112 fans?

Why, after he told the Kansas City Royals last March he'd rather retire to his 27-acre soybean farm in Paola, Kan., with wife Laurie and children Britney and Garrett, than report to Triple-A Omaha?

For one reason: Even though Appier hasn't pitched in the major leagues in 24 months, he still thinks he can.

"It was a different situation last year," the affable, quirky Appier said in Arizona last weekend. "There was hardly any life in my arm, and no life on the ball. I struggled and was not comfortable with the situation."

He said the Royals, for whom he played parts of 12 seasons, said he would not be the first one recalled last season.

"It was clear I didn't fit into their plans," he said. "But I didn't want to finish my career that way."

So the former Royal, Met, Athletic and Angel will finish it this way: in a final chance to help the pitching-desperate Mariners end two seasons living at the bottom of the AL West.

How desperate is Seattle for effective throwers? Appier said it was the only team to call him back this winter, after Appier called around the league to tell teams his right pitching elbow - the one that had a tendon replaced during a 2003 surgery - felt great.

Appier knew this because last November, for the first time in a year, he was throwing chopped fire wood across his farm without searing pain.

"I knew I could pitch and wanted another shot," he said. "Seattle took a chance, really sight unseen and said here are a few conditions. So I said to myself, 'Hey, give it a try.'"

He flew to Puerto Rico to play in some winter league games for Mayaguez, with Puerto Rican resident and new Seattle pitching coach Rafael Chaves watching. Seattle then signed him to a minor league contract and invited him to spring training.

There, he had two wins and a 2.84 earned-run average in three March appearances. He also had a 90 mph fastball again. But then he partially tore his right calf running to cover first base in a March 17 game. He didn't pitch the rest of camp.

Yet instead of releasing him back to his soybeans and cows, the Mariners offered extended spring training to rehabilitate the calf, then a stint with Tacoma to work back to pitching five innings or so.

That is buying time for the Mariners to determine whether their wafer-thin staff will remain healthy, or effective - while they remain intrigued over having a former All-Star and potential fallback plan hiding at Triple-A.

"Anytime you see anyone get guys out like that, they all become intriguing - especially guys like Kevin Appier," Mariners manager Mike Hargrove said last month.

Greg Hunter, the Mariners' director of minor league operations, said the Tacoma schedule is for Appier to work up to pitching four- and five-inning stints. Every fifth day, he would "piggyback" appearances with former San Francisco Giant Jesse Foppert, one starting and pitching the first five innings, the other finishing the final four.

Wednesday, Appier threw only 18 pitches - nine for strikes - while walking one and allowing one hit. He threw 36 and 45 pitches in his two Arizona outings this month, after which he said his calf is fully healed.

"He's probably going to be used as both a starter or a reliever if he gets back here," Hunter said.

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