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Prospect Maurer off to strong start in first camp

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Brandon Maurer doesn't have a cool nickname like the "Big Three" pitching prospects for the Mariners. But the tall right-hander with the red goatee is quickly working his way into the picture with a strong start to his spring.

And maybe he's earning a nickname of his own along the way. Just call him the "Big Bruise."

Maurer, 22, emerged last year as a legitimate prospect of his own when he was named the Southern League Pitcher of the Year for Double-A Jackson after going 9-2 with a 3.20 ERA. But now, in his first Major League camp, his only problem has been a magnetic personality, as in an attraction to hard line drives off opposing bats.

In his first live batting practice session this spring, he took a shot up the middle by Kendrys Morales off his left shin. The bruise slowed his workout schedule slightly, but there he was on the mound Monday, making his first Cactus League appearance against the Angels.

And wouldn't you know it, the second batter he faced -- former Seattle infielder Luis Rodriguez -- ripped a ball that clipped Maurer in the back of his right leg before he could dodge out of the way.

Maurer, who already owns a scar on his left shin from a similar shot he took last year while pitching for Jackson, just grins and bears it. All three blows came when a left-hander reached out and got the bat on his two-seam fastball on the outside of the plate.

"Exact same pitch," he said with a laugh when asked about the shin music. "You'd think I'd learn. I saw it coming at me, and I was just like, 'Really? Really, again?' It caught me on the outside of the other shin. But it wasn't as bad this time. No way was I coming out."

Well, he wouldn't come out until his work was done, after an efficient seven-pitch second inning. Maurer struck out the first batter he faced on a 96-mph heater. Then, after Rodriguez reached on his infield hit off the leg, Maurer wiped him out with a quick double-play grounder.

"It felt good," said Maurer. "I had the nerves at the beginning, but as soon as that first pitch got through, I was ready to roll. It's the same game."

Same game, different characters. When Maurer reached the dugout after his Cactus League debut, he was greeted with high-fives from everyone, and then Felix Hernandez handed him catcher Jesus Montero's shin guards.

"It was pretty funny," Maurer said. "I threw those on and went through my windup in the dugout."

It's beginning to look like Maurer's name can safely be included in the same sentence as prized prospects Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton. Though he's yet to pitch above Double-A, the 6-foot-5 California native has opened eyes.

"He's been very impressive all camp and, of course, he was very impressive last year for us in the Minor Leagues," manager Eric Wedge said. "I think he has everybody's attention right now, including the players after hitting live off of him. He's a big guy, and he leverages the baseball, throws downhill -- tremendous arm speed. There's a lot there to like."

Mike Zunino, the Mariners' top catching prospect, worked with Maurer in his last start in Jackson last season. With Maurer on a 65-70 pitch count that day -- the organization wanted to be careful with him as he reached his innings limit for the year -- Zunino figured it might be a short outing.

Instead, Maurer zipped through six scoreless innings, surrendering just three hits to Mississippi.

"It was unbelievable," Zunino said. "I was sitting there thinking, 'This guy is the real deal.' He throws everything. He's got a power fastball, and he locates it really well. He's got a good curveball he can throw for strikes at any point in the count. And he's got a good cutter/slider -- whatever he wants to call it -- that he can really put guys away with. And he's got a good changeup. So he's really got a well-balanced four pitches.

"It's one of those things where it just comes down to him executing his pitches. It looks like he's in great shape again. He's looking really good, and hopefully he can keep carrying that forward. I think he's going to have a good year again."

Assuming, of course, that he can stay away from comebackers up the middle.

"I guess that's what I want," Maurer said of inducing ground balls. "But certainly not at me next time. I need to be able to jump or something."

As a 23rd-round Draft pick in 2008 out of Orange Lutheran High School in Newport Hills, Calif., he has definitely leapt up the Mariners ladder. He says the key was getting physically stronger last year, so he could finally pitch a full season without getting fatigued in his fifth year of pro ball.

Now, he's just looking to continue building that resume. He has no idea where he'll start this coming season, but for now, he's soaking up the experience at big league camp.

"It's awesome," he said. "I'm enjoying it. One day at a time."

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.

Seattle Mariners, Brandon Maurer