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Club's Virginia connection starting to pay dividends

Together in Minors camp, six ex-Cavaliers would love to play together in Seattle

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Most guys invited to their first Major League camp enter with some trepidation. But young right-hander Andrew Carraway looked around the Mariners' clubhouse this spring and saw plenty of familiar faces.

Call it the Virginia connection.

Across the room in one corner sat John Hicks, his former college catcher. A few lockers down, he could hang out with Danny Hultzen, his good buddy and workout partner, whom he's known since Hultzen was a high school senior.

And when all three former college teammates were sent down to the Minor League camp last week, they rejoined another former Virginia standout, infielder Steven Proscia.

"All four of us played in the College World Series together in '09," said Carraway, the oldest of the quartet. "That was the year that whole team kind of came together. And through that experience, we were all really close.

"I was a senior and they were all freshmen. So I was excited to see them in the clubhouse again. The next time I saw them in a playing atmosphere was Spring Training last year, and that was kind of surreal, seeing all those guys in Mariners jerseys. It was very cool."

Two more Virginia players were added to the mix this year after shortstop Chris Taylor was drafted in the fifth round last June and infielder Keith Werman signed as a non-drafted free agent. Both started the spring in Minor League camp, where all six of the former Cavaliers are now together.

But the Virginia crew started making its presence felt at the big league level this spring. Hultzen, the only one invited to Major League camp in 2012, was joined this time by Hicks and Carraway. Hicks, who played Class A ball last year, was one of the pleasant surprises of camp as an athletic catcher who reminds some of a young Dan Wilson.

Carraway climbed the ladder to Triple-A Tacoma last year, and he impressed Eric Wedge enough this spring that Seattle's skipper gave him a Cactus League start in one of his final games as a reward for his diligence.

Hultzen, of course, remains the shining star of the group as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft. That's something Carraway, himself an outstanding collegiate pitcher, understood from the time shortly after he served as Hultzen's host during his recruiting trip to the Charlottesville campus.

"When he came in that year, we were both starting the weekend rotation," Carraway said. "They actually let me start Opening Day in kind of a symbolic move. Then they said, 'OK, now Hultzen is going to start Friday nights and you'll start Saturdays.' Because even at that level, he was so talented at that point."

"It's been a blast being together this spring. Those guys are all really good baseball players, really good competitors. It would be amazing if we could play on the same team in Seattle someday and help the team win. That would make it even better."
-- Andrew Carraway

Hultzen, 23, retains a strong bond with Carraway after the two worked out together during the offseason in Virginia, and the two of them continued sharing thoughts and experiences this spring.

"He was the first guy I ever met at Virginia," Hultzen said. "To have all of them here now, it's awesome. As you grow up, pretty much the most influential years of your life are spent in college with those guys. And now just to have somebody you already know be in the same situation is really nice.

"Especially with Carraway, he was the guy who taught me a lot about what college and college baseball were going to be like. And in the same way, he taught me about what pro ball was going to be like. He's like my mentor."

Carraway calls himself "the big brother" of the group. At 26, he's the one who lives apart this spring, staying with an aunt and uncle in the area. The other three live together in Glendale, along with Mariners reliever Carter Capps, the miscast North Carolinian in an apartment that otherwise hosts the three former Virginia athletes and their Cavalier attitudes.

"I put up with a great deal from them," Capps said with a laugh. "I have to watch every Virginia basketball game. Every game."

Hicks caught most of Carraway's games in 2009 and worked with Hultzen for three years, so he knows their stuff better than anyone.

"Danny is commanding the ball really well this spring," he said. "It's throwing me back to our college days. He can do a lot of different things. He's a lefty with several kinds of movement. He's got a lower arm angle, so the ball sinks a lot. He obviously didn't have the command he wanted last year when he moved up to Triple-A, but in college, he always had great command.

"Carraway has great command, too, plus a really good changeup, and he moves the ball back and forth. He's got four pitches he can throw in any count. So it's kind of tough to sit on a pitch. He can cut it, he can slow it down. It's tough to get comfortable in the box against a guy like that."

On the flip side, Carraway said he saw Hicks grow by leaps and bounds his first year of college and equates that with what the youngster did in camp this spring in a crowded catchers' competition.

"He's a guy that comes in and isn't going to be the loud voice in the clubhouse, but he gets his work in every day, and as you watch him, he just gets better and better," Carraway said. "Seeing him do that in big league camp was really cool. It's kind of the same process where he's not going to be outspoken or bragging about anything, but there he is, just continuing to get better. He's gotten bigger, he's gotten stronger, so now he can be more of a presence at the plate as well as behind it. He's exciting to watch."

Hultzen also took extra comfort when he'd line up with Hicks behind the plate.

"He knows the way I pitch and I know the way he catches, so that bond that pitchers and catchers have is already built," said Hultzen. "It's awesome to see him doing so well."

Hultzen and Carraway are likely to start the season together in Tacoma. Hicks more likely will go to Jackson, since he was in Class A last year, while Proscia -- an infielder chosen in the seventh round in the '11 Draft -- figures to start in Double-A as well after tearing up High Desert with a .333 average and 24 home runs last year in A ball.

At the moment, they're all sharing the Minor League clubhouse in Peoria. And who knows, maybe someday they'll reunite together at Safeco Field wearing Mariners blue instead of Virginia blue and orange.

"It's been a blast being together this spring," Carraway said. "Those guys are all really good baseball players, really good competitors. It would be amazing if we could play on the same team in Seattle someday and help the team win. That would make it even better."

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.
Read More: Seattle Mariners, Christopher Taylor, Danny Hultzen, John Hicks, Keith Werman, Steven Proscia, Andrew Carraway