PEORIA, Ariz. -- Mariners manager Scott Servais calls him "The Silent Assassin," mostly because Ljay Newsome is one of the quietest characters in the Mariners' clubhouse.But there's a reason for the reticence. Newsome isn't a big-name prospect or grizzled Major League veteran. The Maryland native was a 26th-round Draft pick
PEORIA, Ariz. -- Mariners manager Scott Servais calls him "The Silent Assassin," mostly because Ljay Newsome is one of the quietest characters in the Mariners' clubhouse.
But there's a reason for the reticence. Newsome isn't a big-name prospect or grizzled Major League veteran. The Maryland native was a 26th-round Draft pick in 2015 who pitched last year at Class A Clinton, where he went 8-9 with a 4.10 ERA and 1.13 WHIP in 25 starts.
Newsome got the Spring Training invitation by winning a season-long competition instituted by general manager Jerry Dipoto and director of player development Andy McKay to reward Minor League players for commanding the strike zone.
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For hitters, the concept was instituted two years ago and is based on "productive team plate appearances," or getting on base, moving runners over and the like. The first winner, Dalton Kelly, was traded to the Rays before getting to the Mariners camp. The Rays liked the idea so much, however, that they honored the Mariners' promise and invited Kelly to their own big league camp last year.
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Infielder Jordan Cowan -- a local product from Kentlake High in Kent, Wash. -- won this year's PTPA competition and is in camp, but unable to participate as he's recovering from labrum surgery in his shoulder.
The competition was expanded to pitchers this past year with a weekly bracket tournament that pitted every hurler in the Minor League system against each other, with points given for throwing first-pitch strikes and strikes in 1-1 counts. And the first winner was Newsome, who walked just 16 batters with 111 strikeouts in 129 2/3 innings last season.
Thus the 5-foot-11, 210-pounder finds himself in the same clubhouse every morning with Nelson Cruz and Robinson Cano and working out daily with the likes of Felix Hernandez and James Paxton. On Tuesday, he got his first Cactus League action against the Cubs.
Newsome entered in the sixth inning and wound up throwing two scoreless innings, striking out two, walking one and giving up no hits. He earned a big handshake and smile from Servais as he came off the field after his final out.
What did Servais say to him?
"He said I lost two 1-1 counts," Newsome said with a wry grin.
That irony got a laugh from Newsome, which was exactly Servais' intent with the quiet youngster.
"I love the program they've put in with our Minor League players to give the pitcher and top hitter a chance to come to big league camp," Servais said. "They earn the right to be here, and it's just nice to see him get comfortable, have fun and to joke with him a little bit and see the smile come out when he was coming off the field. It was a good day for him."
In fact, it's been a good couple of weeks for Newsome, whose previous biggest baseball highlight figured to be striking out 17 batters in seven innings to lead his Chopticon High team to the Maryland 3A state title in 2015.
"It's pretty cool," Newsome said of the Spring Training invite. "My parents were really excited for me. Everything in this game, I've worked hard for and this is going to help me a lot. All the advice and tips everyone is giving me will stay with me throughout my career."
Newsome is scheduled to pitch again Saturday night against the Angels as he continues to be used just like the rest of the 30 pitchers in camp. Servais certainly was impressed with his initial outing.
"For a 21-year-old in his first Major League camp, to go out and do what he did and how he did it, he couldn't look more comfortable," Servais said. "He pitched. That's what he does. He's not going to blow you away, he's back and forth, changing speeds. Throws a ton of strikes. It was really impressive for a guy that young to handle it the way he did."
The whole experience to date has been "eye opening," Newsome said.
"It was always my dream to get to the big leagues, as a little kid, ever since T-ball," he said. "I've basically worked my butt off and kept it going."
He still has a long way to go to reach the Majors. But as he's gone about his business, surrounded this spring by players who have already accomplished that dream, Newsome has been accepted. And that part, he appreciates as much as anything.
"I was taken in as one of the guys," Newsome said. "Me being the young guy here, they've really taken care of me."
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.