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Avery's blazing speed may land him backup role

McClendon liking what he's seen of young outfielder in Cactus League

PEORIA, Ariz. -- This is the sort of scenario Xavier Avery dreams about. With Robinson Cano at the plate, the young Mariners outfielder dances off first base, challenging the pitcher, daring the catcher.

And sure enough, after the second pitch to Cano, Angels backstop Hank Conger can't resist the urge to throw down and make the youngster pay. But the hurried toss sails wide right, rolling down the first-base line as the speedy Avery zips all the way to third.

And from there, it's an easy RBI for Cano, who laces the next pitch for a base hit. Chalk up a run for the Mariners. And another notice of Avery's potential to new Mariners manager Lloyd McClendon and his coaching staff.

"He's a gamer," McClendon said. "He makes things happen. He has a couple tools that are game changing. He stole a base [Friday] off a guy that was 1.18 [seconds] to the plate. Those are the things that can change the scoreboard real quick. He's an interesting young man and he's making the most of his opportunities. He's certainly played well to this point."

That is music to the ears of the 24-year-old outfielder who was acquired from the Orioles last August for Michael Morse. Avery played 32 games for Baltimore in 2012, but hit only .223 and wound up back in Double-A at the start of last season after the Orioles acquired several other outfielders.

He hit .300 in Double-A, moved up to Triple-A Norfolk for a couple of months, but was batting only .237 when he got traded to the Mariners. The fresh start suited him well -- he was 6-for-12 with a home run in three games for Triple-A Tacoma -- and has carried that over to Spring Training this year.

McClendon clearly is interested in seeing what Avery offers, having mentioned him among the contenders in the outfield competition and giving him 12 plate appearances in the first five Cactus League games.

The youngster has gone 3-for-10 (.300) with two walks, two runs, two RBIs and two stolen bases after Monday's 8-1 win over the Rockies, during which he again helped force the action by stealing second in the fourth inning and drawing a throw that allowed Corey Hart to cross the plate on a double steal.

"I'm getting a chance to put my foot forward, so I'm having fun here with the guys," Avery said. "It makes me happy that he's giving me an opportunity to show what I can bring to the table here."

Avery views this whole situation as a fresh start following a difficult 2013. After getting a taste of the big leagues the year before, being dropped back to Double-A and never sniffing the Majors left him frustrated both at himself and the situation. Once regarded as one of the Orioles' premier young prospects, he seemingly had lost his place.

"Last year I had a lot of downs," Avery said. "I learned a lot though, from those downs. The fact that I did is why I'm doing OK here. There was a whole lot of stuff, on the field mainly. The play wasn't where I wanted it to be. That's part of the game. Going through that, I knew I needed to be more consistent.

"When I am consistent, I'm going to be a good player. I've had my streaks. When I'm going good, there's probably nobody in the game that can stop me. But when I'm going bad and when I went bad in the past, a fly could do good against me."

Avery said he got stronger mentally through his struggles last year. And he says he's more locked in, more patient at the plate, than he's ever been in his life. A former prep football standout who turned down a chance to play running back at Georgia after he was drafted in the second round by the Orioles in 2008, he's taken a liking to new Mariners outfield coach Andy Van Slyke and his aggressive defensive drills.

"We're going hard," Avery said with a smile. "It's different. Andy is high energy and I'm loving it. We go hard, that's all I can say."

Playing defense and running has never been the tough part for Avery, who has averaged 32 stolen bases a year in his five full seasons of pro ball.

"My struggles have mostly been at the plate," he said. "And that's what it's all about, hitting that ball. So that's what I'm focusing on now."

And if he can get on base enough? If he can hit well enough and work walks and do what it takes, then Avery can play his game. Speed kills, as he showed once again in Saturday's game against the Angels when he set up Cano by forcing Conger's bad throw.

"Sometimes people say, 'Oh man, you're a base stealer,'" Avery said. "But I always want to say, 'No, I'm a base scorer.' That's what you want to do, score runs. It's big to steal bases because it helps you score runs, but my main objective is to score. If I can distract them and get under their skin just standing on first like I did there and make it easier for our hitters to get hits, that's what I'll do. I'll pick my chances.

"If they're not paying attention, then I'll make them pay attention by stealing. It's kind of a cat-and-mouse game. It's fun to see guys get nervous. That's what I want to do, make guys nervous out there. I want to have their full attention."

And if he does enough of that, he'll get the Mariners' attention as well.

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