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Mariners’ Putz waits for reputation to catch up with talent

Best closer in baseball?

New York’s Mariano Rivera generally is regarded as the best ever, and Boston’s Jonathan Papelbon might be the popular current choice.

But Seattle’s J.J. Putz deserves to be part of the discussion, Mariners manager John McLaren said.

“He’s (No.) 1 or 2, for me, in the (American) League. You can probably debate him and Papelbon back and forth. They’re very similar. They both throw hard and have a great presence on the mound,” McLaren said.

Putz (pronounced “puts,” as in he puts out fires) pitched a scoreless ninth inning Friday at Cashman Field in the Mariners’ 10-2 victory over the Chicago Cubs on Big League Weekend. On Saturday, the Mariners never led, and Putz didn’t pitch in their 4-2 loss.

“He was Mr. Automatic last year when he came in,” McLaren said. “That’s always been our goal, to turn the ball over to him with the lead, and we feel like he’s going to get it done every time.”

Putz nearly did last season, when he had a career-high 40 saves in 42 chances, led all major league relievers with a 1.38 ERA and made his first All-Star appearance.

Putz, whose 76 saves over the last two seasons rank third in the AL behind Francisco Rodriguez (87) and Bobby Jenks (81), also became one of 12 closers in baseball history to record more saves than hits allowed (37) in a season last year. Papelbon also accomplished the feat last year.

“It was an incredible year. It was a lot of fun,” said Joseph Jason Putz, 31, who has a 1.86 combined ERA the last two years. “The All-Star experience was excellent, but the biggest thing was we played really well as a team and we’re looking to build on that this year.”

Putz, a 6-foot-5-inch, 250-pound right-hander from suburban Detroit, began his career as a starter and never envisioned himself as a closer.

“They moved me to the bullpen in 2003 in Triple A, and I really had no idea what I was doing,” said Putz, who made 75 minor league starts from 2000 to 2002 and had a 24-32 record and 3.47 ERA on the farm. “It was kind of a good thing, because the year I got called up was the year the Mariners’ five starters didn’t miss a start, so there was really no room for a starter to come up.”

Putz, a sixth-round draft pick of the Mariners in 1999 out of the University of Michigan, said closing is “a whole different game.”

“The ninth inning, I know it’s just three outs, but it’s completely different,” he said. “The biggest thing is you’ve got to get ahead. You’ve got to get strike one. When you fall behind late in a game like that, that’s when you get in trouble.”

Putz, who enters games to the pounding riffs of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” said he “wouldn’t have it any other way” now.

“I really enjoy (being the closer),” he said. “It’s a lot of fun.”

McLaren said Putz possesses “a tremendous fastball and a great (split-fingered fastball),” along with a hard slider.

“He’s got great control and he can use all his pitches at anytime, which is huge,” McLaren said.

Putz finished the spring 1-0 with one save and a 4.50 ERA, allowing four runs on eight hits in eight innings, with one walk and 12 strikeouts.

Putz said the addition of starting pitchers Erik Bedard and Carlos Silva “takes some pressure off Felix (Hernandez) and the other guys.”

McLaren said the Mariners have “had a buzz since the first workout we had.”

“We’re looking for some big things this year,” he said. “We feel like we’re going to win the West, and that’s our goal.”

• NOTE — A sellout crowd of 11,634 attended Saturday and 23,201 attended the 18th annual Big League Weekend.

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or (702) 383-0354.

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