SURPRISE, Ariz. – Erik Bedard's grace period ended Wednesday afternoon, amid the light desert air and beneath a high sky, a soft breeze angling toward right field, in a place where fat fastballs and imprecise curveballs hold no true significance.
Not, anyway, for a man expected to push the Seattle Mariners past the Los Angeles Angels and to the organization's first AL West title in seven years. And not, perhaps, for a man with one of the terrific arms in the game.
Seven weeks ago, the Mariners ponied up five players for Bedard, a trade that cost them everybody's favorite prospect (outfielder Adam Jones), a setup reliever (George Sherrill) who will be the Baltimore Orioles' closer and three promising arms.
All that's at stake now, five days from Bedard's opening-day start against the Texas Rangers, is the club's immediate future and its distant future, along with, possibly, the careers of some of its front-office staff. These are, after all, the kinds of trades that steer organizations and forge reputations, and this was an all-in move for GM Bill Bavasi and friends.
Meanwhile, Bedard threw six more innings, these against the Kansas City Royals, and allowed four more runs.
In 24 spring innings – generally meaningless as long as Bedard carried a healthy arm from the mound after each of them – he allowed 23 earned runs. He allowed nine home runs. He had 10 strikeouts and eight walks.
That's not very good, of course. But, as the fellas say, he was just getting his work in. And, as a bonus, he was contributing to his outfielders' conditioning as well. It's all about teamwork.
So far, there's nothing to say Bedard's arm isn't sound. His fastball, thrown out of that familiar cross-body path, on Wednesday was in the low 90s. He threw more curveballs than he had in his previous spring starts, suggesting an area of emphasis. But, two more home runs (one was inside the park and misplayed by Jeremy Reed in center field, but still carried about 400 feet), not enough swings and misses (for the AL's leader in strikeouts per nine innings) and plenty of hearty cuts from a Royals lineup that wouldn't scare off too many pitchers.
All of which found Bedard reclined in a clubhouse folding chair, shoes kicked off, half-gnawed apple in his pitching hand. Already he's earned a reputation among Seattle writers for being as minimally cooperative as possible while still technically responding to questions. He was aloof and dismissive again Wednesday, so difficult to read on the topics of his spring and summer. He stands on the brink of taking the ball for the first contending team he'll play on, sporting a spring ERA of nearly 9, and the request was to describe his responsibility pitching from the top of the rotation when the expectations are so high.
"I have no idea," he said. "I don't have any."
No idea? Or no responsibility?
"No responsibility," he said.
Presumably, he doesn't believe that. Presumably, Bavasi won't read that and have his head explode.
The Mariners' season could turn on Bedard. The offense won't be especially productive, not with Jose Guillen gone and replaced by Brad Wilkerson. The bullpen will miss Sherrill. If they are to overtake the broader-based Angels, made momentarily vulnerable by injuries to Kelvim Escobar, John Lackey and Scot Shields, the rotation will do much of the heavy lifting. That means Felix Hernandez, Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista and Carlos Silva, too, but there's a reason manager John McLaren is giving the ball to Bedard first.
He once was a developing ace on a bad team in a hitters' ballpark. Now he's a full-bird ace on a good team in a pitchers' park.
And, in his final tune-up before standing in front of all of Seattle and making the people believe again, Bedard revealed his preparatory plan.
"I didn't have a plan," he said. "Just went out there and threw strikes."
Technically, that's a plan.
"I feel good," he said. "My arm feels good. That's all I can ask for, to stay healthy."
He was asked if this was the stuff he intended on carrying into his Monday night start.
"Four runs, six innings? No," he said.
All right, then how does that get tidied up?
"I don't know," he said. "We'll see when the game starts. I'll figure it out as we go."
Probably, he'll be the same pitcher as last season, maybe better, given the ballpark. Probably, he'll take some of the focus off Hernandez, for whom Bedard will someday abdicate the designation of staff ace. And, probably, this is all very important to Bedard, meaning he'll start locating his fastball and curveball better, maybe in time for the big game on Monday.
And, as reporters were turning to leave his locker Wednesday afternoon, having learned nothing about why he'd been hittable for a month, Bedard was heard to sigh and say, "That was painful."
He had no idea. This was only the grace period.