Championship Rainiers set for a fabulous season

With a new stadium, new ownership and a lot of new players, 2011 looks to be awesome for the Rainiers. The team is also bringing along some new hardware – the championship rings they earned as the winners of the 2010 Pacific Coast League title. So there will be much to celebrate when the team plays its 2011 home opener on April 15.

Daren Brown returns as manager of the Rainiers. Brown begins his fifth season as skipper, but was in Tacoma for only part of the 2010 season before being named Mariners’ interim manager Aug. 9 after Don Wakamatsu was fired. Brown’s regular-season record with the club is 283-264, with one post-season victory from 2009. Brown has been a manager in the Mariners’ minor leagues for 11 seasons.

Alonzo Powell will be back as hitting coach for the fourth year, although he also spent much of the 2010 season coaching in Seattle, being called up on May 8. Long-time Mariner fans will remember Powell as an outfielder for Seattle in 1991. Powell saw his greatest success in Japan, where he played from 1992 to 1998. While in the Japanese League, Powell became the first American player to win three straight batting championships (1994-96), besting Ichiro in two of those three years. (They played in separate leagues.) Powell has coached with the Mariners’ system for five seasons. He said it is the constant turnover of players at the upper levels of professional baseball that makes his job such fun and so challenging, adding “I think we have the ability to make this a very successful season, especially if we can keep this unit together.”

Pitching coach Dwight Bernard also returns to the team, although his hiatus was longer than those of Brown and Powell. After being with the Rainiers from 2006-09, Bernard was the pitching coach with the Mariners’ Class A team in Clinton, Iowa last season. He is starting his eighth season as a coach in the Mariners’ minor league system.

And then there is the matter of the names on the roster. Only a handful of players remain from those who helped Tacoma earn the 2010 championship. Of the position players, outfielders Greg Halman, Mike Carp and Mike Wilson and infielders Matt Tuiasosopo and Dustin Ackley are back with the team, along with catcher Josh Bard. Quite a few pitchers are returning, including starters Luke French, Blake Beavan, Edward Paredes and Chris Seddon. Out in the bullpen (now located beyond the lowered left-field fence) is hard-throwing Dan Cortes. Bernard said that there are no roles, such as set-up man or closer, as of yet. He added that having the bullpen moved away from proximity to the dugout (now located on the third-base side) could make it a bit harder to talk to relief pitchers, although phones have been installed between the two locations.

Of the remaining names on the opening-day roster, four came from Mariners’ lower minor league teams – pitcher Cesar Jimenez, infielders Leury Bonnilla, Jetsy Extrano and Alex Liddi, and outfielder Carlos Peguero.

Totally new to the Mariner system are pitchers Danny Bautista (Giants), Fabio Castro (Red Sox), Manny Delcarmen (Red Sox), Justin Miller (Dodgers), Royce Ring (Yankees), Chaz Roe (Colorado minor leaguer) and Chris Smith (Brewers). Catcher Chris Gimenez was with the Indians last year, and infielder Sean Kazmar played for Triple A Portland.

There is a lot of power in the outfield, as Carp, Halman and Wilson combined to hit 79 of the Rainiers’ PCL leading 185 home runs. Peguero hit 23 and Liddi went deep 15 times in AA West Tennessee. Something that did not change in the remodeled Cheney Stadium is the 425-foot distance to dead center field, making it one of the deepest center fields in all of baseball, a true pitcher’s park.

Brown named French, a lefty, as the team’s opening-day pitcher in Sacramento on April 7. His 2010 record was 11-3, with a 2.94 ERA. The remainder of the starting staff will consist of Beavan (2-2, 6.47), Seddon (10-4, 3.39), Roe (9-13, 5.98) and Castro (7-9, 4.93).

Both Brown and Powell said that Liddi is an outstanding young player who will quickly become a fan favorite. He hails from Italy and was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2005. Last year, playing at the AA level in West Tennessee, Liddi had a .281 batting average. He said baseball is not a big sport in his native country, but because his dad played baseball and his mom played softball he chose it over soccer.

The Rainiers’ first home series, against the Sacramento RiverCats, is scheduled for April 15-18. All games start at 7 p.m. except for a 1:30 p.m. start on April 17. The Colorado Sky Sox will be in April 19-22, with all games beginning at 7 p.m. There will be fireworks following the games on April 15 and 22.

General admission tickets are $7. Reserved seating is priced at $11 and $25. This year, because of the remodeling at the stadium, all general admission seating is on the grass berm located at the end of the right-field line. Fans sitting there should bring their own blankets.

All Rainier games can be heard on KHHO 850 AM radio. Mike Curto begins his 13th year as the team’s play-by-play announcer.

So get out the Sharpies and oil the gloves. A new era of Triple A baseball is about to begin in Tacoma. With a great mix of seasoned performers and promising newcomers, new venues and old traditions, it should be an amazing one for all involved. Even the Canadian geese will probably do a special fly-over to commemorate the joyous occasion.


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