Broken jaw doesn't break Peterson's confidence
Mariners' first-rounder appreciates game even more while rehabbing from injury
SEATTLE -- D.J. Peterson knows the question is coming. Like a rising fastball up and in, he sees this one all the way. But Peterson doesn't flinch, doesn't duck, doesn't pull away.
Instead, the Mariners' 2013 first-round Draft pick looks his inquisitor in the eye and fires back before the words are even spoken.
"I'm feeling really good," Peterson said in one of his first interviews since his jaw was broken by a pitch last August in a Class A game in Clinton, Iowa. "And your next question is going to be, 'How is the injury and how did you get through it?'"
Indeed, that's the question hovering over the 22-year-old third baseman after his promising first year of pro ball was shattered by a pitch that got away from Wisconsin Timber Rattlers right-hander Jorge Lopez and left Peterson initially hospitalized and eventually with a jaw wired shut for a month.
Peterson hasn't hit off live pitching since, but he's been swinging in a cage, hitting off a machine and tees and soft tosses, getting the timing back and preparing for a return to the Mariners' Minor League facility in a couple of weeks.
And judging from his responses during an interview at FanFest last week at Safeco Field, Peterson is more than ready to step back in and get after it.
"It was tough," he said. "It was a tough month. I'm not going to lie to you, it was brutal. But you know what? It showed me that I wanted this even more than I did before. It was a setback that gave me the time to realize this is what I want. I want to work as hard as I can. I can't wait to get these brackets taken out of my mouth and get back to work, because this is what I want to do with my life. I want to help this Mariners baseball team."
Peterson isn't the first hitter to take one off his chin, and he won't be the last. But the former University of New Mexico standout doesn't think he'll dwell on what happened when he's back in the box.
"There's nothing you can really do. It's kinda out of your hands," Peterson said. "It was a freak accident that doesn't happen too often. How many times do guys get hit in the head? Not very often. It's something that hopefully doesn't happen again. I'm sure it won't happen again. I'm ready to be back on the field. I'm ready for Spring Training. I'm ready to show this team what I can do."
The Mariners will ease Peterson back in, however. The 6-foot-1, 190-pounder had a strong two months in his first pro ball experience, hitting a combined .303 with 13 homers and 47 RBIs in 55 games at Class A Everett and Clinton.
But despite being a first-round Draft pick and the second-highest ranked Mariners prospect (No. 88 overall) in baseball by MLB.com, Peterson didn't get an invitation to Major League camp. Instead, he'll start at the Mariners' Minor League minicamp in mid-February, a decision that stings a bit as well.
"That's big motivation for me, but I respect their decision," Peterson said. "I know why and I agree with it. They feel I need to kind of be brought back into it with baby steps. If they decide to pull me up and give me some big league at-bats [in Cactus League games], then they do. But if not, they don't.
"Was I frustrated? One hundred percent. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't. But I'm just ready to go show them that I am ready."
Chris Gwynn, the Mariners' Minor League coordinator, said the youngster has been given the green light by doctors, but he will wear a protective guard over the jaw at first.
"He's been working out in Arizona and looks good," Gwynn said. "He had a great year that was cut short by the fastball to the jaw. It wasn't pretty, but before that, he put up some pretty good numbers. He'll be part of the minicamp and we'll see where it goes. He's a really aggressive hitter, and he'll want to step back in there immediately. I'm anxious to see how he reacts as well."
Peterson said he's been wearing the guard, which attaches to the ear flap of his batting helmet, for the past few weeks while swinging in the cage. And he's not about to let that bother him either.
"It's kind of a comfort thing, knowing you've got that extra little piece there," he said. "It hasn't bothered me so far. I'm pretty used to it and I've still got another month to keep hitting with it and see some live pitching with it on. If anything, I feel it makes you stay more on the ball instead of pulling off, because you've really got to keep that eye on it and watch it the whole time. I almost feel like it's kind of a hitting tool that's going to help a little bit."
Peterson is flying from his home in Gilbert, Ariz., to New Mexico this week to see live pitching from some former college teammates to help get him ready. Then he'll head to Peoria and prepare for whatever comes next. Confidence won't be an issue. While he admits he still has lots to learn, Peterson also says reaching the Majors is his next goal.
He'll likely open this season back at Clinton or high Class A High Desert, but he could move up the ladder quickly if his bat keeps producing. There are questions over whether Peterson will remain a third baseman or not, but he said that's not an issue for him.
"I felt great playing there last year," he said. "I felt like everything kind of clicked. But if [general manager] Jack [Zduriencik] calls me and says, 'Hey, I want to move you up, but you've got to play first,' my answer is, 'Yes sir.'
"If he says, 'Hey, I want to move you up, but you have to play left field,' it's, 'Yes sir.' If it's, 'Hey, you're going to DH, but we need your stick,' 'Yes sir.' I don't care where they play me. I want to stick at third, but if the future isn't there, I'm willing to compromise. I'll play wherever they need me."
For Peterson, any question of that became crystal clear in the blink of an eye last August.
"I had a full month to sit there and do nothing except think about baseball," he said. "This is what I want to do."