Mariners, Cougars basketball: Jump ball for control of the TV remote?

The Mariners' pitching is starting to make spring training games like a broadcast tonight (Wednesday) look attractive.

The Mariners' pitching is starting to make spring training games like a broadcast tonight (Wednesday) look attractive.

Many in the region will be clinging to their remote controls at 7 p.m. tonight (March 16) to watch the Washington State University men’s basketball season march toward an N.I.T. title that would make Wazzu the unassailable 69th-best team in the country.

All right, so there’s some fun with numbers going on here. “N.I.T.” stands for National Invitational Tournament though wags have insisted for several years that the relic exercise in futility should mean Not In (the) Tourney.

“Tourney,” of course, is a reference to the one that will greet the Washington Huskies on Friday (March 18). This year, the NCAA tournament start with 68 teams, many of which Wazzu probably could beat (though the Cougs did lose to USC this season, the Trojans among the eight first-round opponents hoping to play their way into the 64-team brackets).

To get back to the matter at hand, though, the remote-control holders may be tempted to switch away from the Coug game during the 7-to-9 p.m. time slot. As unlikely as it seemed just three weeks ago when spring training started in Arizona, the Seattle Mariners are beginning to look, if not like playoff threats, at least like a better bet to avoid losing 100-plus games again this season.

Pitching is why. One aspect of the projected staff will be on display Wednesday in the M’s first televised spring-training game, a 7:05 start against Milwaukee. Pitching against the Brewers: Michael Pineda, the formerly N.I.T. (not intended to) member of the 2011 starting rotation, at least when the season opens in Oakland April 1.

But Pineda, the 22-year-old Dominican who rode his hurricane-force fastball to Tacoma last year, is considered N.I.T. (not in transit) back to the Rainiers in April if Mariners managers continue to see him as a feasible fifth starter for the big-league team.

Many project Pineda as a some-day ace. That role for the foreseeable future belongs, of course, to Felix Hernandez, the reigning Cy Young Award-winning right-hander, who already is regarded as one of the elite starters of his era. Pineda has only thrown 62 innings at the triple-A level. That puts him well behind seasoned pros Erik Bedard and Jason Vargas. Both lefties have shown promise in spring training so far and, with right-hander Doug Fister, would comprise the M’s — and maybe even the American League West division’s — best starting five.

But there’s also reason for optimism on offense. Going into an off day Tuesday (March 15) the M’s were an impressive 10-4 in Cactus League play. Some of the pre-season question marks are starting to morph into exclamatory punctuation. Jack Wilson(!) and Milton Bradley(!), figurative no-shows for various reasons last season, are hitting, respectively, .476 and .381 going into Wednesday. Justin Smoak has yet to catch fire but the switch-hitting (well, switch-batting) first baseman has made solid contact the past few games.

The off-season “big get” on offense, Jack Cust, has just seven hits in 27 at-bats, with a home run. Franklin Gutierrez is hitting .250 in just 16 plate appearances but apparently is mending now that his ongoing stomach disorders have been diagnosed by a team physician as an outcome of poor eating habits (hey, Gutie, it never seemed faze to him when Babe Ruth put away five hotdogs as a pre-game regimen).

In any case it doesn’t do to predict TV-viewer numbers for the Wazzu and M’s games, especially since there’s bound to be some appeal for N.B.A. and N.H.L. action broadcast at the same time. Even with two other college games on the tube during the same time span, chances are that some hardened fans on Wednesday night will look ahead at two weeks of virtual non-stop televised March Madness and declare: N.I.T., or “not interested tonight.”


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