Rainiers Notebook: Rifkin Learning the Curve

TACOMA, Wash. - There are instances in life where things aren't always better on the other end of the spectrum. One might look over to his or her neighbor and wish they were wearing their shoes, but the truth is the grass isn't necessarily any greener in your neighbor's backyard.

But for Rainiers first baseman Aaron Rifkin, the grass isn't just greener, the baseball is better – and tougher.

"It's a definite learning curve I guess," said Rifkin of his first taste of Triple-A baseball. "I've had some pretty big ups and downs."

After spending two-and-a-half seasons in Double-A without as much as a sniff of the next level, Rifkin got his chance this season with the Mariners' organization and is loving every minute of it. But it hasn't been easy.

Rifkin was the Pacific Coast League Player of the Week for the period ending May 1 and was the InsidethePark.com Player of the Week for the same week as he temporarily took over the league lead in home runs. Since then, Rifkin is homerless and his batting average, once above .300, is now at .256.

"With the way the schedule is, you play a team at their place and then come right back and play them again at home," said Rifkin. "(Pitchers) do a better job at exploiting your weaknesses and when they get you out a certain way and make you look bad doing it -and then they will start doing that a lot."

Rifkin was the Mariners minor league Rule 5 draft pick from the New York Yankees last winter and in his first year above Double-A baseball is just looking to prove a a thing or two – to both himself and anyone else who's watching.

"The main thing for me is just believing that I belong here," said Rifkin. "Sometimes when you start a higher level, you have doubts if you really belong there, and I've done that before.

"That was a big thing for me this year, to get some good at-bats and have some success early to get to where I thought I deserved to be here and compete here. I feel like I can."

Rifkin thought he was ready last year to make the jump to Triple-A Columbus after hitting .269 with 19 home runs and 90 RBI at Trenton in 2003.

"I was disappointed that I went back to Double-A last year, I thought after the season I had in '03 that I was going to get a shot at Triple-A. I thought I had at least earned a shot."

The Yankees fourth round pick in the 2001 draft is taking advantage of the opportunity he's getting with the Rainiers this season, providing the lineup with much-needed power from the left side. Rifkin leads Tacoma in both home runs, with 10, and RBI, with 33.

The 26-year-old Apple Valley, Calif., native grew up a San Francisco Giants fan, thwarting the Dodgers, Padres and Angels in his neighboring Southern California cities. Idolizing players such as Barry Bonds and Jose Canseco, Rifkin sure knows how to pick them. Combined, Bonds and Canseco have nearly 1200 home runs and 3500 RBI and have made 20 all-star teams.

But growing up with a father that was a big Mickey Mantle fan, it's tough to trump pops boyhood hero.

"Yeah, my dad loved Mickey Mantle," said Rifkin. "Always has, so when I was drafted by the Yankees he was pretty happy about that."

Rifkin attended Cal State Fullerton and was a part of two College World Series before signing with New York, a big day in his baseball career. The day he learned about Seattle acquiring him in the Triple-A portion of the Rule 5 draft, Rifkin was working at a golf course and got a phone call from his agent.

"I'd asked him not to call me while I was at work," said Rifkin. "I said,'man don't call me either way', because I didn't want to be disappointed (if not chosen) there at work. It was like draft day all over again."

Rifkin did receive a call, informing him of the move. It was a welcomed piece of news.

"My agent asked me how I'd like a spring training in Arizona," said Rifkin. "I was pumped."

Out of the depths of the Yankees'organization to the pastures of an Arizona Spring Training and a chance at Triple-A baseball.

Sometimes the grass is greener on the other side.

Oh, Snap!: Rainiers outfielder Chris Snelling, the Pacific Coast League's leading hitter at .397, took strike three to end Wednesday night's 3-2 loss to Memphis, but the action didn't stop there. Snelling disagreed with the call on the check-swing and as soon as the call was made, the 23-year-old outfielder chucked his bat to the ground in anger, and immediately went after home plate umpire Ray Gregson. As the heated, face-to-face exchange unfolded, manager Dan Rohn and hitting coach Terry Pollreisz held Snelling back as both clubs left the field.

"I'm very disappointed in myself," said Snelling. "That's not me. I'm just very disappointed."

Snelling was back in the lineup Thursday night and went 1-for-4 in the Rainiers 2-0 win.

Home Cookin': The Rainiers went 6-2 on the homestand, climbing to within 3.5 games of first place Salt Lake in the Pacific North Division. The starting pitching has been a big reason why Tacoma has been so successful of late, but timely hitting and a strong bullpen effort has followed suit.

Left-hander Damian Moss has won three straight decisions after starting the season 0-3. The former Braves starting pitcher sports a nifty 2.70 ERA for the year after his six-innings of shutout baseball on Thursday versus Memphis.

Masao Kida will be the primary arm used in replacing injured closer George Sherrill, who is out three weeks with a strained left lat. Kida has made six straight appearances without being scored upon, covering 11.1 innings.

Strong at the Top: Since Jamal Strong's return to the lineup, Tacoma has gained five games in the division standings and the offense has been much more consistent. Strong's importance to the Tacoma offense is noted by Rohn as a large part of what the Rainiers want to do at the plate.

"It's big time," said Rohn. "You get your table-setter on and you get him and Choo out there with Snelling and Christianson and Rifkin hitting behind them, you get a chance to drive in some runs.

"Jamal has made some nice adjustments at the plate and is swinging the bat real well right now."

Strong is hitting .295 for the year after a sluggish start. The 26-year-old boasts a .374 on-base percentage and has 11 steals in 14 attempts, while playing a solid center field. Bill Bavasi, are you paying attention?

On the Road Again: The Rainiers take their act on the road for the longest trip of the season, a 12-game, 13-day trip to Fresno, Sacramento and Portland. Right-hander Felix Hernandez is scheduled to make his next start on Saturday, May 29 versus Fresno, with RHP's Rich Dorman, Cha Seung Baek, Jorge Campillo and the left-handed Moss filling out the rotation.
Jason A Churchill can be reached via email at jasonachurchill@insidethepark.com

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