41-39

Inevitably, there comes a point during any hot streak at which a fan must decide whether or not to take his team seriously. A few good weeks are a few good weeks, but to be truly convincing, it takes more than that - complete games, two-out rallies, walk-off hits, and/or various other theatrics. Sheer probability tells us that even the worst teams in baseball catch fire from time to time; the good teams have to maintain that level of play for a longer period while inspiring confidence and eliminating skepticism.

Tonight, we reached that point. Tonight, we learned that we should never give up on the Mariners.

This team has come from behind in the past, and it will come from behind again in the future, but tonight...tonight was different. This was the Mariners exorcising all those Joe Blanton demons and winning a game in stunning fashion after looking dead for eight innings. This was the Mariners making all of us who thought it was over when Eddie came in look like idiots. This was the Mariners refusing to go down quietly when one loss, combined with Oakland's extra-inning win, could've harshed our buzz. Perhaps most importantly, this was the Mariners giving us something to think about every time they go into the later innings trailing by a run or two for the rest of the season.

This was the Mariners.

Second place, and rising.

Biggest Contribution: Kenji Johjima, +25.1%
Biggest Suckfest: Jeremy Reed, -32.4%
Most Important Hit: Betancourt single, +32.5%
Most Important Pitch: Byrnes single, -13.0%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +43.7%
Total Contribution by Hitters: +2.0%

(What is this?)

The whole game started off innocently enough - Ichiro popped out, Beltre tripled, Lopez drove him in with a grounder, and the M's went to the bottom of the first ahead by a run. It was appropriate, since Arizona's whole slump has been fueled by awful first innings, and it was comfortable, because Meche came in looking strong, and Gonzalez didn't exactly look like a guy who was long for the game in the top half. Aside from the fact that he has the face of an even more unpleasant Erubiel Durazo, he threw 19 pitches in the first, none of them particularly awe-inspiring. Early indications were that the M's would probably have at least a decent two- or three-run lead by the middle innings, which - given our bullpen - is fine with me.

...not so much. Gil looked fine early on, alternating groundballs and called strikeouts on 3-2 knuckle curves, but just as Gonzalez started settling into a groove, Gil ran into trouble, allowing a hit to the pitcher in the third and later balking in the tying run (for what it's worth, it was the right call - he clearly balked). Two innings later, with the lineup still struggling against Gonzalez, Jose Lopez brought the team's collective frustration to the field and committed an error on another hit by the pitcher, which turned into a run when Eric Byrnes lined a two-out single into center. All of a sudden, the M's were staring at a 2-1 deficit with 12 outs to go against a rookie pitcher who clearly had their number. This was the same game they'd lost a million times before, and the old familiar feeling of impending disappointment began to set in and make itself comfortable in all (most?) of our minds.

But wait, these are the New And Improved 2006 Seattle Mariners, right? Optimism! What's one run, anyway? It's just the Diamondbacks.

Seattle - Top of 6th
I Suzuki grounded out to first.    
A Beltre struck out swinging.    
J Lopez flied out to left.
0 Runs, 0 Hits, 0 Errors

All right, so we're down to nine outs, but that's still another time through the order, so we should be fine. They should be getting accustomed to Gonzalez's stuff by now, so the comeback should start any moment now.

Seattle - Top of 7th
R Ibanez fouled out to third.
R Sexson doubled to left.

Just like Richie to get things going when we badly need a spark. That guy's been hitting the living snot out of the ball lately, with arguably the only hotter bat in the lineup standing on deck. Surely Kenji will -

K Johjima walked.

...well, okay, that's not really what I was looking for, but it's hard to complain when the other team puts the go-ahead run on the basepaths. Wouldn't this be a great time for Jeremy to hit one of his -

J Reed struck out swinging.

That sucked, but at least -

Y Betancourt flied out to center.
0 Runs, 1 Hits, 0 Errors

Good lord, only six outs left. Now this is getting serious. The last thing you want to do is give up ground to the A's when you've gained two games in two days. You have to keep rolling, because Oakland's suddenly looking a little tired, and you might be able to crack them by applying constant pressure at their heels. Don't give them the satisfaction of a padded division lead. The Mariners have to win this game. And hey, Gonzalez is done! Here comes Brandon Lyon, who we just lit up a few days ago. This is our inning.

Seattle - Top of 8th    
C Everett flied out to center.
I Suzuki lined out to left.    
A Beltre doubled to deep right center.    
J Lopez lined out to second.    
0 Runs, 1 Hits, 0 Errors

Lopez's liner looked like a hit off the bat, too. That really sucks. Even the best teams in baseball probably only have a 20-25% chance of coming back to win this one; you might as well pin all your hopes on Jeremy Reed getting a hit. The only thing that could possibly make this worse would be...

Arizona - Bottom of 8th
E Guardado relieved G Meche.

This was the moment that tested our faith. Down one in the bottom of the eighth of an important game with one of the worst pitchers in baseball taking the hill...it was virtually impossible to feel good about this situation at the time, and even more impossible when Luis Gonzalez hit a two-out liner into center field that was surely going to score a critical insurance run, if not a pair of them. Only, Jeremy Reed can cover a lot of ground when he wants to. Once again, the Mariners displayed their remarkable ability to bend without breaking, and we went to the ninth on something of a high note.

And, faster than you can say "maybe the momentum will carry over," the momentum carried over.

Seattle - Top of 9th
R Ibanez homered to center.

It was a "disputed" homer to straightaway center, and MLB.tv didn't give me a real good visual of whether or not the ball hit above or below the obnoxious yellow line, but even lacking proper information, I probably would've awarded him the homer anyway simply by virtue of having hit the ball a friggin' mile. Bob Melvin vehemently disagreed with said assessment and got himself tossed for the third time in eight games, an indication that he's finally figured out how to distance himself from lousy teams. Only took him three and a half years.

Richie Sexson apparently fouled out in the next at bat, but I don't remember seeing that happen, since I was still in a frenzy over Raul's mammoth homer. Carl Everett's got a couple of walk-off bombs on record this year, but I think Raul's longball tonight was the bigger hit, just given the context of the hot streak and the feel of the game immediately prior to the AB.

I started coming down from my cloud of euphoria just in time to see one of the slowest baserunners in franchise history scamper all the way to third base on an opposite-field line drive that gave Shawn Green a little trouble. And hey, now a Willie Ballgame pinch-run sighting! Go-ahead run 90 feet away with one out and a terrible hitter in Reed at the plate? Never has a suicide squeeze been more appropriate. Do it, Mike.

J Reed struck out swinging.
Y Betancourt singled to center, W Bloomquist scored.

I put the two together because Betancourt smacked his single while I was busy complaining about Reed's miserable at bat. At that point, I didn't care what happened next (Petagine walk, Ichiro fly out) - the Mariners weren't going to blow this lead. They'd worked too hard to summon the strength for this ninth inning rally, and I've never had more confidence in any reliever than I have in JJ Putz right now. I got up from my chair, stepped away from my desk, and danced.

Arizona - Bottom of 9th        
S Green struck out swinging.

Gas. I'd go gay for JJ Putz.

O Hudson struck out swinging.

More gas. With a 98mph fastball and a splitter that touches 91 and dives ten feet, JJ might be the most unhittable pitcher in baseball.

J DaVanon walked.

You're only delaying the inevitable, DaVanon. With Tony Clark's slowass bat on deck, you would've been better off making the final out yourself and sparing him the embarrassment. Also, Did You Know: until tonight, Putz hadn't walked a batter since May 13th, a span of 18 appearances and 18.2 innings. He struck out 26 batters between walk #6 and walk #7.

T Clark grounded out to third.

Unbelievable win. There are illegal substances out there that don't make you feel as good as watching this game did for any Mariners fan. From a 15.2% chance of winning and Eddie Guardado on the hill in the eighth to JJ Putz slamming the door an inning later? That's a colossal swing, and the sort of thing that makes tonight the unquestioned highlight of the entire season so far.

And so a few quick bullet points before I replay the ninth inning on MLB.tv one last time and go to bed:

  • If the Mariners and A's start playing to their Pythagorean records from this point forward, the M's wouldn't pull into a first-place tie until the beginning of September. However, if the Mariners and A's keep up their recent paces, the M's should take over sole possession of first place somewhere around yesterday. Seriously, while it doesn't feel like it, Oakland's only won four of their last nine games, and their run differential stinks. On top of that, there's hardly anyone in the minors they can dangle in front of a bad team to bring in one of the five or six legitimate hitters they desperately need. The A's are a good team, but they are beatable, even if the M's are a little reluctant to prove it.

  • Also, hey, Texas has a baseball team too.

  • Adrian Beltre is officially a completely different hitter than the one he looked like in May. I don't remember the last time he had one of his classic 2005 embarrassing at bats; while he still ducks away from the occasional curveball and swings through a fastball every now and then, he's hitting everything on a line these days. He's even taking pitches the other way, as his first inning triple tonight almost cleared the right field wall. More than half of his hits this month have gone for extra bases. His line drive rate of 21.0% is the highest it's ever been, and takes into consideration a miserable start that saw him ground out three times for every lineout to third. I refuse to let myself get burned by hope for the second time in two years, but I'm getting really, really close to declaring Adrian Beltre an outstanding hitter again. But maybe that's just the hot month talking. Ask me again in August.

  • Expect Beltre to get pitched around over the next several weeks, at least until he slows down (if he ever does). That means a lot of fastballs and RBI opportunities for Jose Lopez, who just refuses to go on any sort of extended slump.

  • On a really hot, sweaty day, Jeremy Reed is the brittle white crust that accumulates at the lip of a refreshing, ice-cold jug of milk.

  • In the bottom of the second inning, Kenji Johjima strolled out to the mound to have a little chat with Gil Meche. Once he returned to a crouch behind the plate, it then took about 15-20 seconds for them to agree on a pitch, a fastball that Gil threw about three feet outside. I'd love to see some numbers on post-conference pitching performance, because my first inclination is that they're a complete waste of everyone's time.

  • As if you needed any evidence that Mark Grace was still totally hammered from a long birthday celebration the night before is a gambling addict, tonight he coined the term "Superfecta" to describe the award given to a player who leads the league in batting average, home runs, RBI, and runs scored.

  • If you were unfortunate enough to have missed the whole series, I cannot begin to explain to you the surreal experience of seeing Bob Mevin and Bryan Price side by side in the Arizona dugout. You look at them like you look at a picture of an old ex-girlfriend, wondering how they're doing these days and whether each is still the same person you got to know during your time together a few years back. Based on his tantrum, Melvin seems to have taken the break-up rather poorly, but Price looks just like you remember, still every bit as confused by Gil Meche as he ever was. I wonder which Diamondback pitcher he's taken to calling a pussy.
Back home tomorrow night, with Jamie Moyer taking on Josh Fogg and the Colorado Rockies at 7:05pm PDT. The Rockies have actually been a pretty good offensive team away from home this year, but Josh Fogg blows, so the opportunity is there to extend this streak to six games to close out the month. It'll also be interesting to see how quickly the Mariner fan base returns to Safeco after suffering for as long as it did. I'm not expecting people to show up in droves, but drawing 110,000 over the series should be within reach.

(Nine-game homestand leading up to the All-Star Break, with the Angels and Tigers coming in after Colorado skips town. I'd love to come out with six wins and go into the break on a high note, although I wouldn't be too terribly disappointed with five.)

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