When your biggest complaint is that the pitching staff ended the game on a fly out, you know it's been a successful Opening Day.
Biggest Contribution: King Felix, +41.8%
Biggest Suckfest: That Fatass Vidro, -12.7%
Most Important At Bat: Crosby Error #2, +20.9%
(Note: Sexson homer = +20.2%)
Most Important Pitch: Buck double, -9.5%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +43.2%
Total Contribution by Position Players: -21.7%
I think I, like everyone else, came into today confident in Felix's ability but wary about whether or not he'd actually look any different. I mean, we spent all winter talking about how he must've learned his lesson about predictable pitch sequences during his struggles in 2006, and about how his sudden weight loss hinted at a new, determined young phenom, but without any legitimate evidence that he was going to change his approach, I don't think any of us knew quite what to expect from Felix in the opener. I mean, our expectations were sky high last year, too, and we all saw how that went down. While the excitement generated by the first Mariner game in 182 days pretty much overpowered everything else, a part of me was deeply and truly anxious about how Felix would pitch.
Aside from the standard first pitch fastball to open the game, Felix has never had an opposing lineup more uncomfortable. That much became abundantly clear as quickly as the top of the first, when he mixed in a slider or two to whiff the unwhiffable Jason Kendall to lead off. The more impressive at bat, though - to me, anyway - came a minute later, against Milton Bradley. Behind both 1-0 and 2-1 in the count, Felix went to a slider each time before disposing of Bradley with some sort of down and inside fast thing that moved to end the inning. Fastball counts and non-fastball pitches. Felix couldn't have started the game any better.
Of course, for the past few years we've felt like the butt of some kind of cosmic joke, so I couldn't blame you if you still felt uneasy. I mean, a lot of us had just watched Gil Meche mow down the freaking Red Sox in front of 40,000 remarkably vocal Royals fans, so clearly today was unusual, and you couldn't help but feel like something weird was going to happen in the M's game as well. The strikeouts, the groundballs, the outright dominance, the absence of Tom Petty during the MLB.tv commercial breaks - everything was too perfect, like the air before a tornado. It was fishy. You started to think things like "Felix is the youngest guy to start on Opening Day since Dwight Gooden. Opening Day. O.D. Dwight Gooden..." and your muscles tensed up and you hit yourself for entertaining such terrible thoughts on what's supposed to be a joyous occasion.
And then you looked at the TV and saw that some assclown with a .620 minor league OPS just hit an RBI triple off Joel Pineiro, and you smiled, and you completely forgot what you were just thinking about. Which was good, because the Mariners were coming to the plate for the first time, and you were looking forward to seeing what this reasonably potent lineup could do against a dec-
...by that point the Mariners had made three outs and Felix was jogging back out to the mound. If there was anything memorable about the bottom of the first, it was Jose Vidro's at bat with two down, where he rolled a grounder several feet to Ellis' right. Ellis backhanded the ball on the run and turned to make a quick off-balance throw, but, realizing that Vidro has the footspeed of a mattress, stopped, got his feet back under him, and made a easy throw to get the DH by three seconds. The Vidro era was officially underway.
And that's kind of how things went for a really long time. The more you watched, the more you were convinced that the specter of impending doom didn't have to do with Felix, but with the offense. Felix, almost without exception, looked absolutely incredible, but the lineup couldn't do a thing against Dan Haren's Prince Valiant or pocket full of miracles, mustering all of one groundball single through the first five innings. When Travis Buck led off the top of the sixth with a double, I think the entire Mariner fanbase had the same feeling - "we're going to lose 1-0." Felix looks amazing and the highly-revered lineup rolls over against another #3 pitcher. It couldn't possibly be more appropriate.
That's when things started to swing the other way. Mark Ellis bunted Buck to third, but surely Bob Geren didn't think his offense would be able to get the ball out of the infield; they'd only done it once all game, and that was Buck, who was already standing on base. It was essentially a complete and utter waste of an out, and it must've gotten Felix's motor running again, because he dropped the next two pathetic opponents on eight pitches. It was like Felix's way of saying, "you don't have to give me outs, I can get them on my own." The Mariners had weaseled out of a dangerous situation; now all they had to do was put a run on the board and reap the long-lasting rewards.
And, God bless 'em, that's exactly what they did, albeit not without substantial help. With one down, a classic swinging-bunt single by Ichiro sparked a little rally, and Vidro came to the plate with two on. He flabbed an easy comebacker to the mound, but just as he was considering whether or not to bother jogging his fat ass to first on a sure double play, Bobby Crosby made his second error of the day trying to haul in Haren's toss, and the bases were loaded. The game stopped for a minute to let Vidro catch his breath, but then it was back on, and Raul Ibanez was standing at the plate with the RF power alley beckoning. He almost jacked it, too, accomplishing the diminishing achievement of fooling Dave Niehaus, but the ball was caught in right field. Still, a sac fly is a run, and a run is a lead, so there was no sense in complaining, not with the way Felix looked.
And then Richie Sexson hit the biggest home run of his Seattle career. I know it sounds weird, especially given what he did in his Mariner debut, but in the wake of what happened in 2006 this was a hugely important game, and those were three hugely important insurance runs. Faced with an unforeseen circumstance, the stadium scoreboard shorted out and briefly read "FUNK BLAST" while Sexson circled the bases, presumably the manifestation of some kind of internal computer error since the two words don't make a lick of sense when put together. Anyway, all of a sudden a tenuous 1-0 squeaker was a comfortable 4-0 cushion, and almost simultaneously everyone began to realize that we could actually win this thing after all, and without even breaking a sweat. Things weren't supposed to come this easy, not to us, but there we were. The feeling was, in a word, unfamiliar.
So Felix went back out there to throw a pretty important half-inning of his own, but despite a close walk and a seeing-eye single, he looked great for the seventh frame in a row, ditching Swisher and Crosby on seven pitches to end a minor threat. He'd do it again in the eighth as well, working around a Betancourt error with two groundouts and a whiff. Having racked up 111 relatively low-stress pitches, Felix got the congratulatory catcher handshake in the dugout to signify that his day was done. The final line:
8 IP, 29 BF, 3 H, 2 BB, 12 K, 14 GB, 1 FB.
We've shown in the past that Felix is at his best when he's getting a ton of grounders instead of a ton of strikeouts, but that discussion left out the possibility that he could do both at once. This was, without a doubt, the most impressive and dominant professional baseball game Felix has ever thrown. Dave Cameron emailed me and said "we're going to run out of adjectives by May," and if Felix keeps pitching like this every five days, he's totally right. Aside from maybe three or four mistake pitches, Felix didn't do a single wrong thing all game. All of a sudden his 98mph straight fastball from a year ago became a 98mph two-seamer, which he'd mix in between a sharp curve, an 82mph changeup, and a devastating slider that must just scare the living crap out right-handed hitters who're looking for a low away heater (and lefties looking for a middle-in heater, too, for that matter). Over the course of the eight innings I was getting the most entertainment out of trying to identify the pitches Felix was throwing, because it was almost like a video game. He was making his fastball do whatever he wanted and, even more importantly, putting it where he wanted on top of that, and when you have a guy on the mound throwing fastballs that look like sliders and sinkers anywhere from 92-98mph, you might as well just spare yourself the embarrassment and leave your bat in the dugout. Felix was messing around with finger pressure on his fastballs to make it spin in different ways, the way you do when you're just throwing the ball around with your buddy on the lawn, the only difference being that he was doing it in the Majors. The best way to describe it is that Felix was toying with the Oakland hitters, in every sense of the word.
By the way, over his career, Jason Kendall has struck out an average of once every 13.3 plate appearances, qualifying him as one of the toughest guys to whiff in baseball. Felix got him three straight times. The odds of Kendall striking out in three consecutive at bats in a game where he gets four: 0.09%, or roughly once every 1200 games. Felix is better at his job than you are at yours.
So anyway, Felix departed to mild applause since Seattle fans are a bunch of boring old bitties, which took us to the bottom of the eighth. Jose Vidro hit his fourth groundball of the game - I hope you're not expecting much power - and second should-be routine double play, this one actually being properly turned by Oakland's comically awful defensive middle infield. The at bat made me think that maybe the people who've been comparing Vidro to Edgar aren't totally wrong after all; they don't mean prime Edgar, but rather old, brittle, and close to retirement Edgar, the Edgar who hit .263/.342/.385 in 2004 before calling it quits once and for all. That's the sort of comparison I can get behind. Lose your taped copy of Edgar's last game? Come to Safeco and watch a fatter version of the same guy do the same thing every day. The only difference is that this time your tears won't be out of respectful appreciation.
As if you needed any proof that Bob Geren learned how to manage by watching Tony La Russa in last year's World Series, he decided to make a pitching change with two down and none on in the bottom of the eighth of a 4-0 ballgame. Raul Ibanez was going to face some guy named Jay Marshall, and while I initially felt bad for never having heard of him, I deduced from Marshall's pasty skin and short haircut that he hasn't been in Oakland very long, so I got over it. Marshall, as it turns out, is a left-handed sidearmer, the baseball equivalent of a vacuum that does the laundry and files your taxes. There's too many gimmicks, and while each one individually has its upsides, putting them all together makes you distrustful of the sum package. It works for Brian Fuentes, but only because he's a former Mariner, and that whole cosmic joke thing has a pretty long half-life.
Before long we got to the ninth, which was notable for two reasons - (1) Jason Ellison replacing Jose Guillen in right instead of Willie Ballgame, and (2) JJ Putz. I only bring up the first one because it reminds me of a quote from Scrubs:
J.D.: I just Marcia Brady'd your ass.
Turk: What the hell are you talking about?
J.D.: Like in the episode of the Brady Bunch where Marcia gets Jan a job, then Marcia gets fired because they like Jan better...
Turk: Season 5, Episode 3, "Marcia Gets Creamed". Don't ever question me on the Bunch.
I didn't think the Putz appearance would be anything special, and I was actually a little concerned when he allowed a near-goner double to Bradley to lead off, but then (after getting Piazza to ground out) he did something I didn't expect - he threw an 89mph pitch to Chavez that didn't break. And then he threw more of them to Swisher. Two or three of them, the last one getting popped into center for the final out of the game (and, stunningly, the only one recorded in the air). Since he'd thrown a handful of 97-98mph heaters earlier in the inning I knew it wasn't a velocity problem, so my next guess was that his splitter wasn't dropping. Turns out that wasn't it either; no, Putz was apparently showcasing a straight change, or a cutter, or something weird that we haven't seen before. It's a pitch that needs work, and it's not entirely necessary, but I giggle at the thought of a guy who throws a 98mph fastball, a 90mph splitter, and an 88mph something else. The only issue is whether he's now throwing this pitch in lieu of the splitter, since we didn't see that one at all today, but considering it was a 4-0 game he probably didn't think it was worth the effort. I dunno. Right now this is all just speculation. I'm just fascinated by new pitches.
So the Mariners won and put the finishing touches on the greatest Opening Day of my life. Last night I only slept four hours but I woke up brimming with energy and anticipation that carried me through the day. And, shockingly, it's all been so totally worth the wait. I couldn't imagine a more satisfying way to start the season, and now I'm actually looking forward to tomorrow, even if it kicks off a four-game lineup of really really boring pitchers who'd put you to sleep if you weren't afraid of having nightmares where you're forced to watch them more. And that's all a fan of a recently rebuilding team can ask for, really. The hope of Opening Day gets extended by 24 hours, and, if you're lucky, another 24 hours after that. You have to celebrate what you can and take it one game at a time, and if you're lucky, you'll take a casual glance at the standings come the middle of May and realize that your team's actually putting up a fight.
With that in mind, then, here's to another 24 hours. And maybe 14 more consecutive wins against the jerks. I'd say 15, but I don't want to sound greedy.
Washburn, Cupcakes, tomorrow at 7:05pm PDT.