For as long as I've lived in San Diego during interleague play, the Mariners have always drawn pretty well at the ballpark. And I don't mean in terms of those Ichiro stalkers who seem to follow him everywhere; I mean legitimate Mariner fans, with sweat-stained trident hats and old school Griffey jerseys. Just walking to the bar earlier today before the game, I encountered at least a dozen (the streets were empty at that time of day too, mind you), and there were two more seated at a table by the door. I sat at a counter outside and was shortly joined by four more for the modest impromptu LL meet-up, and after another four walked by with brooms in hand, the unusual appeal of the Mariners in southern California came up in conversation. One theory that was volunteered was that a lot of people in San Diego moved here from somewhere else, like Washington state, and it definitely makes sense. Such is the burden of living in a paradise, I suppose.
After giving it some thought, though, I think there might be another factor in play as well. See, the Mariners are America's team, gallant soldiers in the war against tyranny. People always like the good guy (except for that one friend everyone has who was rooting for the reds in Top Gun), so the Mariners end up being pretty popular. And since locals in San Diego don't want to pay money to watch their squad lose to a vastly superior (read: AL) opponent, that leaves a lot of room for M's fans to scoop up empty seats. Hence, a welcoming environment. I gave a lot more high-fives today than I did that night in Boston. Thanks for being so hospitable, San Diego.
Biggest Contribution: Ichiro, +34.0%
Biggest Suckfest: Felix Hernandez, -17.6%
Most Important At Bat: Ichiro single, +28.4%
Most Important Pitch: Sledge homer, -25.9%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +17.5%
Total Contribution by Position Players: +15.5%
Total Contribution by Opposition: +17.0%
To tell you the truth, Felix Day doesn't really do it for me anymore. Obviously I still love the guy and wouldn't trade him for the world, but it seems odd to celebrate what's recently been the source of constant frustration. It's not like Baltimore celebrates Daniel Cabrera Day. I look forward to Felix, and I'm far more interested in him than any other Mariner pitcher to ever don the uniform, yet until he's able to make a consistent ace out of himself, I can't bring myself to go into a game expecting outright dominance. What I saw in Fenway two months ago was the pitcher Felix wants to become, not the pitcher Felix is now. With each successive start we keep waiting for him to get there for good, but he still hasn't arrived. Have patience. Someday, it will be worth the wait, and of that I'm absolutely sure. He's just still in the developing stages is all.
What I was looking forward to most this afternoon was a little Chris Young ERA regression and the prospect of a sweep against our famously acrimonious rivals. Oh, and my killer seat:
No, I didn't know the girl would be there; that was a bonus. I'm just a big fan of left field in Petco, because you have a spectacular sightline, nearby concessions/bathroom, easy entrance and exit, and the chance of getting a home run ball pulled down the line (known in this household as the Khalil Greene Special). It doesn't hurt that you're also out of the sun during Sunday matinees and close enough to the left fielder that you can see how many fingers he's using to scratch himself. For the curious among you, Raul's a threebie. Terrmel Sledge sticks with pointer.
The other advantage of my seat I thought I had was being directly behind the scoreboard that shows pitch speed and type; I imagined that being unable to see this information would allow me to witness a Felix start where according to my brain he didn't throw a single four-seam fastball. I lived a happy life of ignorance for about two pitches before I heard the woman behind me tell her kid "look over there, where it says Kyocera and Bank of America." I didn't know what they were talking about, but being a committed eavesdropper, my eyes followed her instructions into right field, where I saw a sign reading "94mph Fastball" after Felix threw a ball to Marcus Giles. So much for make-believe. I couldn't help but glance at the sign after every pitch, and more often than not, it made me sad.
Nothing much happened in the early innings. Inconsistent command of his fastball got Felix into a little trouble (stop me if you've heard this before), but he worked himself out of it, and on the other side Chris Young continued his improbable run of extraordinary success that still just baffles the hell out of me. It actually inspired me to come up with the following two equations:
Uncontrollable fastball + nothing else + worst command ever = incredible setup man
Klutzy mechanics + slow straight fastball + extreme flyball tendencies + no advantage taken of crazy height = incredible starter
If Chris Young were in college and I worked as a scout, I'd have far more bad things to say about him than good, and I'd probably advise my boss to skip him on draft day. And I'd be wrong. There are some guys for whom the tools say a lot more than the numbers, and there are some other guys for whom the numbers say a lot more than the tools. Somehow, some way, despite being one of the weirdest pitchers I've ever seen in my life, Chris Young has turned himself into a bonafide front-of-the-rotation starter. I hope Jon Daniels' family tree doesn't have a history of alcoholism.
Things livened up a little in the third, when the Mariners got men on the corners and took the lead when Felix push-bunted past the pitcher and first baseman with the infield in. The inning would end with no more damage being done, but despite everything I said earlier in this post I still felt pretty confident that Felix would make it stand up. The Padres just didn't have it in them to mount a rally against an arm that good. Jason Davis is one thing, but Felix Hernandez? Things were looking up.
Things stopped looking up an inning later. After the latest in a string of feeble innings against the worst child to give birth to ever, Felix got lazy and let Mike Cameron's bat catch up to a fastball to tie the game. I don't think the ball ever got more than 25 feet off the ground, but it was a no-doubter the instant it left the bat. Felix doesn't give up bombs - he gives up long line drives. Maybe it's, I dunno, the predictable fastballs. Seems to me like hitters have been sitting on the four-seamer since April '06, but I'm just a guy who writes. What do I know?
I was a little disappointed, too, that Cameron didn't pull his homer a little more. If you have to go deep against the Mariners, at least go deep to a place where I can catch the ball. I don't know why I wanted it so much, but whenever I'm in an opposing team's stadium I always fathom that if a ball were hit to me I'd do something rebellious, like fake-hand it to a little kid a few seats over then throw it back on the field. If people are going to come out to the ballpark and root against my team, then by Jove, I'll give them something to root against. I don't go to games to make friends; I go to games to have fun, and I've always wanted to throw back a home run ball hit by the home team. Just think of the ensuing conversation in the dugout. "Hey man, the fans really went wild for that homer." "Yeah, they di-wait someone just threw it back!" "Aw man!" "These people hate us! This isn't a friendly environment after all!" And then I'd laugh to myself while the father of the kid a few seats over got ready to whoop my ass.
Three batters later Terrmel Sledge reminded me of what it feels like to hate life, and even though it was only a two-run deficit, something about the way the Mariner hitters were working against Young inspired less than absolute confidence.
The best at bat they got in the next two innings came from Felix himself. That's not necessarily meant as a dig - Felix worked the count and fouled off four or five pitches before finally striking out. The rest of the guys, though, just weren't doing much. Burke singled, and Ichiro drew a four-pitch walk, but you can't rely on Young to walk you back into the game, and there wasn't any semblance of consistently solid contact. We got into the seventh with the score still 3-1 Padres, and with Willie Ballgame set to bat in the event that anything interesting happened, I could've been more optimistic.
(As an aside, since I don't know where else to put this, big props to the guys sitting two rows behind me for the surprisingly excellent conversation they carried on for most of the game. During a Sunday matinee where kids get to run the bases after the game, you expect a lot of families and little in the way of intelligent discussion, but these guys were solid over a broad range of topics including anything from Alex Gordon to the unfortunate demise of the NHL. For five minutes one of them explained the Moneyball stance on stolen bases to the other, and in one of the middle innings I caught a usage of the nickname "King Felix." And one of them was a Mariner fan! I still got more enjoyment from looking at the girl to my left, but it was nice to have quality on two sides instead of one.)
That seventh inning turned out to be a whole lotta fun. Sexson and Burke bookended another godawful Betancourt pop out with singles to left, and while Willie Ballgame followed them with an out, I knew that'd bring up the pitcher's spot, and I knew the pitcher's spot would end up being Ben Broussard, who's been one of the more valuable bench bats in the AL so far this season. With Broussard's tremendous power to right field and Young's tendency towards fly balls, I couldn't fight the feeling - Broussard was going to yank a go-ahead funk blast. For me, it was just a matter of sitting on the edge of my seat and waiting for the inevitable.
...I've seen funkier blasts. Broussard quickly got himself behind 0-2, but then Young made the unforgivable mistake of a lifetime, beaning Broussard in the back to bring up Ichiro with the bases loaded. Once again I felt nothing but good vibes, and when Ichiro sent a 2-0 screamer down the right field line I could've sworn we had our bases-clearing triple. The ball wound up going foul, but soon thereafter a single to center dropped in front of Mike Cameron, and Jamie Burke hustled his role player ass off and scored to tie the game with a fantastic slide. The fans around me disagreed with the call at home, but for whatever reason the crew chief neglected to consult with the hundreds of objective observers in left field regarding the play at the plate, and the game continued with the score officially knotted up.
I'd be lying if I said the next few innings were easy to watch, what with Chris Reitsma's recent bouts with being terrible and Miguel Batista coming in for a big three outs just two days after starting, but thankfully the performance of the Mariners seems to be independent of my emotional state, and they kept it tied going into the ninth. For a man who takes so much heat, Mike Hargrove really knows his bullpen. Even if I would've rather seen Morrow than Batista handling the eighth, it's that kind of creativity that's going to help keep these guys fresh down the stretch. Well played.
For the second time in the series, Trevor Hoffman entered in a non-save situation, an area in which the general consensus is that he's struggled over his career. The numbers kind of bear it out (.623 OPS against in tie games, .582 when the margin's one run), but it's nothing dramatic, and Hoffman's still a great pitcher regardless of circumstance. Unfortunately for him, though, his defense didn't do him any favors, as Kevin Kouzmanoff fielded a leadoff chopper by Willie Ballgame and made a terrible throw to first to give the Mariners some life. (I wonder if Kouzmanoff can hear the difference between "Kouz" and "boo" from the playing field.) I wanted Willie to take off for second, but Hargrove instead had a pinch-hitting Vidro bunt him there, not daring to run the risk of letting him swing away into a twin-killer. The bunt was followed by a predictable intentional walk to Ichiro to bring Jose Lopez to the plate, by which point Willie had properly timed Hoffman's leg kick. During the at bat Willie took off for third and got such a good jump that Josh Bard didn't even bother throwing down. Suddenly the go-ahead run was only 90 gritty cracker feet away.
It's ironic, actually, that such a big stolen base came a few innings after that conversation behind me. The Win Expectancy boost of Willie's steal was +10.9%, an almost unheard of gain from the running game. With Lopez looking uncomfortable against Hoffman and the slumping Guillen on deck, this was a situation where the steal really was hugely important for the Mariners, and sure enough Lopez managed to get his bat on a two-strike pitch and roll one to Giles slow enough to score Willie from third. The go-ahead run scored on zero hits and zero walks. If innings could be people, the top of the ninth inning today was Willie Ballgame.
That big run prompted the following brief dialogue with a guy behind me:
Guy: Who's the Mariners' closer?
Me: JJ Putz.
Me: He's worked the last two games, he's unavailable today. It'll probably be another guy, like Brandon Morrow or George Sherrill.
Guy: Who's that warming up over there in the bullpen?
Me: ...JJ Putz.
Me: :turns back to field:
I was admittedly a little nervous to see how JJ would respond to a third consecutive high-leverage appearance, but almost immediately he put all doubts to rest. Splitter - swinging strike one. Fastball - swinging strike two. Fastball - swinging strike three. Khalil Greene then went on to take a 2-2 fastball at his knees for the punchout, and an infield pop-up by Sledge capped off the latest unhittable appearance by the best reliever in franchise history. I stood clapping and smiled for a little while before turning around to begin the happiest walk back to my car that I've had in ages. With little to nothing at all coming from the starting rotation, the Seattle Mariners are on pace for 91 wins, and for the first time since 2003 we get to both savor the moment and look ahead to the next opponent. A man could get used to this.
Back to Cleveland tomorrow. If Grover had balls he'd come out and filibuster for another postponement with two outs and two strikes in the top of the fifth just for the hell of it, but I guess that wouldn't be very "professional." When did baseball stop being about entertainment?