Ask anyone who knows me and they'll tell you I'm not a man who deals well with stress. I can usually keep everything bottled up for a while and appear healthy on the surface, but when it gets to the moment of truth, I almost invariably flip out. I pace back and fourth, I shout terrible words, I punch things, I throw things...I'm not a pleasant person to be around when the pressure's on and I anticipate failure. I'm generally pretty good about accepting failure once it happens, but the buildup is ugly.
So you can imagine the scene in this room during the last six innings of the game tonight. I've gotten to be pretty good about closing the window before I stain the neighbors' virgin ears, but for a solid two hours this was a war zone, as I alternated between yelling at the box fan and rocking back and forth in my chair. The stream of nervous anger was briefly interrupted by cheers of joy when Sherrill escaped that jam in the eighth and when Willie and Burke gave us the lead, but the bottom of the thirteenth might've been the most difficult, uncomfortable inning to watch all season, and I wasn't having any of it. As much as I love and trust JJ with all my heart, I almost couldn't bear to watch.
The inning, of course, ended well, giving the Mariners their fifth consecutive win in which they pulled ahead in their last at bat. They gained a game on the Angels, they gained a game on the A's, they justified our having spent more than four hours glued to the screen...in many respects, it was an absolutely perfect night of baseball. I just hope they find another, more relaxing way of pulling these off down the road, because a few more games like this and we may not be alive to enjoy the pennant race.
Biggest Contribution: Eric O'Flaherty, +47.0% (as pitcher)
Biggest Suckfest: Sean Green, -43.4%
Most Important At Bat: Ballgame single, +35.9%
Most Important Pitch: Barrett single, -19.0%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +87.1%
Total Contribution by Position Players: -44.0%
Total Contribution by Opposition: +6.9%
Every day it seems that baseball finds a new way to test the Mariners' resilience. Friday they had to bounce back from a Padres rally to win it in extras. Saturday they had to stage a comeback of their own. Sunday they had to score some runs against a guy who doesn't let people score at home. Monday was like Friday, only the rally was bigger, and the shave even closer. And today they had to get by with a thin, exhausted bullpen in the longest game of the season. The Mariners have had ample opportunity to fold up the tent over each of the last five days, but instead they've refused to collapse and rattled off a winning streak that's put them in better and better position in the division. Now, I've said before that I hate people who try to extrapolate team character from performance, and I stand by that. These games, though, just feel like games that last year's Mariners would've lost. Does it mean they're tougher or more positive? No. It means they're a lot better, even if a lot of us had difficulty thinking like that before the season started. Part of the excitement of this hot streak is that, with so many of us conditioned to expect a collapse, it feels like they're winning against borrowed time. But what if they're not? What if they really are a playoff contender? Are you ready to deal with a whole new level of emotional investment?
It's funny that the game ended up the way it did, because it didn't have much of a start. For whatever reason the Mariners completely forgot what's made them successful in the top of the first and took pitch after pitch, drawing a walk but also striking out looking against Hill two times. I know Jeff Pentland and Mike Hargrove have been asking for more patience since the start of ST, but given how this team's been hitting lately, and given the way that Rich Hill attacks the strike zone, I couldn't think of a much worse time for the message to finally sink in. I didn't think it'd ever happen, but before long I found myself yelling "Swing! Swing at everything you stupid son of a bitch!" to nobody in particular. Have I mentioned before that this offense is weird?
Jarrod Washburn, for his part, also looked disinterested in having much of a ballgame, as he promptly got his ass beat and put the M's behind 2-0 after all of three batters. He'd eventually work his way out of the inning thanks to Chicago's inexplicable willingness to give Cesar Izturis an everyday job, but it could've - and should've - been a lot worse. This had the feel of another one of those games where a bad opposing lineup was the only thing keeping Washburn on the mound.
The Mariners thankfully started to jump on Hill the next inning, and while it wasn't pretty, they scored their first run on a balk when Hill flinched his shoulders without stepping off. Hill's apparently been in a bit of hot water for a little while now, as he has a hitch in his delivery that freezes runners on base and looks like it's against the rules, but because he never lets himself come to a complete stop he's able to tread a thin line. However, when you live that close to the edge, every so often you're going to get burned, and I think he was overdue for a balk (even if it came on a totally different motion). The M's were happy to take it, as Washburn didn't look like any threat to drive a run home while standing at the plate. Little did we know.
Slowly but surely, everything got back to normal for a little while. Washburn didn't have any semblance of command tonight, but he was able to make quicker work of a pretty bad Chicago lineup, and as he did so the M's got to hacking full bore against Hill and tied it up when Jose Guillen launched a no-doubter fly ball against the wind to left that came down on the head of a vocal proponent of gun control. Even better, Washburn came up the next inning with a man on second and lined a hanging slider over Theriot's head at second to put the Mariners in the lead. It was a hell of a swing, and totally unexpected since in his first at bat Jarrod hardly looked interested in participating. I think Hill probably got a little lazy expecting an easy out, while Washburn upped his career batting line to 9-32 with four walks, making a case of his own for everyday DH.
And that's how things remained for a very, very long time. The Mariners kept hacking away while Washburn survived by the little rabbit hairs on his chin, getting a lot of help from a Michael Barrett lineout in the fifth that started a double play as Angel Pagan had left second base on contact. An inning later, Washburn got another double play and managed to work around his fifth free pass of the game, ending his outing with one of the more misleading 3.00 ERA's I've seen in a while. In terms of command and hittability, this was easily one of Washburn's worst starts of the season, but thanks to a crummy lineup, a little luck, and getting to face the pitcher, he came out in line for the win. Meanwhile, on Sunday afternoon CC Sabathia allowed four baserunners and zero runs in nine innings and wound up with a no-decision as his team lost in twelve. Life's not fair. Maybe CC would have a little better luck if he wore his hat straight and ate a salad.
Whichever all-powerful divine entity keeps watch over things like this must've known full well that Washburn didn't deserve a win, though, as he lost his chance at a decision when the Mariner bullpen once again came within an inch of completely falling apart. (This came in the eighth, an inning after we were forced to sit through Kellie Pickler hanging out in the Chicago broadcast booth. Pickler is a sweet girl who spent her money on two spectacular investments, but as soon as she gestured to the grass and asked the announcers "they call that the outfield there, right?" after spending several minutes extolling the virtues of Apple Jacks cereal, I knew the novelty had run its course.) Sean Green does four things, but two of them are bad, and one of them - line drives - knocked him out in the eighth with the score 3-3 and men on second and third with nobody out. That's when Mike Hargrove brought in Brandon Morrow and made the astoundingly ridiculous decision to intentionally walk Cliff Floyd to load the bases. Brandon Morrow has walked 21% of the batters he's faced this year, and after throwing a gazillion pitches in Cleveland the night before, he seemed like a really really really bad bet in that situation.
Five fastballs later, he got a big out, as Theriot bounced one to Beltre for an easy force at home. Morrow had done his job; now it was time for George Sherrill to either be a hero or make Sean Green a goat. It was really a win-win appearance, there, since it's hard to expect anything good when a guy inherits a bunch of somebody else's baserunners. Sherrill made us sweat, but a 3-2 fastball to Felix Pie narrowly nicked the inside corner for a called strike three, and then he made quick work of Mike Fontenot for another strikeout to end the inning. For the second day in a row, the Mariners lost a lead in the eighth but came out of the inning feeling relieved and rejuvenated. I can't even begin to explain how weird that is.
(By the way, to the fan holding the sign "The real King Felix lives in Chicago," go home. Your team hates you.)
The eighth, of course, was only the start, as tonight we basically got two games for the price of one and the heart complications of a dozen. As the Mariners flailed away against a bad Chicago bullpen that ran into a lineup perfectly suited for its skillset, we had to place our trust first in Jason Davis, then in a relatively unknown Eric O'Flaherty. They were both, however, completely up to the task. Maybe not so much Davis, as he got pretty lucky with line drives in the ninth, but O'Flaherty was absolutely incredible in the biggest appearance of his career. He faced nine batters between the tenth and twelfth innings, pounding the zone and fanning four of them while allowing just a single weak "hit". When people asked me who I thought could become the next Mark Lowe last winter, I always pointed to O'Flaherty - not because he has Lowe's repertoire, but because he seemed like he had the best odds of becoming an impact reliever among our crop of unknowns. He's not going to approach Lowe's dominance, but if you're looking for someone to come out of nowhere and become a reliable high-leverage reliever, remember O'Flaherty's performance tonight. He has that ability.
O'Flaherty's heroics got us to the thirteenth, and while two quick outs made it seem like another wasted inning, Jose Vidro (having taken over for the hurting Adrian Beltre) yanked an absolute bomb down the left field line that scraped the ivy and would've left the yard were it not for that fucking wind. Vidro stood on second with what might've been the most disappointing double in franchise history. Suddenly having to pay attention and start managing again, Lou Pineilla harked back to his Mariner days and hilariously put Betancourt on base to set up a two-out showdown with Willie Ballgame.
I don't think anybody outside of Rick Rizzs expected what happened to happen.
Willie lined a single to right between the infielders, and as Jose Vidro sprinted to third you could see him round the base and then slow to a near stop. Just as you were trying to sort out all your emotions, though, you found out that there was going to be a play at the plate as Vidro had apparently started running again. I can't really appropriately explain the whole sequence of events...Vidro ran to third, slowed down, ran home, was easily beaten by the throw, didn't slide, tried to walk around Barrett, then came back and stepped on the plate when he found out that Barrett had dropped the ball. This kind of shows it:
Even that doesn't entirely capture the hilarity of the whole episode, though. Maybe this picture is better. One of the slowest players in franchise history almost stopping in the middle of his run and then scoring anyway on a base hit by Willie Ballgame of all people...the play was memorable precisely because every single part of it went in the exact opposite direction from what we expected. We thought Willie would make an out, so he singled. We thought Garcia would send Vidro home, so he slowed down. We thought Vidro had stopped, so he resumed running. We thought he'd be thrown out, so he scored when Barrett dropped the ball. It's not unusual for weird things to happen on any given night - hence the cliche "that's why they play the games" - but so many freak events crammed into a ten-second window? I can't explain the feeling to anyone who wasn't watching it live.
Thank God for Jamie Burke, who did something way more normal by singling home an insurance run. That took us to the bottom of the thirteenth with JJ Putz, but in one last demonstration of this game's reluctance to follow directions, even this wasn't easy, as JJ had to go and load the bases before retiring Koyie Hill - who was, appropriately, the last remaining position player on either bench - on a chopper to first. I think that was the fastest I've ever gone from nervous rocking to ecstatic celebration. I never want to see another game like this as long as I live, but damned if it doesn't give you an incredible feeling as you go off to sleep or drink or shoot up or whatever it is you usually do after the Mariners are finished.
(Update: apparently JJ had the flu yesterday and barely had anything in the tank tonight. And still threw his fastball 95. Yeah.)
Miguel Batista goes up against lefty (hot diggity damn!) Sean Marshall tomorrow at 5:05pm. Batista and Woods are currently the only fresh arms on the roster, so expect a move for a reliever before the game (Mateo or Rowland-Smith, most likely). Mark Lowe, we miss you.