From back on Opening Day:
Check your calendars.
Biggest Contribution: JJ Putz, +15.9%
Biggest Suckfest: Jose Vidro, -18.4%
Most Important At Bat: Ichiro double, +21.2%
Most Important Pitch: Hernandez single, -11.6% (top 9th)
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +23.8%
Total Contribution by Position Players: +9.3%
Total Contribution by Opposition: +16.9%
Nobody remembers the wins you're given. It's the wins you earn that stick in people's memories, and the Mariners are beginning to develop a penchant for those.
Comebacks are wonderful by themselves, but what made this game so much fun was just how entirely predictable our early struggles were ahead of time. I don't think there was a soul on the planet who expected us to hit Brian Burres, so this matchup looked like real trouble. Come back after expecting to lose for a few innings and you feel great. Come back after expecting to lose for a full day and you feel bewilderedly spectacular. The more time bad feelings have to stew in your stomach, the more rewarding it is if they turn out unwarranted.
See, the Mariner lineup is aggressive. The organization loves hitters who put the ball in play and don't strike out, and this philosophy has manifested itself in our current batting order, which has the lowest pitches/PA in baseball (3.58; AL average is 3.79). That's just who they are. It can get to be incredibly frustrating, but you can't really blame the hitters for doing what they've done their entire lives. These guys have become successful by taking aggressive approaches at the plate, and while that leaves them prone to swinging at a lot of garbage, that's just one of the unfortunate but unavoidable side effects. If you want to see more discipline, blame the front office, not the players. You can't just flip a switch in Yuniesky Betancourt's head that makes him stop chasing high fastballs out of the zone. I don't care how good your hitting coach might be - with few exceptions, by the time guys get to the Majors, their approaches are permanent. This is the cart to which the Mariners tied their horse, and we have no choice but to go for a ride.
This is why I thought it was funny back in Spring Training when it seemed like every day there was a new article about how the coaching staff wants to see the hitters take more walks. If you go to the pet store and can't decide between a cat or a bird, and you get the cat, you don't take it home and train it to fly. It's not going to work, and all you're going to end up with is a short temper and a lot of broken little kitty legs. No, you take that cat home and train it to be the best damn cat on the block. It might not do laps around the ceiling or sing you pretty songs, but I'd like to see a parakeet keep snakes off the lawn.
Anyway, because of their inherent aggressiveness, the Mariner lineup has developed the oddest of qualities - they clobber pitchers who pound the zone and struggle against guys who don't. Throw strikes early in the count and these guys'll make you pay, but litter the dirt with junkball bullshit and you can keep them quiet for hours. I never thought it was possible, but the Mariners have put together a group of hitters more likely to succeed against good pitchers than bad ones.
This is a terrific recipe for success in the playoffs, where the pitching is awesome and you can't afford to sit back and wait. However, it makes for some nightmare efforts against should-be human abortions like Matt DeSalvo, Darrell Rasner, and Brian Burres. Nobody really knew anything about Burres' repertoire before the game, but the minute we saw his elevated walk rate, we knew he'd be trouble, because anyone who doesn't know where he's throwing the ball has precisely the right kind of skillset to shut down the M's. (I can't imagine anything less productive than these guys taking batting practice off Brandon Morrow and Sean White.) This looked like one of those days where we'd need Cha Baek to pull some nervous magic out of his ass until we could make it a battle of the bullpens.
It didn't go as planned. The Baek part, anyway. The Burres part went exactly like we thought. Powered by his sudden emergence as a Major League-caliber starting pitcher, Baek has started to look more comfortable on the mound, but as we've discussed before, his unwavering expressions of apprehension and dread were the keys to his success, and the minute he started to look more relaxed, opposing hitters - imbued with a newfound sense of resolution and reassurance - began loading up on his meatballs. No sooner had Niehaus and Blowers finished talking about Baek's propensity to have the big inning than the Orioles got on the board with a pair of two-out RBI doubles. With how we all expected Burres to pitch, those were two pretty unfortunate runs to allow.
After Aubrey Huff struck out swinging for the third out, it came time for Burres to trudge out to the mound. And by "trudge" I mean "float, leaving a trail of stardust and rainbows" because it turns out that Burres is a pixie. The man, allegedly 6'1, had the peach fuzz of an eight year old, the slight build of a beanstalk, and skin whiter than Liv Tyler's buttcheeks. And, like any good pixie, Burres resorted to mischief and trickery, fooling Mariner hitters with "curving balls" thrown forward and located somewhere between the dugouts. The results, while predictable, were still disheartening, because no matter how much you condition yourself to expect total suck, the magnitude of the suck display always manages to take you by surprise.
Ugly swing after ugly swing left the Mariners looking helpless against Burres' assortment of offspeed puke, and our worst fears were coming true before our very eyes. If you missed the game and just look at the box score, you'll see three walks in 5.2 innings and think the M's did a fine job of making Burres work, but that's misleading; a more disciplined lineup would've drawn twice as many, and in so doing made Burres come over the plate with some hittable slop. The Mariners just bailed him out like they have so many other crappy pitchers, taking bad cuts even when ahead in the count and letting Burres get out of a few messes for which he himself was solely responsible. At one point somewhere around the fourth or fifth inning, Burres had thrown about as many balls as he had strikes, and the Mariners still weren't on the board. That's not good pitching - that's horrible, horrible hitting. The only thing keeping us from jumping off the ledge was the satisfaction of knowing that we'd at least been able to predict this result.
The fifth rolled around with the score 3-0 Baltimore, and only then did we finally manage to do something against this junkballing skirt. Three consecutive two-out singles to center suggested that the lineup was starting to time Burres' pitches, which boded well for us on future occasions that he decided to throw a strike. Unfortunately, he didn't throw enough of them, and the inning ended with a two-run Oriole lead still intact. When Betancourt gave our one run right back with another one of his patented throwing errors past a vastly-underqualified-to-play-the-field-anywhere Ben Broussard, everybody groaned, because there's nothing more disheartening than working your ass off to get something done and then watching it come apart in a flash. That felt like the ballgame.
Against any other team and any other bullpen, it might've been. Against Baltimore, though, you might as well not even start watching until the sixth or seventh, because that's when things seem to get going in earnest. Nothing came our way in the sixth, because Burres was still pitching, but once he reached triple digits you knew it was only a matter of time before salvation arrived in the form of a half-decent pitcher. Meet Danys Baez.
Baltimore's plight is almost comically unfair - they spent $41.5m this past offseason to bring in Baez, Jamie Walker, and Chad Bradford, and tonight it was those guys who were responsible for the team's latest bullpen meltdown. Let this be a lesson to other GM's tempted to shore up their relief corps by throwing money at the problem: relievers are the most volatile commodity in baseball, and they rarely deserve expensive multi-year contracts, both because veterans are so unreliable and AAA nobodies come up every year to blow big league hitters away. If you're working on a budget, you spend the most money on the most reliable production and cross your fingers for the rest of the roster. Throwing wads of cash at unreliable, risky players leaves you in the bottom of a gaping hole if they don't pan out like you hoped they would.
The minute Baez entered the game, the Mariners went to work. Jose Lopez lined out to end the sixth, but even that was one of the hardest-hit balls all night long. Jose Guillen then led off the seventh with a sharply-hit single and Baez proceeded to completely lose it, throwing eight consecutive balls to Raul Ibanez and Kenji Johjima so far out of the zone that even Raul Ibanez and Kenji Johjima managed to keep from swinging. With the bases loaded, nobody out, and the Orioles frantically trying to hold on to a three-run lead, Sam Perlozzo called on Jamie Walker and shuffled back to the dugout to resume tying a tourniquet around his arm. While he tightened the knot, Jose Vidro hit a sac fly to the warning track, and the ensuing wild pitch was enough to make him reach for the needle he'd placed on the seat to his left. The needle, though, was empty, as Leo Mazzone had seized the opportunity to trip out while Perlozzo was making the pitching change.
Horrified, Perlozzo had no choice but to turn his undivided attention to the happenings on the field, where Ben Broussard was in the process of beating out an infield single he'd bounced to Kevin Millar. Next came Betancourt, who lined a tying single into left, and after Willie Ballgame granted a temporary reprieve, Ichiro capped off the assault with an opposite-field double placed neatly inside of the line. Unlike the night before, Jose Lopez didn't subsequently pile on with any insurance, but the damage had been done, with the Mariners jumping into the lead and the Orioles down to eight players after Miguel Tejada took his glove off and retired.
Brandon Morrow inherited empty bases to work the eighth and plowed through a disheartened 5-6-7 portion of the Baltimore lineup. Of course, at some point it's the players' own fault for being disheartened by such an eminently foreseeable turn of events, but even if you see it coming it's hard to respond very well to a punch in the face. Morrow somehow found a way to throw 19 pitches in a 1-2-3 inning where the second batter popped out on the first offering, but "spectacularly inefficient" is just another part of the weirdass Morrow equation that all adds up to "dynamite reliever." As is the case with quantum mechanics and hot dogs, sometimes you just need to forget about the methodology and be happy with the results.
The Mariners didn't do anything in the eighth, but they didn't have to, because having arguably the best closer in baseball affords you that kind of luxury. Putz allowed a broken-bat single to lead off, but that was all the Orioles would scrape together, and a 1-2 splitter to Jay Payton put the finishing touches on another satisfying win that pushes this team to five games over .500 for the first time since the last day of the 2003 regular season (which will continue to be the case for each additional game over .500 until they hit 25. I don't think we're ever going to go back earlier than 2001, but then I've been wrong before). A lot of people will tell you that it's way too early to start talking about playoff positioning, but those people don't understand how long it's been since we've really had the chance. Yeah, I want the Tigers to lose. It's never too early to pull ahead in a race.
Day game tomorrow, as Jarrod Washburn guns for the sweep. The O's counter with Daniel Cabrera, who we're not gonna touch, but all we need is one look at that bullpen. Make Cabrera leave before the 27th out and we'll have our chance.