I remember back in 2005, after we DFA'd Bret Boone and subsequently dealt him to Minnesota, my brother asked me why people were getting so sentimental over losing a guy who wasn't helping the team win, and who many of us had wanted to see go away for a long time. From an outsider's perspective, he thought that people would be ecstatic, not sad and emotional.
I think some people are probably wondering the same thing right now. And while Hargrove has never meant as much to this franchise as Boone did during his peak, to me, the answer is the same. When you have a guy who's been around for so long, he becomes a part of the team, and even if you're not a big fan of his performance, you almost always become a fan of the person himself. We're all so devoted to the Mariners that the players and coaches practically feel like teammates or even decent friends, people you make fun of from time to time but who, when it comes down to it, you're always rooting for to come through in the end. We want every single Mariner to succeed, and that's why it's been a little depressing to see Boone and Hargrove leave on terms that you know weren't really their own. Boone didn't choose to get old overnight and Hargrove didn't choose to lose his passion, but once they happened there was nothing either man could do, forcing them out of the organization sooner than they ever wanted. Seeing the end is always an unfortunate realization, and the emotion is warranted.
Tearful, heartfelt goodbyes are never pleasant, but if it's any consolation to Grover, he's probably going out on the highest note of any manager in Mariner history. While there are a lot of things I won't miss about his time in Seattle, and while the team may be better off without him, he was still part of the family, and it's too bad he doesn't get to ride this out until whatever end awaits. I wish him the best of luck. Mike, you'll never be ripped on a blog again for the rest of your life. Rejoice. There are upsides to everything.
Biggest Contribution: Jose Guillen, +53.6%
Biggest Suckfest: Willie Ballgame, -19.4%
Most Important At Bat: Guillen funk blast, +30.7%
Most Important Pitch: Thomas homer, -19.9%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +34.7%
Total Contribution by Position Players: +15.3%
Total Contribution by Opposition: 0.0%
After everything that went on this morning, it would've been easy to forget that there was a game to play. When I woke up and heard about the press conference, expecting it to be an Ichiro extension, and then found out it was Hargrove resigning instead, I had trouble wrapping my head around the whole thing, sitting and reading but not really understanding what had happened any why it did. The setting and circumstances were just so unusual. Why would Hargrove walk away from the best baseball team he's had in almost a decade? Has this kind of thing ever happened before in the history of the league?
As Mike, Bill, and John took their turns explaining the situation and answering questions, the reasoning became clear, and it gradually began to sink in that the Mariners were really going to go forward without our #1 (or is it #2?) scapegoat. While I sat there more shocked than anything else, a big part of my brain said "you should be thrilled!", but it was hard to smile while watching Hargrove fight back tears and McLaren openly weep. It wasn't easy to watch. After it ended, though, for the 40 minutes or so between the conference and the first pitch, I found myself wondering one thing:
What does it tell you about a manager's impact when a coach who admittedly lost his fire and passion for the job guides a team to its most impressive winning streak in years?
There are a lot of people out there who get upset with managers who never flip out and throw tantrums like Lou or Bobby Cox. They think a good manager is someone who runs around screaming his ass off, shouting and yelling and kicking and inspiring his team through fear and pure emotion. This was Mike Hargrove giving all those people the finger. Never before have I heard a coach admit to not being able to get excited for games, and not in a long time have I seen the Mariners play such terrific winning baseball over some quality opponents. A successful manager doesn't need to get red-faced and curse at umpires; apparently a successful manager doesn't even need to really care about the game. He just needs to fill out a lineup card and not make any retarded decisions for nine innings. It's so easy a passionless Mike Hargrove can do it.
Anyway, we advanced to the game with new inspiration. As if an eighth consecutive win and second consecutive sweep (over a team whose fans really need to get jobs) wasn't enough to get the team going, they got to try and win it for Grover in what was almost certainly going to be his last game as a manager in his life. There've been rumors for a while now of discontent in the clubhouse between Hargrove and some of the players, but I don't think anyone openly disliked him as a person, so yeah, there must've been some extra motivation there to send him off happy. It was the least they could do.
Not that you would've known it from watching the first several innings. Maybe the team just takes longer to get going in day games, I dunno, but for two hours Jeff Weaver was the only Mariner to show up and put forth any kind of visible effort. The rest of the guys looked borderline hopeless against Shaun Marcum, who was getting by with the same kind of weak contact that some people always think is a repeatable skill after successful Washburn starts. For an idea of what I'm talking about, through the first six frames the Mariners sent 26 batters to the plate. Only eight of them hit the ball in the air, and six of those were pop-outs. No one was hitting the ball with any kind of authority. Just from watching, it certainly seems like the Mariners hit a ton more pop-ups than you'd expect. I don't have the total team numbers on me, but they do have three of the top 24 most prolific pop-uppers in the league, so there's a little evidence for you. Those three - Sexson, Lopez, and Betancourt - don't seem to have too much in common offensively, but while I don't know what causes players to pop out more than usual, I do know that the Mariners are doing it, and it's killing rallies left and right.
The biggest rally they killed today came in the sixth inning, after a Ben Broussard single put men on the corners with one down for Kenji Johjima in a scoreless game. Despite getting ahead 2-0 in the count, though, Kenji continued his slump by popping up an inside fastball to the catcher in foul territory. Even with his walk and single today, Kenji's still putting up just a .513 OPS since June 13th. He was due to slow down after his awesome start, but let this be a warning to those of you who thought he was primed for a big 2007, because he's rapidly approaching his 2006 numbers. Oh yeah, Yuni Betancourt then grounded back to the mound to formally end the threat, stranding his third and fourth runners of the afternoon.
It was a shame that the Mariners couldn't do anything, because Weaver was doing the exact same thing that he'd done in his last two starts - attack the batters with a wild assortment of arm slots and pitch speeds. There wasn't anything special about any individual pitch, but once again, it was the unpredictability as a whole that gave him the edge, as for the most part he had Toronto's timing all screwed up. He managed to escape despite a few well-struck balls, particularly in the top of the second when Jose Guillen gunned down an overeager Matt freaking Stairs at second base to help out, but by and large he was looking like the same useful #4/5 arm we thought we were signing over the winter. His curve and slider looked good almost all day long, masquerading as legitimate strikeout pitches when Weaver needed them to. A month ago, I thought it would've taken an absolute miracle for Weaver to get his ERA under seven. Well, there you go. Joel's 2006 figure is only 39 points away.
As good as the feelings about Weaver were this afternoon, we'd barely had time to get over the disappointment of the bottom of the sixth and focus on getting Weaver another shutout inning before an offspeed mistake over the middle of the plate gave Toronto a 1-0 lead. That one felt like a kick in the ribs, because for once I wasn't confident in this team's ability to come back, not with the way they were hitting. The two hits that followed certainly didn't make matters any better, as I was beginning to feel the onset of a loss for the first time in more than a week. It sucked. We're still at a point where any loss would feel like a colossal blow, and today it was only compounded by this being Hargrove's final game. I wanted the win something terrible, but it didn't seem to be in the cards.
And that's when things started to swing the other way. Weaver got Aaron Hill to ground out to short without letting Stairs score from third, and after an intentional walk to Howie Clark loaded the bases, Royce Clayton - who's had an absolutely improbable 17-year career so far - came to the plate and grounded a two-strike pitch right to Yuni, who stepped on second and threw to first for the latest in what seems like an incredible stretch of timely double plays. Rather than leave with his head down, Weaver got to walk off the field with a pump of the fist, and the Mariners actually carried momentum into the bottom half. Five minutes earlier the 1-0 deficit seemed virtually insurmountable, but suddenly it barely felt like an obstacle, and I allowed myself to get my hopes back up.
Not that it did any good, because the bottom of the seventh inning was just as pathetic as the preceding six. I was still feeding off a little double play adrenaline, though, and after Weaver for whatever reason came back out for the eighth and delivered a hasty 1-2-3 (throwing in an awesome 1-2 slider to Wells for a leadoff strikeout), it really did feel like we still had the edge. It was just a matter of the players taking advantage of the pendulum swing before making another six outs.
God bless Jose Guillen, who delivered in a huge way to tie the game off Casey Janssen on the first pitch. Guillen's been the target of a lot of criticism lately for his homerless two weeks and his seeming inability to come through in the clutch (.414 OPS close & late), so it was great for him to answer both points with one swing. The opposite-field line drive got the crowd back into the game, and after a Richie Sexson strikeout on what would've been ball four, back-to-back walks by Broussard and Johjima forced Toronto to go to its closer to stem the tide.
Jeremy Accardo, it turns out, is another one of those Blue Jay pitchers who looks exactly like every other Blue Jay pitcher. Here are the four guys who took to the mound this afternoon. They're shown in order of appearance, but you'll have to trust me on that one:
White guys with long hair and a few extra pounds, all of them. That doesn't even include AJ Burnett or Brian Tallet.
It's pretty easy to understand what JP Ricciardi looks for in an arm, and why we haven't seen much of Gustavo Chacin so far this season. It's like that Simpsons episode where Troy Aikman draws caricatures of people and puts everyone in dune buggies. I thought last year's A's all looked identical, but perhaps they've passed on the torch.
Jason Ellison was sent in to pinch-run for Ben Broussard on second base, but as Betancourt dropped a single into right field in Accardo's first at bat, Ellison could only advance 90 feet. While in Ellison's defense it was a tough hit to read, as Rios was playing fairly shallow in right, a pinch-runner's only job is to do better than the guy he's replacing on the basepaths, and Ellison didn't. That left us with the bases loaded and one out for Willie Ballgame, who by this point had already used up two seasons' worth of pixie juice. With the world calling for another squeeze bunt, Willie struck out, and Ichiro followed that effort by swinging at three consecutive balls and flying out to left field to end the inning. Another kick in the ribs, and the game began to take on the feel of that disaster against Colorado last year that jump-started the tailspin. The Mariners had already wasted some golden opportunities, and in all honesty it didn't feel like they deserved to win.
That's when Mike Hargrove showed off exactly why we all think he's been a little better in 2007 than he was in 2006. In the ninth inning of a tie game at home, Hargrove went to JJ Putz, acknowledging that there was no longer any chance of a save situation. Putz is the best reliever in baseball and absolutely the right guy to go to in that situation, and he proved it by bookending a Stairs foul out with a pair of swinging strikeouts against Thomas and Lind. Twelve pitches, three batters, two K's, and a pop-up. This is beyond silly. JJ Putz can make a legitimate case for being the most valuable player of the first half of the season.
To the bottom half we went. With everyone hoping for Beltre to load up and make Red happy, he instead drew a solid walk, which was followed by Ibanez yanking an offspeed pitch over the outer half into right field for a base hit. Another scoring opportunity, this one carrying the potential to win the game. Up came Jose Guillen, who worked the count to 2-1 before attempting a surprise bunt on a pitch that was way too low and inside to put in play. It was a good idea but lousy execution, and suddenly Guillen was in a two-strike count against a hard-throwing righty.
In the time it took Accardo to get ready and throw his next pitch, we'd already simulated the situation a million times over in our hearts. Most of them ended with a strikeout, and few with a hit. Guillen, though, conjured up whatever magic had helped him an inning earlier and smacked a sharp groundball to third base off the edge of the glove of a drawn-in Troy Glaus. The ball's forward momentum was slowed enough to let Beltre score from second in the team's second walk-off win in four games. The stadium erupted, the players sprinted out of the dugout, and with a smile and a reserved pump of the first, Mike Hargrove ended his managerial career on the highest note he's had in years.
At this point, there's just not much to say. The Mariners are playing some of the most exciting baseball we've ever seen, and go into Kansas City with a realistic chance of extending this thing to an historic length. Yeah, the Angels won on a bad call and the Tigers barely escaped, but I guarantee you that right now they're thinking more about us than we are of them.
Farewell, Mike Hargrove - lately you have served us well. And welcome, John McLaren. May you build off the recent success of your predecessor. The city's ready for a winner. Seize the moment.