Ichiro Betrayed By Cosmos, Mariners Loss Ruins Beautiful Sunday

To be continued

I can sit here and rationalize all that I want to. The Mariners may not have deserved to win the game yesterday, given all the trouble they got themselves into. They may not have deserved to win the game today, given that they scored their two runs by not swinging and letting Bobby Jenks throw terrible pitches. And, in the end, they went 5-1 on a road trip that had them play two decent teams, vaulting themselves up from a collection of also-rans to the level of the interesting. I couldn't have asked for much more than the Mariners gave over the past week of play, and while they lost today, it was only one loss, and by the narrowest of margins.

And still, this is a loss that tastes bad going down and sits in the stomach, like my last attempt at almond milk. It doesn't matter what the Mariners did before today - those games were already in the books. It doesn't matter that the Mariners were probably being outplayed - the score was 2-2. What matters is that they had a chance for a sweep, and a sweep in Fenway no less, and they lost it, and they lost it in large part because of a sun ball.

I remember back in 2008, the Mariners had a one-run lead in Toronto in the bottom of the 10th, and with the bases loaded and two outs, somebody hit a line drive to Ichiro that he dropped, allowing the tying and winning runs to score. This isn't the first time that he's made a critical misplay in the outfield, and unlike in Toronto, today he was battling the sun. Ichiro said he couldn't see the ball at all, and while there are ways for fielders to block the sun from their eyes, Jed Lowrie's liner was hit sufficiently hard that Ichiro didn't have a ton of time to adjust. It was a tough play for Ichiro, and it wound up bad luck for him, and good luck for the Red Sox.

But it sucks so bad to lose because of a twist of bad luck. You'd rather Jed Lowrie have taken that ball out of the park, like it looked like he did off the bat, because at least then you could say that Lowrie did the damage. Instead, Lowrie hit a ball in the air and the sun did a lot of the damage, and losing in large part because of a ball of flaming gas feels like losing in large part because of a bad call by an umpire. You always want to see the game decided by the players.

I guess Ichiro should've made the catch. It was hard, but not impossible. Jamey Wright should've thrown Lowrie a better pitch. Wright still had to give up the well-hit single by Carl Crawford a few minutes later. It's not like the sun can be blamed for the whole losing effort, and even if Wright had escaped, the game was only tied, and there was no guarantee the Mariners would later take the lead. The sun was a factor, but by no means the only factor.

Still, what a punch in the gut, and on a warm, cloudless, mean-spiritedly sunny Sunday afternoon. Now we get to linger on this for the rest of the day, and we get to linger on it all through Monday, too. There are so many positives that came out of this road trip, but I feel like it's going to be a little while before I can start appreciating them again.

I love weekend morning baseball. I love it when the Mariners are uninteresting, because it means the game and my work will be done in plenty of time for me to still make something of the day. And I love it when the Mariners are interesting, because I wake up with the rare bounce in my step, which I haven't done on a consistent basis since high school. I wake up with energy and excitement, and I can watch the Mariners in a bathrobe with coffee and a doughnut.

After paying close attention to last night's game by pretty much every means possible, I was all kinds of ready to see Felix Hernandez try to pitch the M's to a sweep. Sweeps are fun. Sweeps when you're decent are awesome. Sweeps when you're decent and playing in Boston are an experience you savor and write about in your Christmas cards. Felix vs. Tim Wakefield meant the M's were one solid effort away from a 6-0 road trip going into a day off.

Then the game got started, and it didn't start off real well. The M's took a bunch of weak swings against Wakefield, and Felix had to squeeze his way out of trouble in as long a first inning as you can have and still not allow any runs. Based on the early indications, Wakefield was destined to cruise, while Felix was going to have one of those somewhat wild games where he gets into too many deep counts. On paper, Felix/Wakefield was a mismatch, but to the eye this morning, it was awfully close to even.

The M's kept flailing away, and when David Ortiz drove in two runs with a Monster double in the third, I couldn't help but look ahead to the Red Sox bullpen. It didn't seem like the hitters were going to get anything started against the knuckleball, and I just hoped that Felix could hold the fort long enough for the lineup to get a chance against somebody else.

Thankfully, Felix settled down, and the Boston bullpen came into play in the top of the sixth. Apparently knuckleballers can't just up and throw 200 pitches upon request. And it's bizarre how familiar the ensuing Mariner rally felt. Following a couple singles, the Mariners took a walk, a walk and a walk to even things up. A pair of bases-loaded walks knotted the score, and we watched them happen without any inkling that that was really weird and rare. These are our Mariners.

Michael Saunders then hit a ball on the nose that off the bat looked like an RBI single, but Carl Crawford ranged over to make an easy catch, and so began the anxiety. It was a tie game in Fenway, and Felix seemed to be nearing the end of the line. Pretty soon, the M's would have to turn things over to the bullpen as well, which I don't think is ever going to make us comfortable.

For a while, the Red Sox didn't hit, and the Mariners didn't hit. Eventually we got to the bottom of the ninth, with Jamey Wright going for his second inning of work. It started off innocently enough with a grounder, but then Lowrie hit his rocket, and while it wasn't the homer I thought it would be, it was immediately clear that Ichiro couldn't see it, and when the ball bounced off Ichiro's body I was just thankful it didn't stray far enough for Lowrie to round all the bases. Still, with one out and the winning run on third, at that point a loss felt inevitable.

Then the grounder. Marco Scutaro followed with a weak grounder that kept Lowrie pinned to third base, and suddenly there was a way out. In retrospect, this was cruel. We went from having no hope, to some hope, then back to no hope again, in such a way that it felt like the M's lost twice. I didn't like the Carl Crawford matchup at all with Jarrod Saltalamacchia on deck, but of course the M's would pitch to a guy who's been one of the worst hitters in baseball, and Wright just threw Crawford the wrong pitch. A fastball down the heart was grounded sharply back up the middle, and many a remote was thrown to an opposite corner of the living room.

The Mariners wound up with four hits and four walks. Their most successful offensive stretch of the day involved them watching Bobby Jenks throw 19 consecutive pitches without so much as checking a swing. This was not the team's best effort. But to come that close, and lose in that way - it blows. That blew.

I'm just going to write up a few bullet holes and then try to take advantage of the rest of the day:

  • For those who watched the whole game, it's kind of crazy to think about the fact that Felix only allowed seven baserunners in seven innings, because he got into so much trouble early on. There were three baserunners in the first, three baserunners in the third, and one baserunner in the other five frames. The rough start contributed to the impression that he wasn't as good as he actually was.

    To end up with ten strikeouts and one walk against that lineup is nothing short of impressive, and it's not like the Red Sox were making a ton of solid contact. Ortiz hit his double, but that was pretty much it. The rest were grounders, fly balls, and soft line drives.

    My favorite at bat might've been Felix against Ortiz in the first. Ortiz came up with two on and one out, and quickly fell behind 0-2. He worked the count full, having taken a couple close fastballs off the outer edge, but then Felix dropped a low changeup out of the zone that got Ortiz fishing. It was a ball, but it was a perfect ball in the perfect spot, and only the most disciplined of hitters would've been able to lay off. A ballsy, confident pitch in a dangerous situation.

    Anyway, so despite the inconsistent beginning, Felix got stronger as the game wore on, and it looks like he'll soon settle into that groove that we've grown so accustomed to seeing him occupy. This was a positive start, and there aren't a lot of pitchers who would've been able to do what Felix did after having that same first inning.

  • A few times, Root Sports showed a graphic with the pitchers who own the lowest career ERA in Fenway, with a minimum of four starts. Felix came in with the lowest, at 1.23, and he's still there, despite the jump to 1.49. He is narrowly ahead of Kason Gabbard (1.51), Mike Parrott (1.98) and Dan Spillner (2.09). This is an all-time leaderboard with Felix Hernandez, Kason Gabbard, Mike Parrott and Dan Spillner on it.

  • In the third inning, Jack Wilson hit a tapper in front of the plate, and Wakefield darted off the mound to field it and throw to first in time for the out. Wilson was running quickly and Wakefield threw the ball hard, but this being Tim Wakefield, he obviously didn't throw the ball as hard as other pitchers would've. It made me curious about Wakefield's career versus bunts. Non-sacrifice bunts usually have a batting average in the high .300s. Over Wakefield's career, bunters have gone 42-78. Between the ease of bunting a slower pitch and the weak arm of the guy on the mound, it seems like hitters should bunt against Wakefield more often.

  • Of Wakefield's five swinging strikes on the day, Justin Smoak accounted for four of them. Not surprisingly, this was the first time the two had met. I can't imagine what it's like to face one of the best knuckleballs of all time when you have pretty much zero frame of reference.

  • Jack Cust drew his fifth bases-loaded walk. The Mariners' all-time record is six. Only two teams in baseball right now have more than four, and four teams have zero. Jack Cust's OBP is .364. The Mariners have never had a player quite like this one.

  • In that top of the sixth, Bobby Jenks issued three consecutive walks. Michael Saunders then came up and took a few pitches, including a first pitch right down the middle, and fell behind in the count. Baseball fans really, really hate when you swing early in the count against a guy who's struggling to throw strikes, but Saunders might've wanted to swing at that first pitch. As we've said so often before, plate discipline is not about drawing walks. It's about laying off the wrong pitches and swinging at the right ones, and I think the first one was the right one. Of course, the sixth one was also the right one, and Saunders did end up with a solid line drive the other way. Alas, nothing about Michael Saunders is ever allowed to let us feel good feelings. 

Up next, it's a big three-game home series against Texas. The nice thing about the schedule is that, after this gut-punch loss, the M's almost immediately get an opportunity to make up for it. The bad thing is that they also get an opportunity to fall way behind again if they don't play very well. It's weird to be a Mariners fan and have the games have leverage.

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