Having gone to the game Saturday, I'm thankful that I was there to see Dustin Ackley's first career Major League home run. I was thankful that I watched the score for the first time in five games I'd attended, but Ackley's moment was especially meaningful. For that player to hit that dinger in that stadium in front of that crowd - that'll go on the surprisingly short list of sports moments I'll never forget. I'll never forget the sound, I'll never forget the trajectory, I'll never forget the roar, and I'll never forget the reluctant curtain call, with a few of Ackley's teammates practically shoving him up the dugout steps.
But while I was glad to have witnessed such a powerful moment, I still walked away from the game feeling pretty upset. With arguably their best starter on the mound against arguably Philadelphia's worst, the Mariners squandered an opportunity to take a winnable contest. They blew chances to score early on, and Shane Victorino's bloop double off the foul line was a stake to the heart. Instead of winning the game and winning the series, the Mariners lost by four, and with the Sunday matchup looking pretty dreadful, it appeared as if we'd go into the offday with the M's at .500. While there's no shame in losing two out of three to the , that result would've been a letdown given the way the series started.
Suffice to say, my expectations for the Sunday matinee were pretty low. Cole Hamels is an amazing, left-handed pitcher, and though I generally trust Jason Vargas, I didn't trust him to keep up with Hamels. I figured the M's would keep it close for a few innings, then the Phillies would extend their lead by two or three runs, and then they'd add on against the bullpen. This felt like it was going to be one of those demoralizing 7-2 Sunday bummers.
So you can imagine my surprise as I listened to Rick Rizzs and Ken Wilson on the drive back to Portland, and Vargas refused to give in. The top of the first was shaping up to set the expected tone, with the Phillies taking advantage of a couple breaks to put two runners in scoring position with two out, but then Greg Halman saved a pair of runs with a sliding catch, and a different tone was set. Maybe Vargas could do the job after all. When he escaped the fourth with a fluky double play after Carlos Ruiz got caught napping off first, suddenly I felt like this was a game the M's could actually win.
And they won. They won not because they lit up Hamels, but because they did exactly what you'd expect them to do against Hamels, and it simply wound up being sufficient. The M's pushed across two runs. The first scored on a bloop single in front of the left fielder. The second scored on a broken-bat bloop single in front of the left fielder. Aside from a triple that Dustin Ackley ripped into the gap, the M's didn't hit Hamels a whole lot, but they hit him enough. Just as the Phillies won with a blooper and pitching on Saturday, the M's won with bloopers and pitching on Sunday, as Jason Vargas turned in an unlikely complete game shutout.
And a complete game shutout with 15 consecutive retired batters, no less. Vargas is a weird sort of pitcher. He lulls you into this sense of security and comfort when he's on, and then out of nowhere he'll suddenly start getting blasted, with everything turning into an outfield line drive. Today, he just never flipped the switch, even as his pitch count approached a career-high 119. He threw strike after strike and only seemed to get stronger. I couldn't help but notice that he began the ninth by quickly getting ahead of the first three batters he faced 0-2.
I don't know how well this rotation is going to hold up down the stretch. It's one of those concerns that everyone knows about, but no one wants to talk about, in fear of coming off like a wet blanket. I wonder about Michael Pineda. I wonder about Erik Bedard. I wonder about Vargas, and I wonder about Doug Fister. But as concerned as I am about the rotation's future, enough can't be said about the rotation's present. Jason Vargas just won the Mariners a game against Cole Hamels, and the Mariners just took a series from baseball's best team even though Felix Hernandez took a loss. What in the hell?
Over the last three weeks, the M's have played series against the, , and Phillies, and in those series, the M's went 9-5.
A few quick bullet holes, since I was only listening on radio:
- Maybe the wildest thing about Vargas' shutout is that he threw a shutout despite a somewhat ineffective changeup. Only 28 of his 119 pitches were changeups, and half of those changeups went for balls. He compensated by actually managing to locate his curveball, and the numbers tell me that his cutter was outstanding. When people talk about how Vargas' cutter has changed him as a pitcher, this is the kind of game that they'll point to.
- As one who doesn't listen to baseball on the radio very often, Ken Wilson is a treat. He has such a throwback style that I can practically feel my sideburns extending as he talks.
- This is a note from Saturday, but the King's Court really does inject a good amount of life into the stadium. People are willing to follow its lead. And not only with two-strike applause - last night, I heard a stadium-wide Let's-Go-Mariners chant that was completely unprompted. The game was at Safeco Field.
- The fact that Ackley got a curtain call on Saturday, and the fact that Safeco absolutely exploded when he tripled today, speaks volumes about how desperate this fan base has been for a homegrown position player of significance. It also probably makes guys like Greg Halman and Carlos Peguero feel really inadequate and underappreciated.
- Ackley made a stop to his left on a Chase Utley grounder in the third that Ken Wilson spun into a gem. Watching the video, it wasn't one for the highlight reels or anything, but it's just further evidence that the people who kept painting Ackley's defense as a problem in Tacoma were, for whatever reason, off base.