You wouldn't believe how long it seemed like this was going to be just another typical game between theand the . Actually, no, scratch that, of course you would believe how long it seemed that way, because that's how all of these games are supposed to go. I just wrote about this very phenomenon last night, after the Mariners and A's played a Mariners/A's game. There's a certain way that these games go, and tonight's game was going that way for a while, as if there were any other road. There is no other road - there is the one road.
The Mariners, of course, had a run or two this time, where last night it was the A's who had a run. But every game needs a run to be scored, and it's not like Oakland always beats Seattle; one of them always beats the other in forgettable fashion. Last night, the big and only blow was Seth Smith's home run. Tonight, the big and only blow was Franklin Gutierrez's almost-home-run RBI double. There was no score, and then the Mariners had a 2-0 lead, and then there was no more scoring for some time.
But here's the thing about there being only one road - there being one road doesn't mean there's only one possibility. This game went off the track in the top of the seventh, and at that point it started to feel like a baseball game worth paying attention to.
The A's knotted it up, scoring once when Yoenis Cespedes abused Jason Vargas from 60 feet away, and scoring again after Vargas had been removed. Vargas was terrific, but he was left to deal with a no-decision, and with a tie score in the seventh, that meant there would have to be some drama. There would have to be high-leverage situations, because there would have to be one more run.
It didn't score in the bottom of the seventh, when the Mariners did nothing. It didn't score in the top of the eighth, when Charlie Furbush struck out the side around two walks. It scored in the bottom of the eighth, when Brendan Ryan sliced a full-count slider over Jemile Weeks to score Casper Wells from second base. That gave the Mariners the slimmest of possible leads, but they don't have to hand those leads over to Brandon League anymore. They hand those leads over to Tom Wilhelmsen, and so far Wilhelmsen has done nothing to shake our faith. Including tonight, when Wilhelmsen whispered a 12-pitch lullaby.
Maybe I was just in an unusually good mood, but I got legitimately excited toward and upon the end of this game. It wasn't just because the Mariners won; the Mariners have beaten the A's lots of times without stirring anything within me. This one was effectively meaningless, but this one was enjoyable. The final bits of it, at least. It wasn't compelling all the way through, but what baseball game is? What sports game is? What anything is? Besides The Rock. Holy shit you guys, The Rock is still awesome.
I'm working on somewhat limited time tonight, so in lieu of whatever the standard format is these days, I present to you a list of my favorite parts of the action:
Jason Vargas' changeup
Vargas had a disaster start the last time out, and he hadn't turned in an inarguably good performance since May 24. People were starting to notice how mediocre his road numbers had become, and people were starting to talk about him as a potential non-tender candidate. So Vargas chose a good time to look terrific, not that there's ever a bad time to look terrific. Never has a player been terrific and come away thinking "that was a waste," probably.
According to PITCHf/x, which is always the source, Vargas threw 28 changeups against the A's tonight. That's the same number of changeups that Erasmo Ramirez threw yesterday, even though Ramirez is right-handed. Nine of those changeups were balls, two were called strikes, three were fouled off, four were hit on the ground, and ten were cut on and missed. You'll recall that Ramirez generated 13 whiffs on 28 changeups, so relative to that Vargas came up short, but the proper conclusion here isn't that Vargas' changeup was worse than Ramirez's - the proper conclusion is that maybe the A's can't really hit changeups.
Vargas' changeup has always been his biggest strength, but sometimes it isn't there, sometimes it betrays him. It was there tonight, and when you imagine Good Vargas, not that this is something you do often, his changeup looks like it did today. Having that pitch allowed him to have success with his other pitches, and that's basically how Vargas finished with ten strikeouts, two walks, and two runs in six and two-thirds. Yeah, he faced Oakland, and yeah, he faced Oakland in Seattle, but Vargas just halted a slide. He proved that he's capable of a really good game.
That maniacal laughter
I first noticed it in the eighth inning. I don't know if it was there before - I noticed it on television, and I listened to the seventh inning on the radio. The broadcast has a microphone somewhere that picks up the sound of the crowd, and sometimes that amplifies the sound of one unusually loud fan nearby. You get a lot of booers or hecklers, or that guy in the game like a week and a half ago who just kept shouting "EYYYYYYYYYYYY" for two hours. Tonight the microphone picked up maniacal laughter.
The first time I noticed it, I noticed it, but I didn't think a lot of it. I figured whoever was laughing was there with someone or someones, and heard something outrageously funny. Some people have loud laughs. The laugh went away, I concentrated on the game, then the laugh came back. It was jarring the second time because it sounded the same as the first time, and it no longer sounded like laughter in response to something funny. It sounded like laughter in response to something of which everyone else is unaware.
I don't know how many times I heard it. Five? The last one was a little different, as it included something of a hoot, or a woo. But clearly, something was not as it should have been. The way I figure, that ghastly cackle came from one of two sources. One possibility is that somebody at a Mariners/A's game finally snapped. Somebody's mind bent and broke, and it was broadcast live on television. We were all witnesses to the very moment someone crested the ridge of insanity and did cartwheels down the other side. The other possibility is that the laugh came from one of the demons in charge of making sure these games are the worst. That demon sensed that it was slipping away, that this game was actually going to be worthwhile, and it was powerless to stop it. So it laughed the evil laugh of a being who knows that a battle isn't a war. The Mariners play the A's tomorrow. Tomorrow is another Mariners/A's game. Is it going to be a good one? After tonight, is it going to be a good one? Are you feeling lucky?
I took exactly one note tonight during the game. It read "maniacal laughter, 8th." That laugh I will remember longer than anything else.
Franklin Gutierrez's double
In the bottom of the third, Gutierrez batted against Travis Blackley with two on and one out. There was no score, and Gutierrez got ahead 3-and-1. Blackley threw a fastball down the very middle of the zone, and Gutierrez pummeled it:
That's the wall in what's more or less center field, and Gutierrez came inches away from knocking the ball out. That's a long way to hit a baseball, and while we're probably going to talk about this every time Gutierrez shows some strength, tonight Gutierrez showed some strength. I can't get over how good it feels to see Franklin Gutierrez swinging a legitimate bat with power and confidence. Last year, he was a slap hitter who wasn't supposed to be a slap hitter. Last year, Franklin Gutierrez was Christian Bale in The Machinist. This year Franklin Gutierrez seems like he's just Christian Bale.
Did you know that, between 2009-2010, Gutierrez posted a .760 OPS at home, and a .667 OPS on the road? For a right-handed hitter, you don't expect those splits, and while Gutierrez's home-run rate was lower in Safeco, his overall extra-base-hit rate wasn't. There's some evidence to suggest that Gutierrez is a rare righty who can hit in Seattle, and now I should stop writing before I go too far and declare Gutierrez the greatest Mariner that ever there was. He's not that, but he looks good, and I think he's worth getting excited over. To a reasonable extent.
Ryan's been the best interview on the team since he first joined the team, and tonight he was the hero after lining the game-winning single over Weeks' head. It was such a good piece of hitting that even Ms. Jeff remarked that it was a good piece of hitting, and she doesn't know much about what makes hitting good. On second thought I guess maybe I shouldn't cite the things she says as evidence.
In any case, Ryan got Wells home, and then as always, he was engaging and energetic in his interview while finding a way to stay humble. I love Tom Wilhelmsen, but he's not a great interview, and Jesus Montero still seems like he isn't really comfortable. Michael Saunders is a good sport, and Kyle Seager's also a good sport. But nobody beats Ryan, who seems like he actually wants to be doing the interview while it's being conducted. He jokes around, he answers honestly, and it's hard for me to imagine how some players ever didn't like him. I say this as somebody who's never spent any time with Brendan Ryan in person. Maybe he's terrible. Maybe he used to be terrible. On television, he's fantastic, and he's one of very, very few athletes that, when I see them being interviewed on the field, I don't want the interview to end.
The post-game interview is such a waste of time, most of the time. Brendan Ryan helps to spin it into gold. I love when he is successful.
Dale Scott's final strike call
Scott was the home-plate umpire, and with two outs in the top of the ninth, Tom Wilhelmsen was pitching to Derek Norris. Wilhelmsen got ahead with a fastball, then fell behind 2-and-1, then came back with a fastball for a strike. One strike away, I think everybody sensed that a curveball was coming. Wilhelmsen has a great one, and he loves to use it in putaway situations. Sure enough, Norris could only watch as Wilhelmsen dropped a curve just above the knees, right on the outer edge. Everybody knew it was good for strike three, and what was left of the crowd started to celebrate, and Scott took his sweet time punching Norris out. It probably seemed like it took longer for Scott to signal than it actually did, but it was as if even Dale Scott was left frozen by WIlhelmsen's breaking ball. Like he watched it come in, froze, and then shook his head to jolt his brain back to reality before letting Norris know that, yeah, you can turn around now.
It was the pitch everybody knew was coming, in the perfect spot. There's no more satisfying save than a save that ends with a strikeout, and it didn't take long for Tom Wilhelmsen to become one of the more dominant closers in baseball. The dominance preceded the closing. He just needed the label.