This is my belated thank you to those of you who showed up to Saturday's USS Mariner/Lookout Landing event at Safeco Field. Marc W's got a good summary posted, which you should read if you're at all curious. I only just got back to Portland this afternoon and had to do other work first, which is why this post is going up now. Oddly enough, the closer I physically get to the , the less I write about them. (I do not write often in Seattle. Anyway...)
Here's what I was expecting to write: while it's neat to get to go to a game and while it's neat to be able to ask questions to team executives, my favorite thing about these events always ends up being the social aspect. I enjoy actually talking to people, since I infrequently speak out loud during my average day, and it always helps to either put faces to names I recognize from the comments or Twitter, or learn new faces and new names. For me, it's a welcome change of pace, and it serves as an occasionally-needed reminder that there are still people who are passionate about the Mariners. Sometimes that's easy to forget, or easy to believe isn't possible.
All that stuff is still true, and I enjoyed Saturday's Q&A and mingling, but this time my favorite part was the baseball game. I suspect that goes for everyone in attendance. I couldn't tell you the last time I went to Safeco and came away glad to have watched what I watched. It was a stroke of impossible luck that our event overlapped with Felix Hernandez vs. Yu Darvish, and it was a stroke of even more impossible luck that Felix pitched at the top of his game while Darvish pitched like a pile of crap. We got to watch Darvish walk the world, Felix go the distance, and the Mariners win 7-0. Sure, they lost in a frustrating way Friday night, and they lost in a differently frustrating way today, but Saturday was enough. I'll accept a series loss to the if it means we get a Felix shutout in the middle.
It was this very season - not long ago! - that we weren't entirely sure what to make of Felix. Felix himself said he watched himself on video and couldn't believe how out of sorts he was. Felix is posting the highest strikeout rate of his career, by nearly three percentage points. He's posting the lowest walk rate of his career. He's posting the lowest contact rate of his career. He's got a better FIP and xFIP than Justin Verlander. We'll see where Felix stands come year's end, but where we were afraid of a decline, it's possible that Felix is actually getting better. What a different sort of surprise for us, as Mariners fans.
Felix watched himself on video some time between his starts on June 1 and June 12. Made one or a few mechanical adjustments. Over the seven starts since, Felix has nine walks against 59 strikeouts, and his first start of those seven was the worst. Six starts in a row now, Felix has been statistically overwhelming. He's still allowed his hits on balls in play, but the balls in play have been far less frequent.
I don't know what more there is to say about Felix right now but I went to Safeco Saturday preparing to field questions and listen to answers, and now I barely remember what was talked about. Felix replaced all of those memories with memories of Felix, and I wouldn't mind having even more of my non-Felix memories replaced. I remember Jason Vargas pitching that home opener against theand getting bombed. Felix can replace those memories. I remember my organic chemistry professor doing a weird little shuffle dance in the middle of one of his lectures. Felix can replace that memory. I remember trying to eat a banana that was still green and unripe. I would like to hold on to that memory so I never make that mistake again.
Below, a special surprise!
In the top of the ninth, Felix didn't register a single strikeout. He generated two pop-ups and a broken-bat grounder. Just a different variety of dominant. As Felix was wrapping up, Jon Morosi tweeted that, if the Mariners are smart, they'll deal Felix within the next month. I can't stand Jon Morosi, not even a little bit, and at that instant I wanted to throw him off a ledge. I no longer want to murder a grown man, but those who don't root for this team and root for Felix don't understand what he means. It's not Jon Morosi's fault he doesn't understand. Jon Morosi doesn't understand lots of things.
Man, what else? In terms of actual game action, Darvish struggling against the Mariners is still a thing. He's allowed 17 runs in 16 innings over three starts, with 14 walks and 14 strikeouts. Against everybody else, he's allowed 35 runs in 93 innings, with 43 walks and 107 strikeouts. Matters were such that the Rangers had a long reliever getting warm in the bottom of the first. Darvish ultimately pitched into the seventh but he didn't exactly settle into a groove.
Dustin Ackley drilled a line drive off the base of the fence in center field, which was encouraging to see. John Jaso hit an opposite-field home run beyond the left-center power alley, which I genuinely didn't think was possible. I know that guys like Mike Carp and Adrian Gonzalez are capable of that, but I never suspected I'd see that from Jaso, whose home runs are typically more of the I-didn't-mean-to-do-that variety.
Leaving the Saturday game to the side now, the pre-game was dominated by chatter and Ichiro's batting practice. Ichiro can evidently still put on the same show he's always put on, and he hit at least one dinger into the right-field upper deck. I don't want to sit here and start reading into batting practice, because a year ago Carlos Peguero's batting practices were used as a justification for his playing and I don't want to ever make sense of that, but it's odd that whatever decline there's been in Ichiro's in-game performance doesn't show up in BP. Or maybe it does, because I've now seen one Ichiro BP session in 2012. I'm wondering why I even bothered writing this paragraph.
The Mariners guests on hand answering questions were Jeff Kingston and Tom McNamara. They received and answered the questions you'd expect - questions about the draft, questions about the young position players, and questions about the fences. With the Dustin Ackley//Justin Smoak trio, they were unsurprisingly positive, with McNamara noting a few times that they're struggling for the first time in their careers, and with Kingston noting that Adrian Gonzalez took some time to find himself as a big-leaguer. Of course, Gonzalez struggled for about 300-400 plate appearances while Smoak has struggled for the better part of more than a thousand, but the point wasn't to make a direct comparison between the two players. The point was that it can take some time before things click, and things simply haven't yet clicked.
Kingston did speak to the importance of having a veteran contributor in the lineup to take some of the pressure off the younger guys, and to serve as a role model and as a giver of advice. It's not that the current Mariners don't have veterans, but they shouldn't be giving hitting advice to anyone. It's possible that that's the entire problem.
Smoak: I have a question.
Figgins: Fire away!
Expect the offseason to bring an offensive upgrade. Somehow.
As for the fences, and as for what's been going on at Safeco so far in 2012, Kingston seemed to suggest that there's a lot of random noise in the data, while the vibe I got from McNamara was more that he'd like to see a change. I'm not a professional reader of vibes, though, and the larger point was just that Safeco is and will be under consideration going forward. Kingston remarked that Safeco's always been extreme and that he prefers things more neutral. The Mariners talk about the fences every year, and every year the fences have remained the same. For some reason I feel like this year could really be different, but maybe I'm only hearing what I think I want to be hearing.
I don't have anything to say about Friday's loss or today's loss. They were very Mariners losses that are frustrating in the short-term and that you can get over sooner and sooner. Uhhh...expect Justin Smoak to go down when Mike Carp comes up. That's not based on any inside knowledge, unless Justin Smoak looking pathetic is inside knowledge. Carp just played the field for the first time in his rehab assignment today, so he's not far off. Since June 3, Justin Smoak has hit one home run. It was in Arizona so it barely even counts. Justin Smoak's slump now looks almost identical to his slump from 2011, except this time I can't think of any potential injury excuse. Good times. Today at Safeco was Mariners Kids Cape Day, for all future heroes 14 and under. When they were announcing that promotion at the stadium Saturday night, they said the cape could give kids "the strength of Justin Smoak." Maybe they will be intellectual heroes.