Mariners Rub Shoulders With League's Elite In Land Of Positive Run Differential

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The Seattle Mariners had been looking in through the window since June 5. On June 5, the Mariners lost in Anaheim by five runs, and they were escorted by security out of the ballroom, through the front door, and into the yard. They were escorted no further, but they heard the door lock behind them, just as they heard the clinking of glasses and the din of laughter from within. The Mariners had mingled with the best of the best, but suddenly they were no longer welcome. They could only stare longingly at all of the fun teams having fun, having fun without them, having fun without missing them.

In time the Mariners stopped feeling sorry for themselves and set about earning re-entry. They didn't know if re-entry was possible, or if it was even allowed, but there was only one way to find out, and they eventually found out. On the night of July 31, the Mariners heard the door unlock. The door swung open, and there was security, ushering the Mariners in. As they looked at each other and approached, they were handed silver necklaces bearing "+1" medallions. The Mariners put them on, and proceeded cautiously and then confidently back into the ballroom.

There, in a corner, pouring punch, were the Cardinals. +99. On the dance floor were the +74 Nationals and the +37 Red Sox. The +77 Yankees hung back, nodding their heads to the music. The +7 Tigers and +6 Giants stood meekly against the wall. The +40 Diamondbacks approached and welcomed the Mariners to the party, unaware that they had been in before. "We're all the same in here," they said. "We're all haves. There are haves, and there are have-nots." They gestured to a distant window. A group of necklace-less Cubs outside scattered and hid in the bushes.

The Mariners lit up. "Really, the same? We're all just peers, one no better or worse than the next?"

The Diamondbacks eyed the Mariners' necklaces and laughed. "No, of course not, we were pulling your leg, haha." They didn't stop laughing for several minutes. "Haha, haha." At last, they composed themselves. "We shouldn't even be talking to you, honestly. But you're in the way of the drinks."

The Mariners stepped aside to give the Diamondbacks room. "But, hey, you know, +1? That's not bad. That's not bad. Congrats on not being super shitty." With that the Diamondbacks advanced to the open bar, and the Mariners tried to catch the Giants' eyes, while the Giants tried not to let them.

***

Truth be told, I had forgotten that the Mariners were in positive run differential territory as recently as the beginning of June. I guess that's not that recent - that's practically two months ago. Now we're four months into the 2012 season, and the Mariners have outscored their opponents. They've outscored their opponents by one run, literally just one run, and a loss tomorrow knocks them down to even at best, but it's hard not to feel encouraged. The whole point is to outscore the other team, right? The Mariners have been right there with the other teams, after 106 games. 106 games isn't 162 games, but it isn't 30 or 40 games.

Now, okay, maybe that's misleading. The Mariners have one more run scored than their opponents, but they have an 86 OPS+ and a 100 ERA+. You'd expect a team with an even run differential to have its OPS+ and its ERA+ add up to about 200. The Mariners aren't there. The Mariners might not "deserve" their run differential. But this isn't really about the run differential - it's about having reasons to feel okay about things, and the Mariners are providing those reasons. Of course things feel pretty good now with the Mariners riding a six-game winning streak. It's impossible to feel negative or cynical during an extended winning streak. The Mariners have plenty of questions left to answer. But it was a good July, and it was a fine second half of June. Over a month and a half, the Mariners have gone 22-18, at +21.

Chone Figgins isn't in there anymore, underproducing. Ichiro isn't in there anymore, underproducing. Hector Noesi isn't in there anymore, underproducing. Justin Smoak is working his shit out somewhere else. Miguel Olivo is playing less often. I'm getting caught up, and I know I'm getting caught up, and it's dangerous to get caught up, but Jack Zduriencik warned us that this would be a streaky team. We're allowed to savor the hot streaks, and we're allowed to imagine that they bode well, even if in truth they don't bode anything at all. A winning team is simply a fun team to watch, and for the moment the Mariners are a winning team. Maybe that ends tomorrow, but it didn't end tonight.

***

Imagine that you were a fan of the Blue Jays in attendance at Safeco. Maybe you don't have to imagine - maybe you were exactly that. Safeco draws an awful lot of Blue Jays fans. When the Blue Jays are in town, I mean, not just regularly for no reason, because that wouldn't make any sense. If you're like most of those Blue Jays fans, you would've been a little cocky, and it's not like there wouldn't be reason for that - the Jays are still thinking about the Wild Card, and the Mariners are in last place. They Jays aren't actually that much better than the Mariners, especially without Jose Bautista and J.P. Arencibia and the entire original pitching staff, but cockiness isn't always rational, and Jays fans would've expected to win this game. Even with Aaron Laffey taking the mound. How much worse could Aaron Laffey be than Jason Vargas, really?

Jays fans who showed up on time were in their seats to see Vargas strike out Brett Lawrie in the top of the first. Then they saw Vargas strike out Colby Rasmus, then they saw Vargas strike out Edwin Encarnacion. On 14 pitches in the top of the first inning, Jason Vargas struck out the side. Vargas is a fine pitcher, but he's not a strikeout pitcher, so for Toronto that was an inauspicious beginning.

Then Laffey warmed up and prepared to face a left-handed Dustin Ackley to lead off the bottom half. Laffey looked in for his sign, nodded, and threw a first-pitch high fastball. Dustin Ackley turned on it, and Dustin Ackley drilled it for a homer. An emphatic, line-drive homer, even if not a particularly deep homer. Dustin Ackley rounded the bases.

In the Jays' half of the first inning, they all struck out on 14 pitches against a soft-tossing lefty. In the Mariners' half of the first inning, it took one pitch and a matter of seconds for the Mariners to assume the lead. This game couldn't have begun any worse for the Blue Jays, meaning it couldn't have begun any worse for the Blue Jays fans in attendance. Given their customary boisterousness, it's fun when the Mariners can make them shut up. There's no real kind of rivalry between the Mariners and the Blue Jays, nor should there be, but whenever a visiting fan base swarms over your stadium and makes more than its fair share of noise, of course you want them to be disappointed. You want them to be disappointed and quiet and embarrassed. We're all more territorial than we'd admit to.

After 14 pitches and one pitch, the Mariners had the lead, and the Mariners wouldn't give it up. 1-0 turned into 4-0, which turned into 4-2, which turned into 7-2. Brett Lawrie ripped a two-run double for the Blue Jays to get them back in the game, which was neat for them. There was nothing else that they could do, and two runs weren't enough for Aaron Laffey as a starting pitcher. I write that as if I haven't seen equivalent or worse pitchers shut down the Seattle Mariners at Safeco Field, but these days I'm feeling bold, dammit. These Mariners weren't going to be controlled by Aaron Laffey, even if tomorrow's Mariners might get controlled by Carlos Villanueva.

This was an odd sort of game for the Mariners offensively. Ackley drilled the leadoff home run, but he was hitless in his remaining four at-bats. Brendan Ryan led the way with three hits, and Kyle Seager, Miguel Olivo, and Trayvon Robinson each had two hits. It's less promising when it's guys like Ryan and Olivo who are hitting, and Robinson almost certainly isn't a legitimate big-leaguer hot start or not, but it's not like every game can have the "right" guys doing the damage. Besides, Ackley homered. Seager reached three times. Carp reached twice. Casper Wells and Michael Saunders still have good enough numbers that they can afford an o'fer.

Ryan's third hit was a broken-bat blooper, and his second hit was a groundball single with eyes, but Ryan's average now stands at .205. His OPS now stands at .592. The last time his average began with a 2 was April 21. The last time his OPS was this close to .600 was April 26. Mike Blowers was right when he said that Ryan deserved that bloop single; that's what it looks like when luck evens out, and Ryan's luck is evening out. As he continues to hit like himself, and play defense like himself, then by the end of the season everybody should remember how valuable he really is.

As far as Trayvon Robinson is concerned, at one point Dave Sims asked Mike Blowers if he's seeing anything different compared to 2011, and Blowers gave the correct answer, which was basically "I don't know yet." Robinson has barely played since coming up. Blowers and all of us would need to see a lot more of him before we could pinpoint any changes. It was weird since Blowers is the guy who usually reads off a pitcher's ERA even if he's thrown less than ten innings, but then I don't know how you're supposed to talk about a pitcher who's barely pitched. You know what's spectacularly hard to do? Call a full baseball game.

The stuff that could be said about Jason Vargas' outing is stuff that doesn't need to be said about Jason Vargas' outing. He was effective in all the ways he's usually effective. He didn't allow a home run, making this his third consecutive start of doing that, and now his earlier dinger problems seem like a thing of the past. Or, as long as we're being honest, a fluke. There's a reason analysts usually aren't too concerned with an elevated homer rate. Sometimes they're problematic, but other times they're just flukes, especially with proven guys like Vargas. Home runs tend to be hit on bad pitches, but not all bad pitches are hit for home runs. Sometimes more of them are than other times. Every game features plenty of bad pitches. Vargas had a home-run problem for a time, but only according to results-based analysis.

Shawn Kelley pitched the eighth, and Josh Kinney pitched the ninth. So we didn't see Stephen Pryor or Carter Capps, but we did see Kinney strike out the side. Yunel Escobar struck out swinging at a breaking ball, Kelly Johnson struck out swinging at a breaking ball, and Rajai Davis struck out swinging at a breaking ball. Josh Kinney was one of my favorite members of the spring-training bullpen pile, and I'm happy to see him pitching well in this limited opportunity, if only so that he can go on to have a major-league career somewhere. He's 33, but he's got a slider, and a 33-year-old with a slider is employable.

Tomorrow the Mariners go for win number 50 with Blake Beavan. Last year win number 50 came on August 10, in game number 116. This year's Mariners could wait until game number 116 to get win number 50 if they wanted to but I would prefer they not do that.

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