Jesus Montero, and Jeff Datz's butt
Leading up to this game, I made a few jokes about how it would be practically unwinnable. Except they were only kind of jokes and kind of not. Obviously, as we've talked about, the starting pitcher matchup means only a fraction of the pie. There's a lot more that comes into play, and on an individual-game basis there's no sense at all in trying to make a prediction. But there's this thing about Jered Weaver at home. When Jered Weaver has pitched in Anaheim, he's been maybe the most effective pitcher in baseball. If the Mariners are facing the Angels, they're already at a disadvantage on account of the position players. Put Jered Weaver on the mound half the time and the Mariners might be best off assuming a loss and going from there. Sure, that's defeatist, but it's also reasonable, and there's that expression: "make the best of things."
As a major leaguer, Weaver has averaged 2.8 runs allowed at home per nine innings. Weaver is a better major leaguer now than he used to be early on. Coming into today, Weaver had started 40 games at home since 2010. He'd allowed 62 runs. 15 dingers. Since 2010, 179 starters have pitched at least 100 innings in their home ballpark. Weaver ranks number one in ERA, at 1.66. He ranks number one in wOBA allowed, at .235. Next-best is Justin Verlander, at .245. Chone Figgins' wOBA this season before today was .237. Since 2010, when pitching at home, Jered Weaver has reduced opponents to the level of 2012 Chone Figgins.
There was every reason to expect the Mariners to get shut down this afternoon. As good as Weaver has been at home, he's been even better at home during the day, when hitters say he hides the ball in the glare off the rockpile. This had shutout written all over it, and the Mariners' lone sensible hope was that Jason Vargas could match zeroes until this turned into a battle of the bullpens. The Mariners probably have a better bullpen than the Angels, and if they could just hand over a tie, things might not be so dreary.
The Mariners beat Jered Weaver and the Angels, and they didn't have to wait to get into the bullpen to do it. They didn't crush Weaver, but they hit him enough, where by "they" I mean "Jesus Montero." And Jason Vargas was outstanding. Literally, he was standing out there by himself on the mound for like a lot of the time. Jason Vargas was outstanding in multiple ways, and so for the third day in a row, we're given a reminder that, yup, no game is unwinnable, and there's a lot more to the story than the starting pitchers. Play this game over a hundred times and the Angels win a bunch of them, but games get played once, and sometimes in games Jason Vargas and the defeat Jered Weaver and the without even having to break a late sweat.
Consider the impact of this series, what with the Angels trying to hang in the race. The Mariners came to town for three games and in the first one they threw Felix Hernandez. It doesn't get much better than Felix Hernandez, and we identified that game as the one that the Mariners might win. When the Mariners lost on Friday, I was ready to concede a sweep. When the Mariners lost on Friday, Angels fans probably got it in their heads that they could sweep. They'd conquered the difficult challenge. They'd climbed the steep slope of loose talus. What was left was mere scrambling to the summit. The hard part was over, and the Angels were in position to use this series like a pennant-race turbo boost.
A pitcher nobody really knows anything about shut down the Angels last night, and the Mariners beat Dan Haren. A pitcher nobody really thinks of as anything more than a regular pitcher shut down the Angels this afternoon, and the Mariners beat Jered Weaver. It sucks that the Mariners were a Felix away from a road sweep of a contending team, but this is a lot worse for the other side. Not only did the Angels lose more games than they won; the sequencing left them with an extra bitter taste in their mouths. The memory of Friday night is a distant one indeed, and little consolation. This was just the fourth time the Angels have lost this season in a Weaver start. It was the first time they lost a Weaver start since May 13. Those other three losses were all on the road.
For the Mariners, this was not a particularly successful road trip. Felix kept them from a sweep in New York, and nothing kept them from a sweep in Baltimore. Before yesterday the Mariners had lost five in a row. But, psychologically, it's about how you finish, and this weekend went beyond my wildest expectations. I do not have very wild expectations as far as baseball is concerned. Why would I? I would only be disappointed like all of the time.
This game was about Jason Vargas and Jesus Montero. There were other players, but they occupied supporting roles. Their purpose was to do whatever they did to allow Vargas and Montero to do what they did. Tom Wilhelmsen recorded a save, but no one's going to remember that. John Jaso reached base another three times, but no one's going to remember that. Chone Figgins ripped a triple, and people will remember that, but not because the Mariners wound up needing it; more because we remember every Chone Figgins extra-base hit. Literally. Every one of them. Look up a Chone Figgins extra-base hit in a Mariner uniform. You will remember it, the way you remember the best jokes from a stand-up comedy act. Those extra-base hits are associated with wide shit-eating smiles.
Vargas didn't dominate the Angels doing anything other than what Jason Vargas usually does when he dominates. I guess he did throw an unusually high number of strikes. He tends to be more of a nibbler, but this afternoon he was aggressive, perhaps because it was so hot out and sweet Jesus heat is just the worst. It will not surprise you to learn that Vargas' best weapon was his changeup. He threw 29 of 39 for strikes, and ten of 25 swings whiffed clean. Vargas finished with a walk and five strikeouts, and he was two outs from a complete game. The other lineup only had one Vernon Wells in it. Mike Trout finished hitless. Albert Pujols finished hitless.
The showdown I'll remember the most came in the bottom of the eighth. At that point the Mariners were ahead 3-1, but after Vargas retired Trout, he allowed a one-out single to Torii Hunter. That brought Albert Pujols to the plate as the tying run, and Pujols, of course, is a righty, and he's Albert Pujols. A storm was brewing and my brain fled to the basement. The basement would be the first part of the house to get flooded but my brain isn't so good at crisis management.
I don't remember this showdown so much because Vargas was awesome. Rather, I think Vargas survived. Pujols bailed him out. Vargas missed down and away with a first-pitch fastball. He missed away just off the plate with a changeup. Not wanting to groove a pitch, Vargas missed well outside with a fastball. Suddenly the count was 3-and-0 and Mark Trumbo was swinging on deck. If you believe there's magic in Anaheim come the late innings, you believed that, for Jason Vargas, the game was already as good as lost.
Vargas' fourth pitch was a fastball outside off the plate. Pujols fouled it off. Vargas' fifth pitch was a fastball in the same location. Pujols grounded it past the mound up the middle for an inning-ending double play. It was a sparkling double play started by Kyle Seager, who'd had to move over to second base earlier in the game, and against a different infield maybe Pujols ends up with a single or at least a fielder's choice, but Pujols gave Vargas and the Mariners exactly what they needed the very most in that situation. And there was no reason for Pujols to swing.
I'm not going to pretend to know what compelled Albert Pujols to do Jason Vargas a couple of favors. Maybe Pujols is pressing right now. Maybe Vargas did a wonderful job of disguising his pitches. But one of my preferred measures of a guy's plate discipline comes from examining the pitches he goes after in hitter-friendly counts. Albert Pujols chased a ball ahead 3-and-0. Albert Pujols chased a ball ahead 3-and-1. It was a critical spot for him and his over-aggressiveness resulted in a rally-killing grounder. That was the game-defining moment for a starting pitcher who didn't need the hitters to bail him out for much of the rest of the afternoon.
Meanwhile, at the plate, it was all about Montero. Remember that Jesus Montero has been billed as a top prospect for years. Remember that he's always had questions about his ability to stick behind the plate. Remember that he's been billed as a top prospect anyway. Scouts have said he has 80 power. Nobody has ever doubted his ability to hit. Montero's position wasn't the reason he was so highly regarded. If he could hit and catch, terrific, but if he couldn't catch, he could still hit. Montero was to become an offensive powerhouse, and that's the guy the Mariners traded for.
Montero was and is supposed to blossom into the kind of hitter who can take over a baseball game. If that sounds like a weird thing, it's because the Mariners haven't had a guy like that for years. The Mariners have had pitchers who could take control, sure, and they've had a home ballpark that could take control, but the Mariners haven't had a hitter like the hitter Jesus Montero is supposed to be before long.
Jesus Montero took over this baseball game. Not completely - there was the Vargas - but Montero gave Vargas everything he needed, even though Montero was facing perhaps the very most difficult of circumstances. He was hitting against a right-handed Jered Weaver on the road during the day. This was going to be one of those games where Montero finishes 0-for-4 with two strikeouts and two groundouts. He finished 2-for-4 with two dingers and a would-be double to the gap that Mike Trout ran down because Mike Trout only wants there to ever be one exciting young position player in baseball.
In the second inning, in a 1-and-1 count, Weaver missed just a little in and just a little up with a fastball that Montero drove out just beyond the fence and just beyond a leaping Trout. Home runs like that in Anaheim are going to be strange because they'll give the fans a chance to watch Trout maybe bring a homer back. Home runs like that are going to be more exciting than they are for most fans of other teams. That was the only hit the Mariners had until there were two outs in the top of the sixth. To that point, Weaver was doing more or less what he was expected to do. Montero had just tagged him, one time, and maybe it was a fluke.
John Jaso singled after falling behind 0-and-2 because John Jaso is the world's most perfect batsman. Up came Montero, and he wound up in another 1-and-1 count. This time Weaver attacked with a changeup that again missed just a little in and just a little up. I'd hardly even consider it a missed location given that you can't expect a starting pitcher to hit the glove dead-on every time. A good pitcher should be able to locate within a certain tight circle and I think the changeup was just within Weaver's circle.
Montero was ahead of it, but not so much that he missed it or pulled it foul. Instead, he was as ahead of it as Jose Lopez was ahead of all of his home runs. Montero launched the pitch for a two-run homer down the line, and just like that the Mariners had mounted a successful two-out rally against Jered Weaver, and just like that Montero had his first multi-homer game with Seattle. It wasn't a moonshot or anything of the sort, but one needn't be greedy. Jesus Montero faced Jered Weaver three times and slugged two home runs. Where Montero had previously beaten up on a lot of shit wearing jerseys, today he beat up on one of the very best pitchers in baseball.
And then in the ninth he killed a ball to the right side of center off Ernesto Frieri. It doesn't matter that Trout ran it down; what matters is that once again, Montero made extra-base contact against a tough right-handed pitcher. Before today, Montero had batted .302 in his previous 11 games while slugging .302. Montero isn't supposed to hit for average. He's supposed to hit for power, and today he showed it. Whether this is a sign of progress can only be known well after the fact, but now we've seen Montero take a game over. It's easy to believe he's getting better, and we've been given a glimpse of what he could turn into. That slugger you think the Mariners have been missing for years might well already be in the system. He might just need more time. Less time than he needed as of this morning.
These are weird times. As some players take possible steps forward, others take possible steps back. We're still waiting on Dustin Ackley. Michael Saunders is looking less and less like New Michael Saunders, and more and more like Michael Saunders. More like the guy we nearly forgot about. I'm concerned about plenty of young Mariners, as are you, because there's justifiable reason for plenty of concern. But right now I feel like I get to choose how I feel, and right now the Mariners are coming off a win over Jered Weaver in which Jesus Montero twice went yard. This is the kind of game the Mariners want to be able to win, and today they won it, so I'll leave the negativity for another day. God knows there'll be plenty of days.