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"Let's go Mariners!"
When Michael Morse came to bat in the bottom of the 13th, the room glued its eyes to the television. The game had been on for hours, not quite in the background, but not in the forefront either. When Morse came up, though, the dynamic changed. The Mariners, with a runner on first and two outs, had their best hitter at the plate and a legitimate chance to win.
"Let's go Mariners!"
On the night the M's played their most exciting game of the year, a deadlocked contest in which Felix Hernandez had pitched his heart out, every Mariner fan badly wanted a win. No, it wouldn't be Felix's win, even though he deserved one. Against one of baseball's best lineups, an order stacked with the likes of Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder, Torii Hunter, Victor Martinez, and Austin Jackson, Felix was nearly perfect. He pitched eight innings. Twelve men struck out. None walked. Even Detroit's lone run was aided by an error. Superlatives are redundant because we've seen Felix this good before. We're not spoiled: we know how special he is. We know how much Felix likes to win, and when we watch games like this, we agonize with him. Even if *he* couldn't get the win, a team victory would at least count as progress.
"Let's go Mariners!"
Say what you will about Morse, his at-bats are a spectacle. His raw power is obvious, and he offers a home run threat unlike anything seen in these parts since Russell Branyan or Richie Sexson. Maybe you have to go even further back than that. Regardless, the crowd was captivated when Morse came to the plate. A cheer rose out of the masses.
"Let's go Mariners!"
Still, Morse can't homer or double every time at-bat, and this just wasn't his night. The energy inside Finn MacCool's may have been palpable, but baseball isn't a momentum game. Morse grounded out to short.
The contest unraveled in the top of the 14th. Martinez singled to center. Matt Tuiasosopo, who pulled the improbable feat of managing to be more annoying as a Tiger than as a Mariner, walked. Jhonny Peralta's attempted sacrifice loaded the bases when Jesus Montero's throw to third arrived a fraction late. From there, the Tigers were only able to score one run, but against another hapless Mariner offense, it loomed large.
"Let's go Mariners!"
The chants weren't constant, of course. A bunch of kids don't stop what they're doing to spend a half hour incessantly cheering a baseball game on television. At the critical junctions, though, cries of "let's go Mariners!" rippled throughout the bar. They were there when Morse was batting, and they picked up again when Dustin Ackley came to the plate with two outs in the 14th. Another round started right before Ackley ripped Joaquin Benoit's 0-2 pitch into right field.
If the gathered game-watchers had been casually viewing before, Ackley's double incited a commotion that forced everyone to look towards the tv. Patrons yelled as the ball bounced against the right field wall and as the camera focused on Smoak, who was plugging around second as fast as his legs could carry him. It panned to Hunter digging the ball out of the corner, and then back to Smoak, now chugging around third, still running as fast his legs could carry him. The crowd yelled as the feed flipped over to Fielder relaying Hunter's throw into catcher Brayan Pena, everyone hollering and fixated on the monitor. The fervor only died down when Pena received the ball and was, for a half second, completely alone on screen. For all of his effort, Smoak was still barreling down the line (as fast his legs could carry him) and he hadn't yet entered the picture. The inevitable collision between him and Pena produced inevitable groans. The Mariners had gone down again.
Extra-inning losses have a way of draining morale. To come so close to a win, particularly on a Felix night where the King was in form, while still losing is crushing. A defeat like this has a way of bringing out all sorts of negatives about this team to the forefront. The young players still aren't hitting. Less than 15,000 people came out to see Felix duel against the defending American League champions. For the first time that I can remember, the King's Court was littered by chunks of empty seats. With the M's sitting at 6-10 and on pace to score fewer than 600 runs, the sentiment surrounding the team indicates that not a whole lot is going right at the moment. It's just hard to feel all that positive about the Mariners right now.
If there is a demographic of the city with a right to feel particularly jilted towards the Mariners or indifferent about baseball, it's the people who don't remember 1995 and those who were too young to properly appreciate the achievements of the 2001 team. Many have worried that the Mariners have lost a generation of young fans with their decade of mediocrity, and have wondered how that might affect the franchise in the long run.
Against this backdrop, the passion permeating throughout the bar was refreshing. Located a block away from the University of Washington, Finn's was filled almost entirely by people under 25-years-old. Seeing a group of young supporters passionately watching an extra-inning Mariners game in the middle of a miserable April makes me think that, eventually, baseball in the city will be exciting again. The Mariners recent performance may have hemorrhaged fans from Safeco Field, but people in town still care about this team. When they get good again, the Mariners will be popular and fun, just like they were in the late 90's and early 2000's.
We'll all just have to wait. Hopefully, it won't be too much longer now.
- I touched on it earlier, but I really can't get over how impressive Felix was last night. He hit 94 on the gun, induced 19 whiffs, and struck Fielder out three times. I just wonder what he's thinking about when he sits in the dugout between innings, watching the Mariners fail to score runs for him start after start. Hopefully, he's not pulling an internal
- It must be said that the Mariners ran into a worthy opponent on the mound tonight. Max Scherzer was brilliant, as he also struck out 12 hitters while coaxing 19 whiffs. He did get to pitch against the Mariners, and he did walk a batter, so he was no Felix Hernandez and oh my god why couldn't the M's have won this game.
- Morse's 6th inning double is the only extra base hit he's had all season that didn't fly over a fence.
- I've always enjoyed home plate collisions as something a little different than most plays in a ballgame. I like the intensity of the play, and as a fan, it's easy to resonate with a player who cares enough about the outcome of the game to be willing to crash into another human at full speed, or to be on the receiving end of such a hit. But as injuries to catchers on these plays have mounted over the last few years, it's been increasingly difficult to hang on to this perspective. I was watching when Buster Posey broke his leg and I was actually in Pittsburgh when Yadier Molina banged his head after a home plate run-in with Josh Harrison. Seeing Pena clutching his shoulder after Smoak crashed into him made me squeamish again, and at this point, I don't think I can endorse the play's legality anymore. There's just too much of a chance for serious injury to warrant the extra bit of excitement that comes from a big collision. It would be a shame if anyone else's career ends on a home plate collision when a simple rule adjustment could legislate the violence out of baseball without markedly compromising the entertainment value of the game.
- Lost in the aftermath of the collision, Ackley's double was scorched. It's one of his hardest hit balls of the season, and between the solid contact and old/new stance, it almost looked like 2011 Dustin Ackley again.
- Eric Wedge's decision to pinch hit Endy Chavez for Brendan Ryan in the 8th inning was poor. If you want to bat for Ryan in that situation, fine, but at least use a player who offers an upgrade at the plate. Chavez and Ryan have nearly identical career wRC+'s, and frankly, Ryan is probably the better hitter at this point, particularly when you factor in the pinch hitting penalty. It's mind boggling that Wedge used what might be his worst bat as a pinch hitter, particularly when he had two distinctly better options available on the bench. Furthermore, using Chavez in that situation meant that the speedy outfielder was unavailable to pinch run later -- can't imagine when that might have been useful -- and that Wedge had to bring his only reserve infielder, Robert Andino, into the game. Andino's fine at short, but Wedge has to be careful in deploying him off the bench. Once Andino is in the game, the skipper can't use someone like Jason Bay or Kelly Shoppach to hit for the shortstop, and that means Wedge needs to be judicious about when he replaces Ryan. In the end, it was a bad move, and it had real ramifications for the rest of the game.