Saunders beats out a tapper, Mariners top Astros 3-1

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

It didn’t have to be that hard. It never does, and yet it seemingly always is against these Astros. It was difficult from the very first pitch, it was difficult when the Mariners failed to score in the middle innings and it was difficult pulling it out late.

That first pitch was something though. I’ve gotten in a routine of running out to the Hit It Here Cafe for a $5 Tecate can right before the game, and didn’t think I was quite going to make it to my third-base side seat for the first pitch. Luckily, I did, and as I sat down and thought for a moment about whether it made more sense to call the Astros leadoff hitter Jose Eckstein or David Altuve, he looped one out—buzzing a soft liner past the manual scoreboard.

Roenis Elias smirked, and likely thought what everyone on-hand and at home thought. "So it’s going to be like that, huh?"

Yes, it was. It was going to be like that.

The Mariners responded quickly, and for a few minutes it looked like Jarred Cosart might pitch like the guy he really is and not the guy the Mariners turn these types into. He walked leadoff hitter James Jones, then looked even more wild to Michael Saunders before fighting back to get a two-strike count. But, that didn’t matter, as Saunders ripped a liner and Jones skipped around to third. Then, Robinson Cano.

While the feeling of having Robbie Cano on the Mariners is starting to settle in, the sight of him stepping into the box in a big spot elicits the same level of "is this even real life?" joy it did the first time. At the very least, he’s getting that runner in from third. He always does. There are few things in my life that are easier for me than getting a runner in from third with less than two outs is for Robinson Cano.

Not remembering to turn the lights off when I leave my apartment. Not leaving enough time that I don’t have to run for the bus. Not remembering to charge my phone before I go someplace. Not writing these recaps in anything resembling a timely fashion.

Sac fly, RBI groundout, something more—it’s like he gets these guys in every single time. And with Cosart struggling there, I was really hoping for the "something more." It wasn’t, just an easy sac fly, and we were left hoping for something more from Kyle Seager and Justin Smoak, but it wasn’t to be.

With Cosarts' early ineffectiveness, you'd have thought the Mariners would be able to string a rally together at some point in the early innings, but no. Between the first and the seventh innings, the Mariners put just a single baserunner in scoring position. That came in the fourth, when Kyle Seager walked and advanced to second on a Justin Smoak groundout before getting caught between second and third, and eventually run down, when Dustin Ackley rolled a grounder to short.

If only things could've been as easy Roenis Elias as they were for Cosart. After that first-pitch home run to Jose Altuve, the Cuban rookie walked Fowler before retiring the next three batters he faced. Elias actually allowed the first two men to reach in each of the first three innings, but allowed only that single run. He was around the 60-pitch mark after just three innings and, in a lot of ways, he pitched like a back-end starter.

In the middle of March, this would feel amazing to say. Now, you almost expect more. You expect more because it's easy to what he's capable of when his stuff is working. For example,

But yes, Elias had to battle. He allowed just that one run over 5.1 innings of work, striking out six and walking four. It wasn't pretty, but it was a fine start for Elias. He isn't right now, but if this guy's your #5 starter, you're in fine shape.

Back to the Mariners' offense, or lack thereof. There was nothing until the seventh—and oh, that seventh. What an adventure that was. Dustin Ackley ripped a single, and then Stefen Romero did the same in a 1-2 count. The Mariners were in business, and Lloyd McClendon called for the bunt with Nick Franklin at the plate and Mike Zunino on deck. That's where things get interesting.

I'm not normally as anti-bunt as some around these parts, especially in these situations where you're looking to put runners on second and third with just one out, but voluntarily putting the Mariners hitter most likely strike out in a position where he absolutely couldn't afford to do so felt ill-advised. Ultimately, the M's didn't need to bunt to get the runners over as a wild pitch accomplished that, but a Nick Franklin walk meant it would indeed be Mike Zunino batting and trying to get a runner in from third with less than two outs. Zunino is no Cano, and he struck out swinging.

Then, tonight's moment of controversy. Bo Porter went to lefty Tony Sipp and, instead of having James Jones stay in to face him, Lloyd McClendon opted for the platoon advantage—and the guy who hadn't seen live pitching since May 12th. Cole Gillespie popped out.

If you were upset then—and oh, I know many people were—you likely were or would be more-so after looking at Sipp's splits. For his career, 1,113 total batters faced, lefties have a .313 wOBA against him and righties are at .311. Oh and more recently? Last year it was a whopping .378 for lefties and .306 for batters facing Tripp with the supposed platoon advantage.

Even without this knowledge, I saw some people on Twitter asking if Lloyd was worse than Eric Wedge. Saying that he was probably a fine leader of men, but had no idea when it came to in-game strategy.

Now, was it bad? Yes. Probably. But do we need to get this upset out time something like this happens? I understand the frustration, I promise I do. Lloyd opted for a righty over the kid who's been scorching hot during the two weeks he's been up. Does it look bad right now? Yep. Is it totally egregious, some damning offense? I don't think so.

Still, again, I understand the frustration. Like they did all night, the Mariners made it harder than they needed to. In this inning, like the entire game, they should've been able to push runs across with ease. But they couldn't, and they were down to Michael Saunders.

After falling down 1-2, a couple near wild pitches put the count full. A walk looked possible, something easy maybe—but of course not.

There wasn't a large crowd on hand at Safeco tonight, but for that 3-2 pitch, everyone was on their feet and at full throat. It was an energy you rarely feel on these weeknight games.

Everyone on hand hung on that one pitch, and it was 93 mph fastball straight across the outer corner. Saunders slashed at it, and tapped a ball to first that pulled Jesus Guzman far away from the bag. It would be a race to first. There, with the crowd roaring, 90 feet stood between Michael Saunders and the game.

The Condor tore down the line like his hair was on fire. Tripp scampered to first, catching a floater from Guzman. Saunders stutter-stepped at the last moment, Tripp stretched out his right foot.

Safe.

It didn't have to be that hard. Not that inning, and not that game. But ballgames ride on moments like these all the time. It's awful when they go against you, and wonderful when you do.

Tonight was baseball at its finest, while concurrently being the opposite. Mariners win. And that was fun.

Alright, bullets quick.

  • In the comments tonight, Goose made a great point on James Jones. Strikeout rates traditionally stabilize the quickest of many peripherals, right around 60 plate appearances actually. After tonight's game, Jones has reached 60 PAs, and he's boasting a nice 13.1 percent K%. That goes along with his 11.5 percent walk rate. When he first came up, I had this vision of an unrefined slap-hitting kid who'd likely strike out a lot and look foolish frequently against major league pitching. 

    I couldn't be more wrong. He always gets good PAs, and puts the bat on the ball when he gets a pitch to hit.

    Oh, and of course, he plays a mean center field. He had a nice catch tonight on a ball that he took a pretty iffy route to, but while phenomenal routes will take a good defensive centerfielder and turn him into a great one, athleticism is so unbelievably important out there. Jones will run down some balls out there, just on speed, and catch the ones he gets to. We may have something.
  • In the bottom of the eighth, with Mike Zunino stepping to the plate and the bases loaded, some idiots in the Siracha section started the wave. I couldn't believe it. I know you can't, today, do this—but if it were up to me, I'd throw those people out. How can you be so oblivious? Zunino was plenty capable of striking out on his own in a situation like that, but given the importance of the at-bat, are you sure you want to encircle the batter with a rolling wave of sound and movement? Just, so stupid.
  • Dominic Leone. Mercy. The rookie entered with one out in the sixth, after Elias walked Chris Carter, and struck out Guzman and L.J. Hoes on a combined seven pitches. He stayed in for the seventh, and though he didn't strike anyone out, he worked around Altuve reaching second after a single and a stolen base. The kid continues to impress, and I'd expect his role to continue to evolve. Probably.
  • I say "probably" because it was Yoervis Medina in to pitch the eighth after the Mariners take the lead. Medina threw one of those innings that has Lloyd continuing to trust him in high leverage situations. Now, I'm not saying it's deserved. Oh no. Just that, every now and then—almost out of nowhere—Medina looks totally unhittable. He struck out the side on 12 pitches and looked filthy doing so.
  • Fernando Rodney worked the ninth for his third 1-2-3 save of the year. Now, that doesn't sound that good, but this is a thing Rodney can do. It feels weird to say, but the potential exists for the bullpen to be a legitimate strength.
  • Nick Franklin went 0-3 with a walk and three strikeouts. He now has 11 strikeouts in 31 major league plate appearances this year. It's far too early to make any judgements, for sure—small sample size and whatnot. Then again, the small sample may matter a little with Nick Franklin. Though it seems less likely now, given Miller's struggles, the Mariners can't really afford for Franklin to struggle for anything resembling an extended period if they want to trade him in 2014. Now, on the positive side, Franklin looked decent at short. Nothing amazing, but reliable. That brings us to a random point...
  • This is a bullet about walkup music. Youv'e been warned.
    • Nick Franklin's 2014 walkup music is Jay Z's On To The Next One. Now, normally I'd say this were nothing. And, actually, it probably is. But this is Nick Franklin. And you have to wonder if there isn't a little message in there.
    • Also going with Jay Z, James Jones uses Brooklyn (Go Hard), a nod to his roots. James Jones is the best, and this just adds to it. Originally a promo single for Blueprint 3, this never made it on the album, unfortunately. It's a good one, and gets lost in the shuffle.
    • Justin Smoak, for the first time in his Mariners career, changed his walkup music. I have no idea what it was before, nor what it is now—but after being conditioned like one of Pavlov's dogs to anticipate disappointment every time that old twangy song came on, it was interesting to hear a new twangy song, one I haven't been conditioned to yet. I'm sure that'll change.
  • Robinson Cano did this:

Tomorrow, it's a Friday night Felix start before the long weekend. That feels pretty damn good.

Go M's.

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