Before the season began, I begged that the would Mariners play a season in which the macro mattered. I didn't want one that forced fans to focus on a few individual moments to be hopeful—a good at-bat, a hot stretch from a prospect or one impressive series. I wanted the standings to matter, I wanted series against division opponents to matter, I wanted it all to matter.
We're just 30 games in, and things may shift once again—but holy hell—this is fun right now.
The macro hung over everything today. The way things have lined up, it all fit so perfectly. The Mariners were one of the hottest teams in baseball coming into this series, four games out of first place with four games to play against the first-place team. I didn't want to think about it Sunday night because I didn't think it made any sense to do so. But still, I saw some mentions of a sweep flutter down the #Mariners Tweetdeck search column.
As delusionally optimistic as I pride myself on being, I wasn't willing to go there. Not last night, and not tonight—mostly. But even if I wasn't thinking of nabbing of first place—at least, as much as I could—I was thinking of the standings all the way through. These games in May count the same as the ones in September, and winning the meaningful ones against division opponents now goes a long way towards playing big games in the season's final month.
As a quick aside, or extended intro to this next topic, the NBA's Golden State Warriors fired their coach today. They actually play right next to O.Co Coliseum. That's enough of a connection for this. Anyway, their coach was Mark Jackson, who went directly from broadcasting games to coaching them, without any experience with the latter whatsoever.
He had various catchphrases as a broadcaster. You may be familiar with the popular "hand down, man down," which has no application here. But he also frequently used "that's a grown man move!" in describing big plays in the post, or a guard powering past his opponent. It was probably this old-school bravado-over-everything philosophy that led to him clashing with everyone and getting fired.
But to relate, this was a grown man win for the Mariners. Or a grown woman win, if that's appropriate. If we want to envision a world in which the Mariners truly are contenders, this is how that team wins games.
The Mariners had Roenis Elias going, their second-best starter through this early point in the season, but the Athletics had their own surprise stud going in Jesse Chavez. Both of these kids had potential, yes, but both were long overdue for a bit of regression. And it was regression they found.
From the very beginning, it was clear Chavez didn't have his best stuff. The same was true for Roenis Elias too, and we'll get to that in a moment. The Mariners got lucky in the first inning yesterday, knocking a couple balls around the infield. That wasn't the case today. They ripped a couple hard ground balls through holes, and were a Craig Gentry catch at the wall away from things getting really ugly.
As it stood, they brought three runs in. After getting two on with one out—Robinson Cano and James Jones with those hits—a wild pitch scored one, and a Justin Smoak double scored another. Now, actually as I write about it, that sounds like luck. But you know what wasn't? This piece of hitting by Dustin Ackley. He has a long ways to go before my early-season optimism returns, but this is a fine piece of hitting on a breaking ball.
Though Roenis Elias was staked to that 3-0 lead early, it was easy to see quickly that margin may not be enough. Hell, I wondered if it'd be enough to exit the first inning with a lead after seeing Elias' curveball. Actually, I don't even know if what I was seeing was his curveball. It had the same velocity, but no break at all as it went up—and just hung there. The Athletics hit a lot of balls hard that first inning, and Elias was lucky to escape having only surrendered one hit.
It was apparent then that this was going to be a battle—and one that may depend heavily on luck. It was true early, and it was even more true when two Athletics runs came in on a Nick Punto single the next inning. It felt effectively tied—that one big play would swing the game—despite the fact that it never would be again after 0-0.
But Roenis Elias did more than battle, he adjusted. Yes, he did yield a home run to fellow Cuban Yoenis Cespedes late, but in those middle innings, he was dominant. First he found his curveball, and then he started spotting it when the A's wouldn't chase. For a battery with a combined half-season of experience, this adjustment was impressive to see.
Speaking of that battery, Mike Zunino had a big-at bat in the fifth, battling back from an 0-2 count to get a sac fly and an insurance run for the Mariners. As previously mentioned, Cespedes would homer, and the score was 4-3 when the Mariners turned to their bullpen with one out in the seventh. Specifically, they turned to Dominic Leone and Charlie Furbush.
There's been much discourse about the proper arrangement of the Mariners' bullpen, and there was through this one, but realistically you couldn't have imagined things going much better. Leone had a mental lapse on what should've been an inning-ending double play ball in the seventh, but executed his pitches and got a ground ball from Josh Donaldson with two men on to end the frame.
Leone took the Mariners all the two outs in the eighth, exiting with with men on first and second after a walk and a single—and Mariners-killer Brandon Moss at the dish. That's when McClendon went to Charlier Furbush. So much for easing him back in and avoiding high-leverage situations, huh?
The Bush sat Moss down on three pitches. And from that first frisbee slider nailing the inner-black, it looked like Charlie might be back. We'll have to wait and see, but he looked damn good.
Then, after the Mariners put men on second and third in the top of the ninth, it looked like they might not score at all. A Brad Miller walk and Michael Saunders bunt that was terribly misplayed eventually gave way to a James Jones strikeout and a free pass for Robinson Cano. When Corey Hart knocked a grounder to short with one out and the bases loaded, it looked like a double play would end the inning and the M's would be leaving Fernando Rodney to guard a one-run lead.
Corey Hart, fresh off two of the knee surgeries that doomed Greg Oden's career, hustled down the line and beat the throw. One run. Then Justin Smoak muscled a broken-bast single into center. Two more runs. Then Kyle Seager doubled into the left-field gap. One more run.
In total: four runs for the Mariners, an 8-3 lead, a meaningless ninth-inning for Tom Wilhelmsen—and another game in the standings.
It's Felix Hernandez and Erasmo Ramirez tomorrow. The Mariners are one of the best starters in the game and a coin flip from first place.
Let's do some bullets.
- I haven't been more impressed with Roenis Elias than I am tonight. This wasn't near the start he had in Yankee Stadium, certainly, but he showed me just as much. He went from having no feel for his go-to pitch at all, to finding it and having A's batters refuse chase it like the Yankees did—to adjusting and spotting it for strikes. Elias' last out, a called strikeout of Brandon Moss, captured it perfectly.
Normally when narratives are frequently used, the term "forced" is eventually added. Roenis Elias' ability to overcome adversity and persevere may one day fit in that category. But it isn't there now. The dude doesn't waver. He's fought like hell to get here, and he's going to make damn sure he capitalizes on it.
Mike Zunino is not infallible. The first two Athletics runs—or at least the second one—scored in large part because Zunino let a buried Elias fastball go five hole. He's had a couple catchable wild pitches and passed balls lead to runs this year. He's great on defense, one of the best in the game, no question. But these things still happen, and it'd be great if they didn't.
Also, there's more to Mike Zunino, the catcher, than just the visible defense. You've probably noticed the constant communication with pitchers, particularly through body language. In facing Yoenis Cespedes leading off the eighth inning, Dominic Leone missed just barely low and away with a 1-1 fastball. Zunino gestured positively, that Leone had just missed his spot, but that's what Z was looking for. He was coaching Dom through it. After getting a foul to get to 2-2, Zunino went right back to the spot Leone barely missed before, and this time he drilled it for a called punchout. Zunino added a little framing, and they retired Cespedes to lead off the inning.
Also, on offense, and that sac fly. I don't know if it was guessing or not, it probably was. But Zunino laying off an 0-2 slider in a situation where the Mariners could not afford a strikeout was unbelievably impressive. He's seeing the ball better and working counts.
The phrase "he was acting out of self defense there!" is frequently used on hard come-backers to the pitcher. And it's not always the case. But Jesse Chavez really almost got killed, and threw his glove in front of his face in an attempt to stop it. The ball was headed for his jaw at more than a hundred miles an hour, and it hit his glove. It was unreal, and incredibly fortunate.
Last night, the Mariners ran into two outs in a single inning. It was stupid at the time, particularly Zunino making the last out at third by about ten feet. It made one wonder if it's worth being aggressive on base paths. Tonight was the other side of the coin. The Mariners kept forcing the Athletics—particularly their outfielders—to make plays, and they didn't. At one point, while Dave Sims and Mike Blowers were going in on Mariano Rivera, Robinson Cano tagged from first and got to second on a deep ball to Coco Crisp. That was pretty great.
I mentioned before the game, with regards to griping over lineup order, that sequencing is likely more important than putting certain guys higher up. I said it was sometimes good to have a guy like Stefan Romero in the #2 slot because "it broke up the lefties and limited the potential for an opponent to bring in a murderous lefty and wipe out an inning's worth of batters." The Mariners had four lefties in a row in their order tonight. Sean Doolittle needed 15 pitches to strike them out in order.
I'm not advocating batting Romero against righties, no. But in an ideal world, one where players' psyches aren't damaged by these types of things, Mike Zunino bats ninth and Dustin Ackley bats second—so that if you do need to bring in a righty to face a lefty reliever (or get him out of the game), you're not sacrificing defense to do so, which would've been the case had the Mariners pinch hit for James Jones in a big spot late.
Speaking of James Jones, the kid's fun. He's not Abraham Almonte. Not just in that he seems better either. They're both speedy center fielders, yes, but the offense is pretty different. Almonte would work a count and then swing through the pitches he worked hard to see. Jones is just going up there hacking, and based on those two hard hits today (I know, I know), he puts a good swing on the ball.
James Jones is here, he's your new center fielder, and he doesn't want to ever carry his own bags again.
Charlie Furbush was unbelievably impressive. Lloyd said before the game (maybe last night) that if this team's going to go places, they need Furbush to contribute. I don't know if Charlie was dropped into a huge spot tonight because Lloyd knew something about how his stuff would work against Moss, or if it was done with an eye towards building Furbush's confidence for later—but if it was the latter, it could go a long way towards that goal. And I fully acknowledge how insane intentionally doing that might be, all while not ruling it out completely.
Well, that's about enough. The Mariners are playing for first place tomorrow and that feels really damn great.
Happy Felix Day, all.