For the longest time, this one had all the feel of that Mark Buehrle game. The Mariners were getting an excellent pitching performance, but couldn't do anything at the plate, allowing a slim deficit to hold up into the later innings. Thankfully, a seventh-inning rally and some general Ichiro-related awesomeness kept Meche from becoming another hard-luck loser.
So, on to the chart!
It's remarkable that a solo homer in the fourth inning could reduce the Mariners' chances of winning to about one in four. Things stayed about the same until the seventh, when Winn's run-scoring fielder's choice just about evened it up. Then, one inning later, Ichiro's homer improved the team's chances from "coin flip" to "pretty likely." A big strikeout by Ron Villone and an insurance homer by Richie Sexson just about slammed the door shut on the Rangers.
This game - or, specifically, the last two innings of this game - provides a perfect example of why using your best reliever as a closer, instead of a fireman, is a bad idea. In retiring the side with a three-run lead in the ninth, Eddie Guardado contributed about 7% of the winning effort. Ron Villone, on the other hand, contributed more than 20% by striking out one batter in the eighth inning. In other words, Villone's appearance was roughly three times as important as Guardado's, even though he only pitched to one hitter. Now, I'm not saying that Eddie's the more dependable reliever right now, and Villone was probably the best guy to go to for that Blalock at bat. The point is that, as a general rule, important situations in the seventh and eighth innings are often more critical to the team's chances of winning than inheriting a lead to start the ninth. Is it really that wise to call on your second- or third-best reliever to handle those high-leverage at bats? No, it really isn't.
A parallel: Lefties are hitting about as well against Villone this year as Greg Dobbs is hitting against anyone. I really don't like limiting the guy to a LOOGY role, but at least for the first three weeks of the season, he's come up pretty big.
Calculating the individual Win Probabilities Added, I ran into a dilemma - should I really penalize Boone for his second inning bomb that Richard Hidalgo appeared to steal from above the fence? I decided to go ahead and count it as I would any other out, but I feel pretty bad about that, because it's hard to blame Boone for what happened. Of course, his gaffe in the fifth made it easier to swallow. If someone hits a weak pop-up, the smart thing to do is, you know, go after that pop-up. Don't let it drop in front of you, because that risks both a short-hop and a funny bounce. Boone got the latter, and was (properly) charged with an error. This guy's won three consecutive Gold Gloves.
Ichiro's homer in the eighth inning, which improved the team's chances of winning by 30%, was almost as important as Meche's entire performance (33.3%). Which isn't to take anything away from Gil; rather, it just serves to point out Ichiro's spectacular sense of timing. Watching him last night, you could really tell that he was going with a different approach, as he pulled three scorching liners into the outfield (including the home run). He did the same thing in the ninth inning on Wednesday. As it turns out, Ichiro really was trying to hit one out - he said as much after the game. You hear all the time that "Ichiro can hit for power if he wants to," but it's one of those things you have to see to believe.
Look at the bottom of the order for a second - Dan Wilson and Wilson Valdez, combined, did almost as much harm to the team's chances of winning as Ichiro helped. It really illuminates just how bad this bench currently is. With runners on second and third and two outs in the seventh inning of a tie game, Dan Wilson was sent up to hit against Chris Young, and he promptly popped out. Later, with men on the corners in the ninth inning of a 3-1 game, Wilson was sent up to hit again (he struck out, but a run scored on a wild pitch). It didn't hurt us in this particular game, but over a full season, those kinds of situations are going to come back to bite the team in the ass if nothing's done about it. Dave Hansen can't show up fast enough.
You know, sooner or later Wilson Valdez's bunts are going to lose the element of surprise, and teams will play their infields in until Valdez shows that he can beat them with the bat. Which he can't. Which is bad.
One of the things a hitter is supposed to do is let the guy on deck know what the pitcher throws and how it moves, so that he can be better prepared for his at bat. With the way Ichiro goes after pitches early in the count, Jeremy Reed must get pretty pissed off sometimes.
We have a new problem pitch to go along with the low-and-away slider for Adrian Beltre: high fastballs. His fourth inning at bat was one of the worst I've seen this season.
So, Gil Meche. If we worked for the Ricoh Scouting Report department, we'd say that he kept the ball down and avoided the big inning. Which, of course, he did, but that's pretty much guaranteed to be the case any time a guy has a good start, which is what makes the scouting reports so friggin' worthless. The key to his game last night was getting the ball on the ground - his GB/FB ratio of 1.5 was a welcome sight, and of particular importance given how the ball carries out of that stadium. Even the ball that Hank Blalock destroyed - and I mean destroyed - looked like a low changeup that just caught too much of the plate.
Not only was Meche staying in the lower half of the zone, but he was also pitching a lot of guys away. The result is that batters, usually pull-oriented, hit the ball with the end of the bat instead of the sweet spot, making things a lot easier on the defense. It created the illusion that Meche was tossing "heavy" pitches that didn't carry very far, which is key when trying to limit home runs and induce ground balls. The only time Gil really ran into trouble was in the third/fourth innings, when he started leaving the ball up and six of seven Rangers hit fly balls (the other, Soriano, struck out), three of which were struck pretty well. The good news is that Meche limited the damage to a solo homer, and he settled back into his groove before too long.
Ameriquest Field pipes in some strange music. At one point, David Dellucci came to the plate accompanied by some dark, haunting melody that gave me nightmares, and pretty much any event that's good for the Rangers is followed by the FOX baseball theme blasting over the PA system. Lots of "Hell's Bells," too, which only works for Trevor Hoffman.
You wonder if Ryan Franklin was shooting glances at Gil Meche during the game, as if to say "you see how I feel?" For six innings, Chris Young dominated the lineup, pitching hard inside to set up for an outside fastball that nobody could hit. It's one thing to be consistently behind Rich Harden's heater; it's another to take a bunch of weak hacks when a guy is working in the low-90s. It seemed like only Ichiro had the bat speed to pull a ball pretty hard. I'm a little worried about what the Oakland bullpen might do to these hitters over the weekend.
Chris Young pitching to Richie Sexson might be the tallest at bat in baseball history.
Speaking of Sexson, I think we've found a spark - immediately before he goes up to the plate, let him know that Eddie Guardado is getting ready to protect a one-run lead. He'll instantly provide some insurance. The numbers say that Sexson has five homers (putting him on a 40-homer pace), but we all know it's really six.
Josh Lewin and Tom Grieve were taking listener questions in the booth during the game. One of them read, "Why do fans boo the opposing pitcher when he makes pick-off throws to first base?" Soon thereafter, Meche tried to catch Hidalgo sleeping at first, and a few guys in the studio booed him. You had to be there.
Also, about Lewin, you know you're forcing it when you say something like:
Laynce Nix steps into the plate. Actually, he steps up to the plate. If he stepped into it, that would be quite funny.
Aaron Sele takes his act to Oakland tonight. Ichiro will single on Dan Haren's first pitch at 10:05pm EDT.