I'm going to be that guy.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that this is the game that turns things around. Maybe not to the point where the Mariners rip off an extended winning streak, mind you, but if there exists any semblance of actual momentum in competitive sport, the M's have to be feeling it right now, and it should help them get back on their feet. It's been an ugly few weeks, but tonight was the biggest win of the year, and you really have no choice but to feel good about it.
It was a game in which lesser-celebrated players assumed the foreground while the stars went down with nary a whimper. Moyer gets in a heap of trouble, and Ichiro/Sexson go 1-8? No worries - Wilson Valdez, Miguel Olivo, and the bullpen were there to pick them up, at least for a night.
I was talking to a Yankees fan earlier today, and the discussion turned to what it means to be a "real" fan. We eventually reached a compromise: that it's difficult to consider somebody a "real" fan until they've been through a period of hardship, because it's the memory of the dark times that make the highlight moments so sweet. You can't know success until you've tasted failure, after all. And one of the greatest moments for any fan of any team is when an unexpected source pulls you out of the doldrums and delivers you to a dimension of uncontrollable glee.
That was tonight. It was like an instant answer to the question of why we bother to continue watching games like yesterday's - because there's always a chance, however slim, and if the team ends up pulling it off, you feel that much more ecstatic after having stuck around the whole time. We watch these games because the greater the depression, the greater the potential reward, and being a fan is all about feeling the highest highs. And when Valdez, Olivo, and Villone are keys to a late-inning comeback against the Yankees...that's a pretty big high.
My fan-oriented brain was fighting with my reason-oriented brain in the early going about whether or not it would really be worth three hours of my time to see if the Mariners could fight back from a four-run deficit. (So were yours. Don't judge me.) The fan in me won out, and we were all tossed a bone when the gap was cut in half in the bottom of the first. Not that it wouldn't go right back to four runs a little later on, but that wasn't until the third inning, and by that point my reason-oriented brain had done all the protesting it was going to do. I was resigned to sitting back in my chair and hoping against hope that some sort of miracle would take place.
...it didn't happen in the third, anyway, and in the top of the fourth, the Mariners hit a low point when they walked Tony Womack to put two on with one out for Gary Sheffield. He'd ground into a tailor-made double play, though, giving us a little reason for joy. At least the lead wasn't getting any larger, right?
Even when Ibanez doubled in two runs in the fifth, it still felt like we had more of a moutain than a hill to climb to get back in the game. As cool as it was to see Hasegawa strike out Matsui with the bases loaded a few minutes later, that only kept the gap from growing - we still had to somehow scratch out two runs to tie the game.
And who knew that, for the time being, Wilson Valdez would be the hero?
Miguel Olivo reached base on a strikeout after Posada overran a ball that he couldn't hang on to, and Valdez followed with an opposite-field liner that scored a run. A bad throw by Gary Sheffield allowed Olivo to score and knot things up at six, breathing new life into both the team and the fans. Although things proceeded rather quietly in the seventh, a double play and a big strikeout of Jeter by Jeff Nelson got the ball rolling again, and it wouldn't be long until the comeback was complete.
The eighth and ninth innings felt like an individual game all their own. There were so many crucial moments and questionable decisions that I could probably write an entire game recap focusing on just those thirty-odd minutes of what turned out to be an incredibly long game, all things considered.
My first question was, why start the eighth with Nelson against a switch-hitter and a lefty? Although Hasegawa was at 38 pitches, he looked all right in the seventh, and he stood less of a chance of getting hurt than Nelson did in that situation. It was also a little disconcerting to see Nelson out there for the ninth, given the probability that he would put the winning run on base some way or another, but given Guardado's absence, Putz's charity, and Thornton's...mental mistakes, I can't really fault Hargrove for that one. He did what he could with a depleted bullpen.
My next question was, why did Hargrove allow Olivo to bat against Gordon in that situation? Obviously, Olivo came through with his biggest hit of the season, so the criticism doesn't carry much weight, but (A) Olivo's been awful this year, (B) Olivo's always been awful against righties, and (C) Gordon devours right-handed bats for breakfast. What's more is that Dave Hansen and (presumably) Adrian Beltre were available on the bench to pinch-hit. You could argue that Hargrove didn't want to put a rookie behind the plate for what would an important ninth (and, potentially, beyond) inning, but Olivo's no wise veteran himself, so I dunno. But again, it worked, so I tip my cap and applaud Miguel for making an important contribution.
Something else I had to wonder about was why Ibanez remained in left field for the ninth. Of course, this really dates back to the pregame lineup, in which Winn was DH'd so that Raul could play the field. That decision didn't strike me as making too much sense, with the off day tomorrow providing more than enough rest for Winn's tired legs, and with Ibanez able to get whatever defensive practice he needs in non-game situations. We know that Raul is a pretty bad glove regardless of where you stick him, so why deliberately make your team defense any worse than it has to be? Couldn't Wee Willie have provided some white, fan-favorite hustle out there in the ninth? As it turns out, it wouldn't have made a difference, but the goal of the ninth inning should really be to protect your lead at all costs.
With his latest o'fer effort, Greg Dobbs is now 5-27 on the season with two doubles, zero walks, and 11 strikeouts. With Reed on third and one out in the bottom of the eighth, Dobbs blew a terrific opportunity by popping out to Alex Rodriguez, and in the ninth, he bobbled a weak roller which loaded the bases. Admittedly, it would've been a tough play to make, but that's the kind of stuff he has to do to get by as long as he's not doing anything at the plate. When you have a guy who isn't a particularly good hitter, and who doesn't play any important defensive positions, you have to wonder what that guy's doing in the crucial innings of a big game. Maybe he needs to wear a little more red.
A guy who can play a little defense is Wilson Valdez, who made up for an error in the sixth by throwing Gary Sheffield out at third on a fielder's choice in the ninth. I don't know if these pictures really do the play justice, but take a look:
Valdez ran from the standard shortstop position all the way over to the outfield grass near third base to retrieve the grounder and make an off-balance throw to get the out. It was a hell of a play, because if Sheffield's safe at third, then Posada's at the plate with one out and the bases loaded against a lefty, and if the ball gets through into left field, then the game is tied. Just more drama for an incredible last few innings.
There's no way around it - Jamie Moyer was bad today, for the fourth start in a row. He was missing his spots all over the place, throwing first-pitch strikes to just half the batters he faced and really not fooling too many bats. Not that he was really getting much help from his defense - Ibanez let a ball drop in that any other left fielder would've caught in the third, and Ichiro let a liner get by him soon after which cost an extra run - but that doesn't mean that Moyer was any less ineffective than he was. His stretch of facing good lineups isn't over, either, as he's currently in line to face Baltimore on the road next week.
By the way, Moyer's Ricoh scouting report? Must have good control and keep the ball in the park. He didn't, and he sucked, so that's another feather in Ricoh's cap, I guess. My personal scouting report for tomorrow's off day: Must breathe often, and avoid wandering through busy traffic.
As nice as it was to hear Kevin Calabro in the broadcast booth today, I wouldn't have had much of a problem if they talked about the game at hand. Instead, we heard an awful lot about the Sonics and Calabro's golfing handicap. The good news is that while Niehaus and Calabro were engaged in conversation, Ron Fairly remained silent in the background, fuming that he couldn't get a word in edgewise. When he finally spoke up, he made a stupid joke about how the only difference between Ichiro and Rod Carew are "three or four inches," and chuckled at his own cleverness.
If the Mariners want to prove me right about this whole "turning things around" deal, they'll need to do it on Friday against last year's NL ERA leader. Fortunately, we'll have our best starter out there trying to match zeros (I don't know if I'm joking or not), so at least there's a reason to tune in.