Okay, so it's not quite allowing one run in a three-game series against Montreal like they did last June, but watching Meche & Co. spin a shutout just ten days after Aaron Sele did the same to San Diego is still pretty cool. Pretty important, too, since this was a one-run game until Chacin hit the wall in the eighth. Think Meche had much of a problem with the low run support? Certainly didn't seem like it. Take notes, Franklin.
For a while, this was the Game That Fun Forgot, as Meche sat down Blue Jay after Blue Jay in unspectacular fashion while the hitters kept getting themselves out one after the other. It got interesting in the eighth, though, when the bullpen started to show signs of weakness, but a bad at bat by Eric Hinske and two vital insurance runs made for a fun and entertaining conclusion.
Before we get too far:
Nothing real out of the ordinary to see there (except for the while "winning" thing) - despite a few bumps along the way, the Mariners pretty much controlled this game, slowly easing their way to a 100% chance of winning with every out recorded. The lineup certainly didn't help anything; this one was won by the pitching staff, with only Jeff Nelson turning in a hurtful performance. Would you believe that the Mariners have won four of their last six series, and are 9-8 over that span? Hypothetically, if they were to continue this success over the rest of the season, they'd end up at 80-82, pretty much right where the consensus picked them to finish before the year. Of course, they could also just continue their 22-30 pace and finish below 70 wins, but shut up.
Biggest Contribution: Gil Meche, +46.8%
Biggest Suckfest: Adrian Beltre, -17.9%
Most Important Hit: Ibanez double play, -21.6%
Most Important Pitch: Hill double play, +11.2%
Total Contribution by Pitchers: +66.8%
Total Contribution by Hitters: -12.6%
In Gil Meche's 29 quality starts (6+ IP, 3 or fewer runs allowed) since 2003, he's put up a 2.22 K/BB ratio (129:58). In his other 37 starts, he's put up a 1.68 K/BB (133:79). It may not seem like much, but a year ago that would have been the difference between ranking 39th and 67th in the Majors among 86 qualified starters. This is why I'm a little wary of his game tonight - yeah, he looked sharp pitching into the seventh inning, tossing 70 strikes and just 44 balls, but he walked a few while making the defense do all the work behind him. This isn't how Meche has been successful in the past, and unless he's become a completely new pitcher overnight, it's not how he'll be successful in the future. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad he got an ovation as he walked off the mound tonight (god knows we've been starved for such opportunities this year), but he can't do this again in five days and expect to get the same result.
On a related note, did anyone notice if Meche's curveball made the flight back from Tampa? Maybe I'm just forgetful, but I don't recall the pitch making too many appearances tonight. With better curve command, Meche could stop going to the high fastball as a strikeout pitch, which would serve the double benefit of reducing home runs allowed.
For those looking forward to more Rene Rivera in the future, brace yourselves for a lot more Borders:
"It's no magic potion or anything like that," Hargrove said. "Pat just understands how to get hitters out. He knows his pitchers and their tendencies and their best pitches and the locations they throw their pitches best to. And he works those things. He's got a plan."
Once a traditional manager like Hargrove gets the idea in his head that a catcher can help out a pitching staff, that's it, it's done - that catcher will get all kinds of playing time until something goes horribly awry. Which may not be a bad thing in this case, since Rivera's immediate offensive upside closely resembles Borders' downside, but Rivera needs to play as much as he can, and sitting on the bench won't help. This'll all be moot when the team finds a new veteran backstop in a matter of days, though.
Of course, when Hargrove and Meche go on record as saying that Borders calls a good game, what they're really saying is "Gil doesn't have a clue what to do out there without a veteran's help." After all, the pitcher always has the final call - if he doesn't like what a catcher is doing, he just shakes off sign after sign until he's satisfied. Just once, I'd like to see a pitcher meet with reporters after the game and say, "Yeah, I knew exactly what I wanted to do to every batter today; the catcher just sat back there and caught what I threw at him."
Jeremy Reed's performance tonight reminded me of that Geico "Tiny House" ad - everything's great, and you're feeling good about what you're watching, but every so often it's just not awesome. Reed fell well short of awesome tonight, but that doesn't matter. I love him, you love him, and before long, everybody else will love him.
Adrian Beltre did not break out tonight. All he did was hit a sharp single off a left-handed pitcher who can't really take advantage of the low-and-away slider weak spot as much as a righty can. In the end, it was Beltre's fourteenth 1-4-with-a-single day of the season, which is pretty remarkable when you consider that he's had exactly four at bats 31 times so far. And yes, he got his token strikeout despite the southpaw on the mound, taking an ugly hack at an outside fastball in the first.
At this point, I think Beltre can be boiled down into fitting one of three categories:
(A) He's done as an elite hitter.
(B) The gears in his head are something of a perpetual motion machine, and he'll just continue to gradually improve until he's playing his best at the end of the year.
(C) He's like a lightbulb, where everything can be in place, but nothing happens until someone flips the switch (or puts it in the microwave. Whatever).
A seems pretty unlikely, since Beltre is a 26 year old coming off an MVP-caliber season, and since he has an extended track record of success at the plate. So assuming that his career didn't go all Ben Grieve on him, we're left with two choices - B & C. So which is it going to be? Does Beltre have just one flaw that needs to be fixed, or are there several adjustments he has to make before he gets back to doing what he did in Los Angeles a year ago?
Without any unique knowledge of the situation, I have to lean towards the former - that pitch off the plate outside is the difference between 2004 Adrian Beltre and 2005 Adrian Beltre. We've seen what he can do with pitches over the plate; sometimes he drills them for singles, like he did in the eighth inning tonight, and sometimes he hits them into the upper deck, like a did a little while back. So, the key to maximizing Beltre's success is to force pitchers to throw as many strikes as possible. How do you do this? Don't swing at balls.
It sounds incredibly simple, but it's not, when you consider how fast these pitches are coming at the plate, and the upper threshold of human reaction times. However, what's actually encouraging about Beltre having the worst season of his career is that he's never had this kind of problem (at least, not to this extent) before, suggesting that he made some change during the winter that killed his offense. There are several explanations floating around the internet regarding what might have caused this change - some people call it pressure to live up to a big contract, others say that he's just over-adjusting to a suddenly healthy ankle, and the list grows from there - but the key is that all these potential explanations hint at a single reason for Beltre's struggles. While it's difficult to correct a guy's muscle memory, it's a hell of a lot easier to fix one big thing than it is to fix a bunch of small ones.
Right now, Adrian Beltre is in uncharted territory. This might be the worst slump he's ever gone through as a baseball player, at any level. What the Mariners, and specifically Baylor, need to do is get him back to where he was as the half-decent third baseman of 2001-2003. Once he gets there, then he can make the same adjustments that he made prior to the '04 season so that he can take off and reassume his rightful place as one of the most valuable players in baseball. This isn't going to be an easy change, mind you, but he's still ours through 2009, so he's got plenty of time to learn to hit as a Mariner. It's really up to him and Baylor to work out just how much of that time will be spent in the dumpster, and how much of it will be spent in the leaderboards. I am absolutely convinced that the low-and-away pitch is Beltre's big flaw, and you'd better believe that the coaching staff thinks the same thing, so if Baylor can't get him turned around this year, expect to see a new hitting coach in 2006, because there's no way that the Mariners will fall anywhere short of trying their hardest to get the biggest investment in franchise history turned around.
Bret Boone, the ultimate rally-killer and official reverser of all things good, walked up to the plate in the fourth inning with one of Beltre's bats. Instead of hitting a line drive right at someone, he did the opposite, rolling a weak ground ball right up the middle, just too far away for Hudson to make a play. Maybe we should've seen that coming.
Jeff Nelson has allowed 26 baserunners in 16.2 innings. Using him instead of JJ Putz as the primary right-handed setup man is going to blow up in Hargrove's face before long.
The Mariners are off tomorrow, resuming play Friday night against Tampa Bay.