How quickly one forgets about the bliss of interleague play. Just two days ago, we were fresh off a sweep of the New York Mets, and some of the more optimistically-inclined were coming out of the woodwork to say that there was still hope for the 2005 season. Now it's Tuesday night (and Wednesday morning by the time I'm done with this), and the Mariners have dropped two in a row to drop into a tie for last place in the wins column with Oakland. The great pitching we'd seen earlier this month has given way to "just okay" pitching, while the offense still hasn't really gotten going all year long. There's a small margin of error for this ballclub, meaning that, unless they flawlessly execute some part of their game plan, they're in for hard times. They haven't been flawless in the first two games of the series, and the result is an 0-2 record.
This one had potential. Joel led off the game with a strikeout and allowed just one of the first seven batters he faced to reach base, while Richie Sexson hit a 400-foot double and Jose Lopez followed soon thereafter with a deep, well-struck sac fly to left. If you had just watched the first two innings of the game, you'd think that the Mariners were seeing Harden's pitches really well, while Pineiro was settling into a groove. You'd be wrong. The short of it is that the A's got going and the Mariners didn't, and that's pretty much the best explanation I can give you for the final score. Even a pitch-counted Rich Harden and a banged-up Oakland bullpen proved too big of a test for this on-and-off lineup (with special thanks going to Richie Sexson's rally-killing flavor, a patent violation of a Bret Boone invention).
Biggest Contribution: Adrian Beltre, +7.8%
Biggest Suckfest: Joel Pineiro, -18.7%
Most Important Hit: Sexson DP #2, -13.3%
Most Important Pitch: Johnson homer, -12.8%
Total Contribution by Pitchers: -17.7%
Total Contribution by Hitters: -34.7%
Mathematically speaking, the bats were 66% responsible for the loss. Which makes sense, given that they managed to eke out just seven hits, two walks, and two runs in nine innings. Joel Pineiro wasn't great by any means, which is why he's responsible for the rest of the loss, but he wasn't bad, so you can't point him out as the main problem. By the way, the two Sexson double plays? The combine to make up 3/4ths of the lineup's negative rating.
A few things to explain, again, in what is becoming a daily feature of the recaps: first of all, you'll notice that JJ Putz gets a slightly negative rating despite retiring the one batter he faced to end the ninth. The reason? Um. I've got nothing. Here's the deal: based on nearly 2,000 games, the odds of the home team winning when trailing by two with two outs and none on in the top of the ninth is 8.1%. Based on nearly 4,000 games, the odds of the home team winning when trailing by two entering the bottom of the ninth is 7.6%. I don't know why that is, but those are big data samples, so, yeah. All that said, a rating of -0.005 is pretty much negligible, so it's not worth complaining about. Moving on, the reason that Joel Pineiro winds up with a lower rating than Richie Sexson is because Pineiro gave up the lead and relied on Borders to get him out of a problem fourth inning, while Sexson hit an early double in a scoreless game. No matter, though - when people look back on this game, they'll remember the two double plays, and not the Dan Johnson homer or the RBI singles. Finally, this might be the first time all year that Adrian Beltre has been the most valuable Mariner in a game. Seriously. If you expected him to go two and a half months before taking that honor for the first time, give yourself a swift kick in the crotch, because you're a depressing fan.
It wasn't quite the Bob Melvin Shredder of Doom, but Joel Pineiro threw 120 pitches tonight through eight innings, easily a season-high. It looked like there were going to be more on top of that, too, as Joel went back out to the mound to start the ninth, but Mike Hargrove's brain got the better of Mike Hargrove's legs and forced him to go get his pitcher before some real damage could be done. There was evidently a shred of strategy involved with the move - the upcoming hitter, Dan Johnson, is a lefty, so Hargrove presumably wanted to wait until Johnson was introduced before he summoned Villone from the bullpen, but that's just a case of worrying too much about a little thing while ignoring a bigger thing, like letting Pat Freaking Borders lead off the bottom of the eighth facing a 4-1 deficit. Hargrove would go on to remove Villone with two outs and none on in favor of JJ Putz for the platoon advantage against Marco Scutaro, which is really just an example of delaying the game for the sake of reminding people that the manager can do that whenever he wants. Scutaro wasn't about to take Villone deep, so there's no harm in letting Ron try to finish the inning. By the looks of things, Hargrove read the first chapter on righty/righty and lefty/lefty matchups in the Book of Managing and closed it, confident that the rest "would just come to him."
Some observations on Pineiro from tonight are such: he had intermittent bouts of spotty command, and got into trouble when he fell behind in the count. He started 12 of the 33 batters he faced with first-pitch balls, and seven of them would go on to reach base (as opposed to five of 21 batters who got first-pitch strikes). He still doesn't seem very confident with his fastball, and when Dan Johnson beat the snot out of a heater in the third, Joel abandoned it as a primary pitch. As a result, he threw a load of breaking balls all night in any count, some of them hanging up in the zone, and some of them breaking six feet. The curve with which he struck out Eric Chavez looking to end the third was particularly breathtaking. Pessimists will be worried that Pineiro still bears little resemblance to his more successful self of the past, but optimists will be glad that he got some experience throwing mostly curves, with decent (but not spectacular) results. Something to note is that it looked like Joel fell out of his usual delivery a few times in the later innings as his pitch count ran up, but this is normal behavior for anyone who crosses the 100/110-pitch treshold, so it shouldn't be much of a concern. He looks pretty consistent for much of the game.
A memo for Rick Rizzs: if you're planning on saying something along the lines of "Adrian Beltre is so strong!" during one of his at bats, make sure that the statement is not preceded by "It has been one month to the day since his last home run."
And really, come on. Yesterday we kept hearing about how strong Richie Sexson is to pop a ball over the opposite field fence. Completely acceptable. But saying that when Beltre knocks a groundball single into center? That's a reach. It's not a false statement, but it's inappropriate timing.
Speaking of Sexson, he's sitting on a .657 OPS for June, and his .291 EqA (entering tonight) puts him 12th among Major League first basemen with 100+ plate appearances. He's also 12th in VORP under the same conditions. It's not like he's helping himself in the field, either, as BP puts him at five runs below average defensively so far. What's the problem? It's certainly not Richie's power, which has been right at his career average despite playing in Safeco. It's not his walks, either, as he's drawing free passes at pretty much the same rate as in 2003. No, it's that he's striking out at the highest rate of his career. He's gone down on strikes in 33.6% of his at bats this year, against a career mark of 26.8%. So what happens when Richie actually hits the ball? Let's check it out by removing strikeouts from the equation:
2005: .357 BA, .740 SLG
2003: .363 BA, .730 SLG
Career: .368 BA, .718 SLG
His average is ever so slightly down, which can probably be written off as an example of the Safeco effect, but his power is better than it's ever been.
Identifying the problem is one thing; solving it is another. After improving his strikeout rate in May, Sexson has regressed in June despite facing a lot of familiar pitchers during interleague play. Ideally, this will just work itself out and Sexson will be back to his usual self in no time. If it's a sign of an aging player, though (as elevated power, walks, and home runs can be), then there's a chance that the Sexson we see now is the same one we'll have for another three and a half years.
Going out on a limb: Adrian Beltre is about go to on a crazygood offensive surge. Homers and all. It might take some time, since his next eight games are all in big parks, but I really like the approach he's taking at the plate right now. Stage one is identifying which pitches to hit and which to avoid; Stage two is working on your swing to get the most out of those balls you hit. Stage one looks complete.
Third game of a four-game set tomorrow night, as Jamie Moyer faces off against Barry Zito's hair.