Not to get ahead of myself, but the Mariners are alone in the division lead for the first time since 2003. And don't think for a second that I'm not savoring it.
All morning long different ideas of how to write this intro were bouncing around my skull, but all of a sudden I don't remember any of them, so it's time to improvise. Can you believe the first at bat of the game was a triple to straightaway center (by Marco friggin' Scutaro, no less)? Gil Meche had his usual start but, in distinctly non-Gil-Mecheian fashion, he was able to get into a groove pretty early on, missing bats and wriggling out of jams without breaking down and allowing The Big Inning like he has so many times before in similar situations. I think it came as a surprise not only to us, but to the offense as well, which took it as as a little motivation to jump on Loaiza and get a quick lead while it had the chance. And, once the Mariners had said lead, they kept adding on instead of letting it slip away. It's only four games into the season, but the whole thing just feels different, like the Mariners are actually there to win instead of going through the motions for three hours and collecting their paychecks. Which might be a little hard on guys like Wilson Valdez and Ryan Franklin, who suck no matter how hard they're trying, but it feels like there's an energy and an enthusiasm there that we've been lacking for years, and it's nice.
Or maybe it's just that they're actually good.
Biggest Contribution: Carl Everett, +18.7%
Biggest Suckfest: Jose Lopez, -5.0%
Most Important Hit: Everett homer, +18.0%
Most Important Pitch: Scutaro triple, -8.5%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +18.6%
Total Contribution by Hitters: +31.4%
This was a total team effort - of the 12 players who participated in the game, only Jose Lopez and Adrian Beltre made negative contributions, with Beltre's being by less than 1%. I guess that's what happens when everyone in the lineup gets at least one hit, your starter pitches well into the sixth, and your bullpen doesn't allow a run. What's even better is that they had to play catch-up in doing so, as Scutaro's triple knocked their chances of winning down to 41.5% just one AB into the game. Early indications are that this is a lineup that'll actually be able to erase deficits on a fairly regular basis, meaning that we won't have to automatically just throw up our hands and surrender if Gil allows three runs in the first the next time out. That's great for the fans, it's great for morale, and - most importantly - it's great for the standings. 26 runs in four games against Bartolo Colon, John Lackey, Jeff Weaver, and Esteban Loaiza. This is a good offensive team capable of making a lot of noise if just one or two guys behind Felix step it up a level. I'm not sure why I keep saying that over and over again, but while it might just be for effect, it could also be my subconscious' way of convincing the rest of my brain that this team might actually do something for the first time since I started a website.
Now that I've seen Gil Meche in action for the first time since his "major changes," my stance has shifted - while the two-seamer is a nice pitch to develop and store in your arsenal, the key to his success might just be the changeup. He threw a handful of legitimately spectacular straight changes, inducing whiff after whiff after whiff with the batters way out in front every time. The pitch was coming in around 81-82mph, and while my first inclination is to say that could be a problem down the road with his two-seamer hovering around 89-90 (not enough separation), I think there's enough movement on his fastball to make it less of an issue. A hitter's bat could still be coming through the zone even if he guesses the wrong pitch, since the speed difference isn't very big, but because the changeup is straight while the fastball tails in, his bat probably won't be in good position to make solid contact very often. Forget what you thought back in Little League or high school; pitching is four parts deception and movement to every one part velocity. Last night, Gil looked strong in that regard, the pitch to Chavez aside.
As far as his two-seamer is concerned, it's probably best referred to as a "work in progress" right now. It was up in the zone for much of the game, and had much more horizontal movement than vertical displacement; I have no way of knowing, but based on that I'd guess that Gil is gripping his two-seamer across the narrow seams rather than along them. Of course, the lack of downward motion could also just be because he threw the pitch high so often, as you need to get the ball low and throw it with a downward angle to enhance the sinking action. For what it's worth, it was clearly moving a few inches inward on right-handed hitters, leading to all kinds of intriguing pop-up possibilities, and he also spotted it perfectly against two lefties (I forget which), getting it to break back towards the plate just enough to induce a pair of swinging strikeouts. That said, if I didn't know any better last night I would've thought it was a bad (edit: reverse) slider instead of a fastball, so there's still a lot of work yet to be done before this becomes a reliable pitch. There's a reason why he was going back to the changeup nearly every time he needed to get out of trouble.
His curveball and four-seamer sucked. Also, Gil really needs to pick up the pace when he's in a jam, because slowing things down as much as he does not only aggravates me, but it also makes it difficult for the infield to maintain concentration. Defenders love quick pitchers. Defenders hate Bad Gil Meche.
Something I wanted to talk about a little bit - and I don't know why I didn't bring this up earlier - is the significance of an early division lead. Go tell anyone that the Mariners are a game ahead of the closest divisional competition and the response will invariably be "it's only been four games!" Which is absolutely true, and there's a hell of a long way to go. The relevance is this: if you thought that the Mariners were, say, five games worse than Oakland (or whoever you chose to finish first) before the year, then they've now closed the gap by 20%. Think of tonight as another Opening Day, where the season is a little shorter and the Mariners get a one-game head start. As irrelevant as the standings may seem in the first few weeks of the season, every win increases a team's odds of making the playoffs by a little bit. The Mariners are in better shape today than they were last weekend. There's your Friday happy thought. The longer the M's keep themselves in this position, the better the chances that we see them play a few more important games in the fall than we expected them too. Is it too early for magic numbers?
The whole Carl Everett situation is a little troublesome, since it can be difficult to justify being pleased with his production without feeling like a dick, but as long as you remember that you're cheering for a team rather than an individual, it seems vaguely permissible. I mean, when you think about it, when Richie Sexson hits a home run, you aren't cheering for Richie Sexson the individual - you're cheering about the fact that he gave the Mariners an additional run (or two, or three, or four, or five??), which we like, because we want the Mariners to score many runs. So it is with Carl; I don't support Carl Everett the person, but I do support Mariner batters hitting two-run homers to give the team a lead. It's here that I think there's an important distinction to be made between applauding a player as he's introduced and applauding what he does for the team, since the former implies an appreciation of the individual whereas the latter is all about supporting the whole team as a single unit. If Carl Everett comes to the plate in the bottom of the ninth tonight with the game on the line, I'm not going to cheer for him as he walks to the plate, but if he ends up winning it you can be damn sure that I'll totally flip out the way I would if it had been anyone else supplying the run. Does that make sense? I'd still prefer Petagine eight days a week, but as long as Carl's in the lineup, I'll gladly take whatever he gives us while simultaneously hoping that his option doesn't vest so I don't have to worry about things like this again in 2007.
Hendu: "Johjima has caught every game the Mariners have played."
Dave: "Well, that's only three."
Speaking of Dave, the announcer mics were left on before the game started so we got to eavesdrop in on what's apparently Karaoke Night in the broadcast booth. He was humming something or other for a good two minutes before the TV feed came back and it was time to introduce the starting lineups. I kept waiting for someone in the background to shout "Free Bird!" but I guess there aren't any Skynyrd fans in the camera crew.
Jake Woods threw 22 strikes in 48 pitches. Of his 26 balls, roughly 23 of them were fastballs that missed high and away, with the others being 55-foot slurves. In time, I have the utmost confidence that people will begin to fear his appearances more than they do JJ Putz' (who, by the way, looked terrific. There are few things more enjoyable than watching a guy strikeout the side in the ninth inning). The fact that he was out there for 2.1 innings at least suggests that Hargrove doesn't see him as a high-leverage matchup guy the way he did Matt Thornton a year ago, but I'm still going to be nervous whenever I see him throwing in the bullpen, and there's really nothing I can do to change that.
One of the things that people would forget if they weren't so gruesomely reminded every few months is that pitching can be incredibly dangerous, and not just for the arm. Line drives come screaming back through the box all the time, and at so close a distance all a pitcher can really do is cross his fingers and hope that he can get his glove up in time in the event of a headshot. Tragedy nearly struck in the eighth inning last night, as Ichiro was a split-second away from giving Jay Witasick a gratuitous faceplasty. Never have I been so relieved to see a Mariner hit into a double play. Witasick probably won't get a good night's sleep until June.
Three quick parting shots - (1) yesterday's Aggressive Baserunning Tally included a pair of stolen bases, Jeremy Reed getting picked off of first, and Raul Ibanez being ruled safe at third on a triple when he was very clearly out; (2) how soon do we get to see Kenji Johjima and Adrian Beltre swap spots in the lineup?; (3) Jose Lopez is hitting .412 so far, but out of his seven hits, three are infield singles and two are little Texas-leaguer bloops into the shallow outfield. Don't get me wrong, I like the guy and think he'll be a productive bat, but this is a pretty good example of the unreliability of early-season statistics. He could very easily be 2-17 right now, with Hargrove thinking about dropping him back to the bottom of the lineup. Instead, he's being talked about as one of the hottest hitters on the team. But hey, he did draw a walk, and that's pretty neat.
Joe Blanton against Felix tonight at 7:05pm PDT. You will watch, and you will smile.