And thus concludes the best weekend I've had in a long, long time.
When the Mariners swept the Angels in Anaheim last year right before the All-Star Break, it was cool precisely because it was so unexpected - Seattle entered the series 35-48, while the Angels were 20 games over .500. There was no rational reason to expect that kind of total team outburst, and so we were all stunned when we saw how the series played out. It was a welcome break that distracted us from the outright misery that was the rest of the 2005 season.
This time, though...this time it's different. This time the Mariners were actually playing for something while simultaneously establishing their dominance over their "other" SoCal rivals (today makes seven wins in nine games against Anaheim so far in 2006). This sweep isn't so much an opportunity to forget about the rest of the season as it is something to build off of going forward, with a three-game set in Oakland looming after the off-day tomorrow. This was about getting closer to second place than fourth, about building momentum to drive the team along in its pursuit of .500 and, after that, the top of the division. While the A's are getting widespread attention for catching fire, the Mariners have kept pace by winning nine of eleven and moving to within three games of .500 for the first time since May 1st.
We expected the Mariners to be reasonably good coming into the season, with a small but legitimate chance of pushing for the playoffs. Now that we've seen what they can do in a weekend series when Felix, Beltre, Sexson, and Reed all contribute, we might finally get to watch them take off and play like the team we thought they'd be in March. If that doesn't get you excited at least a little bit, then I don't know what to tell you.
(And if it turns out that the Mariners still suck, and only manage to play well in Anaheim? Well, that's cool too.)
Biggest Contribution: Felix Hernandez, +32.7%
Biggest Suckfest: Ichiro, -22.3%
Most Important Hit: Reed homer, +10.3%
Most Important Pitch: Cabrera single, -4.2%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +32.7%
Total Contribution by Hitters: -27.5%
How bad was Anaheim (or, more specifically, Jeff Weaver) today? Where you need +50.0% of Win Probability Added to come away with a victory, the Mariners themselves added up to a sum total of just +5.2%. Angels defense supplied the other 44.8% with a pair of Weaver errors in the fifth inning and a passed ball in the seventh. With men on first and second and nobody out in the fifth, Yuniesky Betancourt laid down a sac bunt that Weaver quickly fielded. However, as he turned to throw to third base (where he had an easy out), he bobbled the ball, allowing everyone to reach. That was mistake #1. The bigger one came next, though - with the bases loaded, Ichiro hit a comeback right to Weaver's glove that should've been an easy 1-2-3 double play, but instead it glanced off and ricocheted behind the mound, again allowing everyone to be safe. The Mariners tried to give that inning to the Angels, but Weaver refused to cooperate (Adrian Beltre, who evidently isn't a team player, decided to skip the charade and lace a two-run single in the following at bat, which wasn't part of the game plan coming in but did succeed in putting the Angels out of their misery).
Those two errors alone gave 44.0% of WPA to the Mariners. Put another way, Seattle got 88% of the way to winning the ballgame in the span of two consecutive fielding miscues by the same guy. I don't know how to define "clutch," but I know it when I see it, and I definitely didn't see it in Jeff Weaver in the fifth inning.
...I'll get into more about today's game later on, but first I wanted to say a little bit about my experience at the ballpark last night, because it was a hell of a good time.
There aren't too many things I like about the city of Anaheim, but I'm really thankful that they made Angels Stadium so simple to access. It's easily visible, it's right off the freeway, and it has enough entrances/exits to the ample parking lot that simple and timely navigation isn't much of an issue (you can also take the train up or down the coast, as it's got a stop within walking distance of the gates). Parking itself isn't too expensive, either, as you can skip the $8 cover charge and get into the lot for free if you tell the guy taking money in the front that you got lost and plan to make an immediate u-turn to get back out. So that's convenient. Also, game sold out? Not a problem! Just walk around the periphery of the stadium looking nervous and a cop will approach you and sneakily shake two free tickets into your hand when no one's looking. Two friends of mine parked and sat with us during the game without paying a dime. I'd like to see someone pull that off at Safeco.
For $9 a pop, our seats weren't bad (apologies for the fuzziness):
We had a terrific, unobstructed view of the entire field, plenty of space, no glare, and a nearby beer vendor and restroom. We were also perched just a few rows behind the Mariner bullpen (which was, in turn, perched a few feet behind the Anaheim bullpen), which allowed me to get a little closer to Gil Meche than I would've liked to be before the game. Although I didn't actually get up and try it myself, it seems like such an arrangement is conducive to fans being able to interact with the coaches and relievers in the visiting 'pen, which is pretty cool. And though I was further away from him than I was from Fruto when he was getting ready, I had a great view of Francisco Rodriguez warming up in the eighth, and was close enough to hear his elbow scream a muffled bloody murder with every pitch. And you could really hear it, too, since God knows no one else was making any noise by that point in the contest.
Now then, as for my observations during the actual game:
- Angels Stadium is really pimping the hell out of Nacho Libre. Aside from the ads visible around the field, there were movie posters roughly every 25 feet along the entire circumference of the concourse. Number of ads for Stick It: 0.
- In the bottom of the second, I was explaining to Co-worker #1 the whole concept of Bad Gil Meche and The Big Inning. Every few seconds, I was interrupted by a little roar from the crowd and another Angel reaching base. After a couple of these interruptions I decided to stop explaining, point to the mound, and say "just watch and learn." Classic Bad Gil, although for purposes of making the concept clear to my co-worker it might've been better for Vlad to hit a grand slam instead of a long fly out. Gil looked tentative and uncomfortable all game long, a true battle between a shaky pitcher and a worse lineup. He was lucky to escape having allowed only the two runs.
- Yuniesky Betancourt's RBI gapper in the third woke me up seemingly just in time to watch Ichiro and Beltre piss the opportunity away, but Jose Lopez came through with a two-run double that landed just shy of the fence in front of me. That was the first of several standing ovations given by yours truly.
- It was during that standing ovation that I began to consider the appropriate etiquette for a fan of the visiting team in the home team's stadium. First of all, don't go overboard in displaying your fandom. A hat, shirt, jersey, jacket, sweatshirt, souvenir pin, or what have you is generally good enough by itself - don't use them all. Be free with information about your team if people ask without being condescending. You should only ever say that players on your own team suck, although I broke this rule at least three or four times. Don't stand up and enter/exit your seating row while the ball is in play; the people nearby are just looking for a reason to hate you, and that's usually enough. When standing and applauding, 16 claps is the upper threshold; any more than that and you're just milking it. When someone on your team does something good, don't offer high-fives to people visibly rooting for the home team and pretend not to have known. If you're lucky enough to catch a foul ball or home run, a great way to earn yourself instant respect is by giving it to a little kid wearing the home team's hat. If possible, try not to get black-out hammered, although exceptions can be made for games started by Gil Meche. Similarly, do your best to avoid engaging fans of the home team who are black-out hammered, as they will be less likely to let you enjoy yourself. Be conservative with your applause; going crazy over a single or stolen base will encourage people seated around you to make a big deal out of other little things that don't go in your team's favor. There's more to this list, but that's a good start.
- Playing Calling All Angels prior to the first pitch to get everybody amped up is neither clever nor effective.
- The parallels between Angels Stadium and Safeco in 2004 are astonishing. The attendance was announced as a sellout, but because the Angels are in last place, there were maybe six to eight thousand empty seats. The place was quiet, with very little electricity; the two-run second inning didn't register nearly the kind of response I thought it would, and Lopez's double a few minutes later took the air out of the stadium. The fans only ever really made noise when they were prompted by the scoreboard, and the cheer tended to last just as long as the animated graphic did. I didn't see any Thunderstix, which certainly contributed to the lack of noise, since these fans were apparently incapable of either clapping or using their voices. No sustained chants throughout the entire game, and the God damn wave started in the second inning. You could hear a groan every time the Mariners plated a run, and Ichiro's homer in the seventh sent thousands streaming towards the exits. When Beltre followed that up with an opposite-field shot of his own, I heard a fan behind me shouting "Mercy rule! Mercy rule!" It really was like being in Seattle two years ago. These people just didn't come to the park excited and expecting to win.
- Orlando Cabrera's walk-up song is Chamillionaire's "Ridin' Dirty," which I think is appropriate, given the typical state of cleanliness of the front of his jersey.
- Ichiro's homer got out of there in a friggin' nanosecond. Every bomb he hits is exactly the same, and you know it's gone off the bat.
- I have now witnessed a pair of Richie Sexson grand slams in my life - one as a Mariner in Boston, and one as a Mariner in Anaheim. I'm not sure which one felt better, given how much I dislike the fans of both those teams, but I think I'm biased towards last night's. What a blast. the Mariners scored 11 of their 12 runs on extra-base hits, with much of the damage coming against a guy who entered the game sporting a 3.06 ERA.
- In the seventh inning my friend mentioned that Fruto looked pretty good, outside of his homers. I didn't agree with him at the time, although it's hard to argue with four strikeouts in 12 at bats. His 1.2 IP/7 H/4 K/2 HR line is one of the stranger ones I've ever seen for a pitcher. It's like Gil Meche's entire career condensed into a single relief appearance.
As many of you probably remember, there was also a game today, and one could make the argument that it was even more satisfying than yesterday's. The offense got some run production from a few unlikely sources but by far the most encouraging thing about today's game was the performance of Felix Hernandez, strike-throwing dynamo. Although he had a bit of a rough start (thanks in large part to shoddy defense), by the third inning he had settled into a groove and started pounding the zone with pitch after pitch. In all, 73 of his 94 pitches found the plate - an incredible 78% - and he started off 21 of the 30 batters he faced with first pitch strikes. Anaheim batters also swung 47 times (50% on the nose), having to take an ultra-aggressive approach because they didn't want to fall behind 0-1 and 0-2 against a guy with as many ways to strike you out as Felix has at his disposal. The result was a lot of quick outs and quick innings, allowing Felix to pick up what should be the first of many complete games in his career.
The strange thing about Felix today was the way he was flashing a 91-92mph fastball - it was peculiar enough to warrant some concern until he added in a few 97mph heaters for good measure. Given his final numbers, I wonder if this wasn't Felix deliberately taking something off of his fastball to gain better control. His four-seamer was consistently in the mid- to high-90s, but it was his two-seamer hanging out around 91, with a lot of horizontal run. He mixed up his pitches and speeds well enough to fan nine batters, and even the guys who made contact rarely did so with any authority. What's a little troublesome is the fact that ten of Felix's 17 outs on balls in play found the air, although I'm going to chalk this up to (1) Felix trying to throw strikes with his fastball rather than hit specific locations, and (2) Felix pitching with a comfortable lead against a bad lineup (his ratio was 4-4 before the fifth and 3-6 afterwards). Besides, a few extra fly balls don't take away from the fact that Felix was very clearly dominant this afternoon, failing to walk a single batter for the first since last August 9th. Also, while MLB.tv doesn't really give me a good angle for this sort of thing, it looked like Felix was getting better forward extension towards the plate today than he usually does, the result of expending more energy along the driveline from the mound to the plate and wasting less on the periphery, which is what pulls him towards first after release. I'm not 100% certain, though, so this is just something we'll have to watch for over the coming weeks.
Jeremy Reed Career vs. Anaheim: .342/.407/.514
Jeremy Reed Career. vs. Others: .247/.312/.342
He's also hit all three of his 2006 home runs in Angels Stadium. I'm not sure what it is about Anaheim's pitching that brings out the best in the guy, but at least so far they've proven to be the ultimate slumpbuster. It's almost certainly something way more complicated than "Reed is just showing off to his Cal State Long Beach buddies" but it's still nice to think about that anyway.
Something that tends to come up whenever managers go to the bullpen for an Ichiro at bat is the fact that Ichiro has always hit lefties better than righties, and that therefore going to a southpaw for the situational appearance is a bad move. Which Ichiro is a unique case, though, this isn't necessarily true. Let's take two hypothetical pitchers: Pitcher A is a southpaw who holds lefties to a .200 BA, and Pitcher B is a righty who holds lefties to a .250 BA. Using Ichiro's career splits, we can easily calculate the following:
Expected BA against Pitcher A: .280
Expected BA against Pitcher B: .288
While Ichiro does indeed hit lefties better than righties, you have to factor in that the pitchers also have splits of their own. Bringing in a talented southpaw to face Ichiro is often the right move for an opposing manager to make, even if the difference between bringing in a lefty and a righty may not be as dramatic as it would for someone like, say, Eric Chavez.
Coming through the system, Rene Rivera had the reputation of being a guy with a lousy bat and phenomenal defensive skills behind the plate. Exactly 50% of that is true.
In the top of the eighth inning, Hector Carrasco beaned Jeremy Reed in the ribs with a fastball, which prompted a bit of a heated discussion between the mound and the visiting dugout. The following is a brief transcript:
In the bottom of the fourth inning, after Orlando Cabrera struck out, the Mariner infield threw the ball around the horn and Adrian Beltre threw a fastball to return the ball to the mound. Felix caught the ball, said something, and glared. After Vladimir Guerrero grounded out in the following at bat and the infield again threw the ball around the horn, Beltre lobbed it back to Felix. Nice to know that our $64m third baseman knows his place on the roster.
Off day tomorrow, as the Mariners get to rest the most overworked group of regulars in baseball. They have the top six guys in baseball in terms of games played, and Kenji Johjima has caught more innings than any other catcher in the league. This despite having what I always thought was one of the more useful benches in recent Mariner history. Whatever. Moyer and Blanton Tuesday night at 7:05pm PDT.