Nice of the Mariners to welcome me home with one of their more thrilling victories of the season. This was truly a game that transcended context; despite the record, the losing streak, and all the rookies, this felt like a playoff game, with a lively near-sellout crowd on hand to watch the M's take on one of baseball's best. And it certainly didn't disappoint. Maybe I'm just feeling refreshed after the weekend getaway, but I haven't celebrated like that after a win in a long time. It's rather pleasant to not lose once in a while.
Biggest Contribution: Adrian Beltre, +52.2%
Biggest Suckfest: Eric O'Flaherty, -25.1%
Most Important At Bat: Beltre homer #2, +36.5%
Most Important Pitch: Abreu homer, -30.2%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): -4.4%
Total Contribution by Position Players: +53.1%
I wish I could tell you why I was looking forward to this game so much during the afternoon, but honestly, I don't know. After all, the Mariners were losers of 11 of their past 11 and had just Sunday delivered a swift kick in the balls that sent me reeling. The prospect of getting to see more Chris Snelling was enough to generate a little enthusiasm, but with Cha Baek preparing to go up against a batting order so delightfully staggering that one of my friends turned into a bandwagon Yankees fan, there was little legitimate reason to even want to watch the game, much less be excited about it. And yet here I was in my chair, heart racing at 7:04 as I waited for the Mariners to take the field.
It seemingly didn't take long for the Yankees to settle into their routine, as Johnny Damon led off the game with a base hit. It wasn't how Baek wanted to get things started, but considering what Damon just did to his former teammates over the weekend, a single wasn't really that bad. It was around this point that I began to wonder what I should expect from Baek during the game. I've never been a fan of pitchers of his ilk, the type that put it over the plate and tend to get burned by the extra-base hit, and the Yankee lineup has a bunch of guys capable of punishing a bad pitch (or a good pitch, for that matter), so I suddenly started feeling decidedly less optimistic about how the night would turn out. Then Bobby Abreu struck out swinging on a changeup and I found a new reason for hope - maybe they didn't have an advance scouting report on Baek. Maybe they didn't know what he throws or how hard he throws it, so they'd go up there trying to feel him out instead of crushing the ball like I expected. We've seen it happen to the Mariners a million times against pitchers they've never seen before, so why not the Yankees? Right?
Baek got out of the inning unscathed, but in typical Yankee fashion, he wound up throwing a bunch of pitches. Which was fine with me, because I'd rather have a decent Cha Baek for five innings than a crummy one for seven, so I kept my mouth shut. That is, I kept it shut until I caught a glimpse of Jeff Karstens, the no-name opposing starter Joe Torre was using in an attempt to shut down the Mariners with inexperience and grotesque facial anatomy. You see, Karstens was born without a lower jaw, and he's exploited this feature to his advantage by adopting a deceptive and distracting presence on the mound that keeps hitters off balance. It's been the key to his entire professional career, because he certainly doesn't have the kind of raw stuff on which he can survive alone. That became abundantly clear very early, when he flashed a straight fastball around 91mph, a slider with practically zero speed difference, and a curve that was more eephus than legitimate Major League weapon. Oh, and he threw them all with spotty location, routinely forcing Posada to move his glove a considerable distance to receive the pitch. After walking Chris Snelling, Karstens threw an absolutely godawful fastball to Adrian Beltre that would've crossed the middle of the plate at the belt had Beltre not crapped all over the ball and sent it beyond the left-center fence. Just like that, the Mariners had a 2-0 lead. Richie Sexson followed that with a deep fly out, Raul Ibanez followed that with a double, and Karstens' fate became clear - if he didn't start directing these balls in play towards his teammates instead of the wall, he'd be gone so fast his ghoulish head would spin, and he'd never get another chance in the big leagues again.
So, naturally, he settled down, aided by some unfortunately-textbook terrible approaches at the plate by Mariner hitters. So the pressure shifted to Baek, who earned the fans' respect by fanning Alex Rodriguez to lead off the second and actually looked like a decent pitcher for much of the first three innings. Then he ran into trouble in the third, and after allowing a two-out double and walk, the lead was gone in an instant as Abreu sent a fastball deep to center. Baek would whiff Jason Giambi to end the inning, but the damage was done, with the Yankees on top and their several thousand parasitic fans in attendance coming to life under the mistaken impression that, even with the division wrapped up and the Red Sox in a tailspin, their team was actually playing for something. Yankee fans are a loud bunch and virtually impossible to keep quiet as long as they've got a lead, so the only solution was to take said lead away from them, which Richie Sexson accomplished with one swing of the bat in the bottom half by launching one of Karstens' unidentifiable slop offerings 440 feet into left.
Once again the game was tied, and while most of the Mariners continued to go to the plate without any idea of what they wanted to do, the Yankees weren't looking much better against Baek, who had his changeup working pretty well for much of the game. He struck out Alex Rodriguez and Jorge Posada back-to-back in the fourth, then got Melky Cabrera in the fifth before escaping a jam by getting Abreu to tap back to the mound. The Yankees had made him work, seeing 103 pitches in five innings, but Baek refused to break and earned himself at least another start with his six whiffs and seven groundball outs. I'm still convinced that Baek only succeded because the Yankees didn't have a good report on him before the game, but nevertheless he managed to put together a better performance than I'd expect out of the rest of our starters, so as far as I'm concerned he's earned himself a night free from criticism. We can save that for when he gets bombed his next time out.
The game started to get a little less enjoyable and a little more frustrating in the bottom of the fifth when Karstens was able to retire Ichiro, Snelling, and Beltre in order with ease, and when the top of the sixth rolled around we saw that Mike Hargrove had called on his least experienced reliever to face the heart of the Yankee lineup. O'Flaherty tried, God bless him, but he knew that pitch he threw to A-Rod was a mistake the instant it left his hand, and all of a sudden New York was back on top. It took O'Flaherty another two batters before he got over the shellshock and started pitching like he deserves his job, but even though he got out of the inning the Mariners were still down by two, and to say that they haven't exhibited much of a comeback spirit of late is putting it lightly. Even with a tired and depleted Yankee bullpen getting ready, the M's had a tall task in front of them.
Cue further frustration. Allow me to cut and paste from the game log:
Bottom 6th: Seattle
R. Sexson flied out to deep right center
R. Ibanez flied out to deep center
Karstens was surviving by the skin of the upper row of his teeth, and he knew it. Against any other lineup in any other stadium, he'd have been gone by the third, getting ready to take his Pony League repertoire back to AAA where he'd collect a smaller paycheck and get into arguments over why he has to pay his dentist a full bill for doing half the work. But no, not in Safeco, not against Seattle - in that environment, he was one out away from a quality start in his Major League debut in front of his disgustingly obese and unattractive family.
J. Lopez singled to center
J. Lopez to second on wild pitch
About time someone did something. Before Lopez, Karstens had retired ten consecutive Mariners, but the base hit clearly rattled him, as he uncorked a wild pitch and fell behind Ben Broussard 2-0. Having seen enough, and convinced that no possible good was going to come of the at bat given that Karstens blows and Broussard is a manbeat when he's ahead in the count, Torre came out and took the ball from his rookie in the middle of the at bat, summoning classic LOOGY Mike Myers from the bullpen to...issue two intentional balls to Eduardo Perez, who had apparently replaced Broussard while Torre wasn't looking. Myers got yanked and walked off the field with the kind of facial expression you only see on guys who're wondering why they just got paid for half an intentional walk. In came Jaret Wright to face Yuniesky Betancourt with two on and two out, and
Y. Betancourt flied out to right
Betancourt popped out on the first pitch. You love the guy when he's hitting well, but he's arguably the least patient hitter in baseball, and too often he gets himself out by swinging at bad pitches when he really doesn't need to. The inning ended, I cursed, and the Mariners went to the seventh still trailing 5-3.
That's when things started to turn around. Or rather, the Yankees loaded the bases with one out, and then that's when things started to turn around. After blowing a double play opportunity with a wild pitch, Sean Green intentionally walked Alex Rodriguez to set up a force at every base and actually got the double play, a grounder to Lopez that was turned in time to get Posada by forty steps. It was a typical Sean Green inning - one unintentional walk and three weak groundballs, with no one coming around to score. The Mariners are absolutely overstocked in the bullpen, as Green is perfectly capable of being someone else's 10th or 11th man but has been riding the Seattle/Tacoma train all season. I wonder if this appearance was the happiest moment of his career.
The Mariners went into the bottom of the seventh and promptly jumped on Jaret Wright, loading the bases on an Ichiro single, a Snelling double, and a Beltre walk (Rene Rivera led off with some kind of out, but I don't think anyone noticed). That set the stage for a monumentally critical Sexson at bat, but before you could say "he's either going to strike out or homer" he rolled a ball to short, which Derek Jeter tossed to Nick Green in an effort to start a routine 6-4-3 double play. Only, it didn't happen that way, because Beltre sent Green flying with one of his patented dirty take-out slides. Lacking any alternative, Green hung onto the ball, and instead of going to the eighth of a 5-3 game the Mariners trimmed the deficit to 5-4 while putting men on the corners. Enter a de-goateed Ron Villone, who allowed a totally unexpected seeing-eye single to Raul Ibanez to tie the game (followed by yet another maddening Jose Lopez throwaway at bat to end it). Although I didn't calculate it this way for Win Probability Added purposes, you can pretty much credit Adrian Beltre for those two runs, since neither would've scored if not for his slide at second to break up the double play. After seeing that happen for the second time in a few weeks, I don't think you're going to hear too many people questioning his heart and motivation.
To the eighth we went, where a very tired and very nerve-wracking Rafael Soriano started things off with a walk. He and George Sherrill were able to escape without allowing a run, taking us to the bottom half, which was only notable for the following:
T. Bohn hit for C. Snelling
T. Bohn struck out swinging
With two outs and the go-ahead run in scoring position, Mike Hargrove pinch-hit for Chris Snelling with a rookie in his first game with the team. Look, I understand the rationale behind playing the matchups, and that Bohn was a reasonable hitter against lefties in Tacoma, but I don't think anyone in the world thought that was a good idea. Snelling's never exhibited any kind of major platoon splits in his career, and Bohn just flat-out isn't a good hitter. The odds of him coming through in his ML debut against a hard-throwing veteran on the Yankees in front of a packed house were slim, and sure enough, he got himself out by chasing a high-outside fastball for strike three. Villone had fallen behind in the count 2-0, but Bohn chased three consecutive balls in striking out. It was an ugly approach, and a mind-boggling decision on Hargrove's part. Give Bohn a start tomorrow if you want, but for chrissakes, let Chris Snelling hit. You won't be disappointed.
Anyway, the top of the ninth looked to be positively horrifying, with Julio Mateo warming up and both Derek Jeter and Bobby Abreu due to hit, but George Sherrill's pick-off of Melky Cabrera to end the eighth allowed him to stay in and retire Damon to start the ninth, which reduced the threat. In came Mateo, who promptly allowed a Jeter single before striking out Abreu on a fastball that was just inside enough to keep from being destroyed. An Aaron Guiel walk then set up an at bat that would've been hugely intense six years ago, before Alex Rodriguez became the unclutchiest of the unclutch. Mateo set A-Rod and his pathetic .938 OPS with men on base down with a strikeout, and the stadium erupted as the Mariners headed into the bottom of the ninth in position to actually win a baseball game for the first time in nearly two weeks.
And then they won the baseball game. For the first time in nearly two weeks. Guiel took over as a defensive replacement at first base just in time to watch Beltre swing at a 1-2 pitch at his eyes and this time actually make contact, sending it deep into right field. I was momentarily thrown off by Abreu tracking the flight of the ball as if he had a play, but then I remembered that all the Yankee outfielders take comically bad routes, and sure enough, Abreu backed into the wall and looked up. The ball bounced back into play and I initially thought it hit the top of the wall, but Rick Rizzs immediately dispelled that notion by confidently declaring it a game-winning home run. Game over, streak over. For one moment, the Mariners were happy and the Yankees were sad, and that's really all you can ask for in a season like this.
Felix takes on Chien-Ming Wang tomorrow at 7:05pm PDT in a matchup of two of the most extreme groundball pitchers you'll ever see. I can't make any guarantees about tomorrow's game being as exciting as tonight's, but if a team that's lost 11 in a row can start Cha Baek against the Yankees and end up making us all feel this good, then you have to think that anything's possible. And that's why you'll be watching.