In the words of a Yankees fan I know:
Imagine what you could do if your team could win one of those 60 some divisional games!
The Mariners did this in descending order of difficulty, beating Curt Schilling on Friday, David Wells and Satuday, and Kyle Snyder this afternoon. That it came down to Snyder pitching in front of a Manny-less outfield should tell you a little something about the current state of the Red Sox, but nevertheless, this was an awesome sweep with something for everyone. Jake Woods and Cha Baek get their first career wins over one of the most hallowed franchises in baseball, Raul Ibanez surpasses 25/100, TJ Bohn gets his first Major League hit (and first Major League demotion), JJ Putz shows off, casual Mariner fans get an encouraging glimpse of what 2007 has in store, hardcore Mariner fans get to enjoy a phenomenal week, and the Yankees get to rest easy with the knowledge that they've got the AL East all but locked up. The only people who didn't have a good time wear funny looking B's on their hats, but they've done enough celebrating in the last few years, and besides, they deserved this kind of humbling embarrassment something terrible. And I, for one, am glad to root for the humblers.
Biggest Contribution: Cha Baek, +23.6%
Biggest Suckfest: Ben Broussard, -31.9%
Most Important At Bat: Ibanez grand slam, +16.9%
Most Important Pitch: Broussard error, -14.3%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +36.2%
Total Contribution by Position Players: -4.2%
It's funny - for that week or so when the Mariners were good, I was always nervous and apprehensive about their games, subconsciously assuming that every day was the day the hot streak would end. I didn't trust anyone, I expected the worst, and I couldn't breathe easy until the 27th out was recorded, at which point I could finally smile. Now though, now things are different. I find myself swimming in confidence before the first pitch no matter how bad the matchup may be, not only hoping for but actually expecting the Mariners to win. This sweep wasn't nearly as surprising to me as you'd think, because after Deanna texted me the final score of the Thursday game while I was at dinner, part of me just had a feeling it was going to happen.
It's completely irrational and I don't know how to explain it, but I definitely prefer it over the alternative, which was joyless and exhausting. There's no reason to be confident in the Mariners, not for as long as Jarrod Washburn has the best (qualified) ERA in the rotation, and yet here I am, and I'm having a blast. Believing in the Mariners as a good team capable of winning now and making a lot of noise next season makes missing out on the playoffs this time around considerably easier to stomach.
I suppose a certain degree of my faith in today's game came from the fact that the Red Sox were practically starting their entire bench behind a Royals castoff on the mound, a castoff who, while he befuddled the Mariners several starts ago, doesn't have the stuff to survive a second go round. Mike Hargrove did his best to even things out by punting the last two spots in the lineup and turning to Cha Baek in the rotation, but just like the Yankees, the Red Sox have never seen Baek before, so there was reason to hope for his luck to extend through another five or six innings. Call him the new Chris Michalak if you have to, but I'm not going to freak out over Baek pitching every five days as long as he's constantly facing new hitters. He'll run out of teams eventually, but until that happens, what's the harm? We're not going anywhere anyway, and besides, it'll be a great story for him to tell his family when he's 28 and retired.
Baek's luck was tested early, as he walked Coco Crisp - who's done everything in his power to make Boston fans regret booing Johnny Damon - to lead off the game, but he caught a break when Terry Francona called for a hit-and-run and Mark Loretta promptly lined into a double play. I see hit-and-runs all the time, and occasionally they're executed to perfection, but it doesn't seem like that happens even close to often enough to justify the risk. What's the potential upside? 5% better chances of hitting a single, and 25% better chances of getting an extra base? Is that worth the all-too-frequent line drive and strike-'em-out-throw-'em-out double plays? It's not, which is why the hit-and-run continues to be one of the dumber in-game managerial strategies. I think the only - the only - time it makes sense is when you have a speedy runner on first and a guy with terrific bat control and groundball tendencies at the plate. That way you're more likely to get a single through the hole, or to salvage the play with a stolen base in case the batter swings and misses. You should also try and limit the play to when you're even or ahead in the count, because breaking balls are the hit-and-run's worst nightmare. So in the end, unless you have someone like Ichiro, Luis Castillo, Jason Kendall, or Mark Grudzielanek at the plate, you probably shouldn't even bother considering the idea. Just don't. Ever. Don't.
The double play was great news for Baek, because it let him pitch around David Ortiz without having to worry about putting men in scoring position for the cleanup hitter. Mind you, Kevin Youkilis isn't nearly as fearsome as even a hobbling, immature, and possibly dysenteric Manny Ramirez, but you still don't want to face him with a guy on second if you don't have to. Ortiz walked, which was totally no problem, before Youkilis hit a deep fly out to right to end the inning. For those scoring at home: walk, line drive, walk, deep fly, zero runs. Cha Baek's gameplan was working perfectly.
Which brought us to Kyle Snyder, who looks like Bronson Arroyo and throws like Jeff Karstens' handicapped little brother. This is a guy who clearly didn't break into the Majors by virtue of his raw stuff, which makes you wonder why he was the seventh overall pick in 1999, because generally you like to see seventh overall picks exhibit something that vaguely resembles an out pitch. Look a little closer and you can see that the 6'8 Snyder was, at the very least, projectable, but if the calendar says "2006" and he still hasn't developed the repertoire to go with his body, it's time to give up. How this clown wound up making his sixth start of the season for a team with the second-highest payroll in baseball is beyond me, but being one who directly enjoys the unavoidable side-effects of this acquisition, I'm not really in any position to complain.
Snyder started off like everyone else has started off for the past three or four weeks - by getting Ichiro to make a quick out. He promptly ran into trouble, though, and an infield single by Richie Sexson (the first of many miscues the Boston defense would make on the day), loaded the bases with two down for Ben Broussard, who was brought in specifically to excel in these situations. The problem is that he's vulnerable to any pitcher able to get ahead in the count, and sure enough, Snyder got to 0-2 and went on to put Broussard away on a loopy breaking ball. So far this season, Broussard has hit .307 against fastballs, but just .226, 205, and .190 against curves, sliders, and changeups, respectively. He's crazydangerous when he gets into a fastball count, but when he falls behind, he's not very hard to put away. This is probably why he had so much success in Cleveland earlier this year despite not walking much - he swung early in the count because he knew the longer he lasted, the fewer fastballs he'd see, and the less likely it was that he'd end up on base.
Broussard's at bat was discouraging, but it wasn't enough to deter Cha Baek from doing what he does best - putting the ball in play and getting outs in the air. He made quick work of the Red Sox in the top of the second, taking us to the bottom half, which turned out to be the kind of inning that makes you wonder why scorekeepers don't charge position players with earned runs. Yuniesky Betancourt led off with a catchable liner into left, but Kevin Youkilis determined that the best approach to catching the fly ball would be to remain in place and flash his mad Jew hops with a last-second high jump, which didn't pan out. The ball flew past his glove and rolled to the wall, allowing Yubet to coast into second with a double. Rene Rivera, who I can only assume gets paid specifically to stab at balls in the dirt and strike out on heaters over the plate in an effort to make everyone else look better, followed Betancourt by going down on strikes, but just when Boston thought they might get out of the inning, they got Ignited. Willie Ballgame lifted a towering pop-up into the sun, which he totally did on purpose, and it didn't take long for Youkilis to give up on tracking it and curl into a ball to protect his giant assface as the ball dropped to the ground. Because it never made physical contact with Youkilis on the way down, the scorekeeper was technically obligated to score it a hit, but what this means is that instead of a single and a fly out, Willie's tacked two more extra-base hits onto his season total (now eight) by letting Coco Crisp badly misjudge a sinking liner and forcing Kevin Youkilis to blind himself. Willie's isolated power currently stands at a paltry .061, but that's still 15 points higher than what it should be.
For whatever reason Francona thought it'd be a good idea to intentionally walk the execrable Ichiro to face the red-hot Chris Snelling, who lifted a shallow fly ball into center. This being the Red Sox, though, Coco Crisp never had a prayer of throwing Betancourt out at home, and the score was 1-0 Seattle.
Things kind of got dull after that, with the only real "highlight" being Mike Hargrove completely ignoring everything I said earlier about hit-and-runs by calling for one with Raul Ibanez on first and Richie Sexson at the plate with a two-strike count. Slow runner: check. Potential breaking ball count: check. Arguably the worst contact hitter in the league at the plate: check. It's almost like Hargrove chose the worst possible timing out of spite, because there's really no other explanation. It was stupid before it happened and even stupider in the aftermath, when Richie struck out and Ibanez got gunned down at second. Rally over. Ben Broussard followed that up with a strikeout on a curveball for good measure.
Things remained the same into the fifth, when Cha Baek walked the first two batters he faced, the latter on something like 14 pitches. Quicker than you could say "he's laboring," though, Baek came back and struck out both Javy Lopez and Alex Cora looking - on six pitches. He quickly got ahead of Coco Crisp 0-2, too, before allowing a routine grounder to first that Ben Broussard made into something considerably less routine. Sure enough, the same day Hargrove decides to give Sexson a rest by swapping him with the DH, his replacement costs the team a run by making a bad throw to Baek on his way to cover first base. The ball skipped away, the Red Sox tied the game, and the inning only came to an end when Dustin Pedroia overran second base and got thrown out. One can only imagine what would've happened had Pedroia remained; presumably Mark Loretta would've been the final batter of Baek's day, with David Ortiz looming on deck, but despite the no-hitter Baek was quickly running out of steam, and that hypothetical matchup would've spelled trouble.
Anyway Rivera's heads-up defense and Pedroia's stupid baserunning kept things tied into the bottom of the fifth, when Kyle Snyder just completely melted down. Ichiro slapped an infield single (the first sign that his slump is coming to and end), Snelling drilled a double down the first base line, and Adrian Beltre drew an easy walk - his second of the game - to set up Raul Ibanez with the bases loaded. Stuck on 24 homers for more than two weeks, it'd been a while since we last saw him flash the power stroke, but all that changed in an instant when a Snyder inside fastball caught too much of the plate. Ibanez turned on it and sent a fly ball deep into right that was a guaranteed four runs off the bat as long as it stayed fair. It did, and all of a sudden everyone woke up from their afternoon nap - the stadium, the dugout, the fans at home, and Ben Broussard, who actually made contact two batters later. The 5-1 lead felt enormous, but if that wasn't enough, a Javy Lopez throwing error on a play he never should've attempted in the first place pushed the sixth Mariner run across the plate. Francona intentionally walked Ichiro again to face Chris Snelling with the bases loaded, but all hopes that he'd break the game wide open when he got ahead 3-0 were put to rest when he struck out on the eighth pitch of the at bat. Still, a 6-1 lead after five innings? That's comfort at its highest level, and Win Expectancy put the Mariners at 95.6%.
(Of note: while Snelling has struck out a bunch so far [nine times in 28 plate appearances], he's also hit six line drives on 15 balls in play. That may not seem like much, but compare that 40% with the Major League leader, Freddy Sanchez, who's at 28.5% line drives. Snelling's obviously not going to continue smacking the ball at such a ridiculous rate, but he's also not going to keep striking out like this either, so don't worry. He's great.)
Even when Cha Baek allowed a pair of solo shots in the span of four batters - the first two Boston hits of the game, breaking up the worst no-hitter of all time - I wasn't nervous, because on top of that weirdass pregame confidence, I also trusted our bullpen to hold against Boston's feeble lineup, and besides, their relief corps isn't trustworthy anyway, so even if the Red Sox somehow came back to tie things up we'd still have the advantage. Baek departed to a standing ovation that seemed completely ridiculous if you know anything about DIPS Theory and handed the ball off to Sean Green, who did the same thing he's done all season long, walking one, fanning another, and inducing a pair of groundball outs in 1.1 innings of work.
Ibanez grand slam aside, the whole game was rather slow and boring, so I don't blame you if you didn't notice Rafael Soriano pitching the eighth. It was a completely unnecessary move on Hargrove's part; Soriano doesn't handle pitching in back-to-back games very well, and with Boston's lineup showing zero signs of life, Hargrove could've very easily let Green stay in to face Mark Loretta. If he gets out, you leave Green in to pitch to Ortiz, since the worst he could do was make it a two-run game. If he reaches, you go to O'Flaherty or Sherrill to stifle the rally before it starts. Simple. If all kinds of things go bad, then you can think about using Soriano or Putz, but it never got that far today. Even the worst relievers in baseball are generally capable of preserving a three-run lead, but in Mike Hargrove's world, you can never know that for sure, because they never get the opportunity.
Soriano didn't look great, but he survived, and after an incredibly quick bottom of the eighth we saw JJ Putz warming up and knew the game was effectively over. Not that we didn't already know that as soon as we laid our eyes on Kyle Snyder, but Putz just has this air of certainty and reliable dominance that brings you renewed feelings of happiness. Again, Hargrove didn't need to go to his ace closer to face the 6-7-8 hitters of Boston's B-team lineup with a three-run lead, but as much as I would've preferred seeing someone else, I shut up the instant JJ started pitching, because it's just impossible to complain about anything when you watch him go to work. Eric Hinske lifted a routine fly ball to center to lead off, and that was the best the Red Sox could manage - Pedroia and Lopez each struck out on fastballs to end the game. I don't think JJ threw a single splitter all inning long, but the mere thought of it was enough to keep the hitters indecisive, and by the time they identified each delivery as a 98mph fastball instead of a 88mph splitter, it was already in Rivera's glove. That's the great thing about having a devastating arsenal - you don't always have to use it for it to work.
The sweep was over. The camera panned to a number of doe-eyed Red Sox fans around the stadium, but if I was feeling any bit of sympathy, it was expressed in fist-pumps and verbal taunts to the monitor. I couldn't have asked for a better weekend.
Felix and Kelvim Escobar tomorrow at 7:05pm PDT as the dreaded Angels come to town 5.5 games behind the A's. You know how we just ended somebody's season? How'd you like to do that again?