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The Angels thought they could hack their way to a win over King Felix. How cute.

Biggest Contribution: El Dominante, +61.8%
Biggest Suckfest: Jose Lopez, -15.0%
Most Important At Bat: Sexson double, +12.9%
Most Important Pitch: Rivera DP, +6.3%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +61.8%
Total Contribution by Position Players: -11.8%

(The Angels are as close to last place as they are to first.)

Pittsburgh fans will probably hate me for saying this, but the Mariners have had a lot of losing seasons recently. During those seasons, we've had plenty of time to think about why we're still paying attention long after all hope of making the playoffs is gone, with several different points of view offered as responses to this post. The most popular reasons given were that (A) we're all hardcore baseball fans who just enjoy watching games, and (B) it's fun to see our young players develop into guys who can help us in a pennant race down the road. Typical loser talk, as fans of better teams would say.

Well, after this last week, I think it's time we add another reason to the list. Missing the postseason sucks, but in all seriousness, playing the spoiler role is almost as fun. There's less anxiety, less Tim McCarver, and - since only one team makes it all the way to the end - less heartbreak. Just a greatly inflated sense of false superiority. The Mariners are worse than the Yankees, they're worse than the Red Sox, and they're worse than the Angels, but that's most of what makes this so fun, because losing to Seattle sends fans of those other teams into a tizzy while earning us the kind of respect we didn't have a few weeks ago.

I don't want to do this forever - and, fortunately, I don't think I'll have to, since the Mariners are going to be a strong group in 2007 - but for now, contributing to the downfall of two of my least favorite teams in all of professional sports is a remarkably satisfying way to roll through what's been a distinctly dissatisfying season.

Felix entered the night coming off one of the worst outings he's ever had, a disaster where 13 of the 23 Yankees he faced reached base and seven of them scored. That start came just ten days after Felix allowed seven runs to the Rangers, and served to negate a lot of the progress he'd made over a four-game stretch immediately prior where he allowed a total of five runs in 26 innings. It promised to be a little easier tonight, since the Yankees have an unholy juggernaut of a lineup and the Angels don't, but thanks to Juan Rivera and Howie Kendrick, Anaheim's offense had picked way up from where it was earlier in the year, so it was still going to be a challenge for Felix to outpitch his opponent, who's quietly been a good #2 for a while despite a countless number of injury problems.

The gameplan for Felix was clear - throw a lot of two-seamers low in the zone and let the hitters get themselves out. That's what the gameplan should be for every Felix start, but it was more critical today than usual, because the Angels have an aggressive lineup that makes a lot of contact, and if Felix tried to be pretty and go for a bunch of strikeouts, he was only going to end up frustrated and pitching out of jams, which is how he winds up with starts like last Wednesday's. He needed to take advantage of Anaheim's approach by feeding them balls they could hit, but not hit well, and not into the air. He had all the tools to succeed against this lineup; he just needed to use them.

And, God dammit, use them he did. For the first time in several starts Felix came out throwing easy and pounding the zone around the knees with tailing fastballs. Right off the bat you could tell that he was using a different approach than usual because he wasn't trying to blow his four-seamer by anyone, nor was he trying to miss bats with slow stuff that moved. He was just tossing a low- to mid-90s fastball into the lower half and letting the natural movement do the work for him. Forget the high hard heater; it's the sinking two-seam fastball that Felix should try to establish every game. It was certainly working for him today. Maicer Izturis lined a belt-high heater into left-center for a single in the second at bat of the game, but the rest of the first inning consisted of three weak groundballs, and despite a bad throw by Willie Ballgame on an infield chopper, Felix left the field without allowing a run.

The Mariners sent a few guys to the plate with bats but if you blinked you didn't notice.

The second inning was more of the same from Felix - easy delivery, quick rhythm, and a ton of low two-seamers. When I say "easy delivery" I don't mean it in the Tim Wakefield sense, as Felix's pitching motion stresses his shoulder even when he's not really exerting himself, but you can tell from his follow-through when he's trying too hard and overthrowing, and there was none of that in the early going today. He looked fluid, and the result was that, instead of making a scatterplot with 99mph heaters, he was getting pretty consistent location of his tailing fastball. The Angels were trying to wait him out, but because he was throwing so many strikes they quickly wound up behind in the count and having to make defensive swings that produced infield roller after infield roller. After two innings of work, Felix had allowed one line drive and six groundballs. On 18 pitches.

The Mariners sent a few guys to the plate with bats but if you blinked you didn't notice. The highlight was hearing Dave deliver the "bad news" that Julio Mateo broke his left hand and would be out for the rest of the season, which is bad news in the way that watching Sportscenter in my living with Heidi Klum and finding out that she's capable of picking up the remote control with her feet is bad news. Losing Mateo's rubber arm is about as inconveniencing as having to wipe foot grease off the remote before you use it, but your brain can't even conceive of the situation's potential upside.

To the third we went, when Felix made his second mistake of the game, elevating a pitch to Adam Kennedy that was lined right into Adrian Beltre's glove. That seemed to give Felix a little kick in the pants, because almost immediately he went right back to what was working earlier, and he induced a pair of groundballs. However, the first rolled up the middle for a single and the second wound up in the outfield when Jose Lopez tried to make a pretty play instead of getting the easy out at first and threw it past Willie Ballgame from 15 feet. With two on and one out, though, Felix caught a break, when Izturis hit a liner off his glove and right to Lopez, who - despite Willie setting a moving pick - stepped on second for the out. A feeble grounder by Orlando Cabrera ended the inning with no harm done, save for the elevated pitch count courtesy of Lopez's misplay.

(Side note: what the hell was Willie doing on the field in the first place? I understand the need for Hargrove to give his regulars a day off from time to time [although this is evidently a new idea to Grover himself], but the least he could do is schedule them so that the replacements don't actively hurt the team's chances of winning. With a righty on the mound for the Angels and an extreme groundballer on the mound for the M's, why Willie? He's got horrible platoon splits and Betancourt's a better defensive shortstop dead than Willie could ever dream of being alive, so how was that a good idea? Despite Willie's best efforts it all worked out in the end, but, man.)

The Mariners sent a few guys to the plate with bats but if you blinked you didn't notice.

Things started getting really easy in the fourth. The Angels went into all-out hacking mode, which played right into Felix's hands. Vlad grounded out on the second pitch, and after Anderson dropped a Texas Leaguer between Beltre, Ballgame, and Ibanez in left - Anaheim's first flyball of the game - Rivera grounded a routine double play ball to Lopez at second, who made his underhand flip to Willie look shinier than it had to. Felix threw seven pitches in the inning, with the Angels swinging at all six strikes. At 38 pitches after four, you started hearing whispers of a potential complete game.

The Mariners sent a few guys to the plate with bats and two of them scored courtesy of a Richie Sexson double - when I could've sworn he was going to strike out - and a Kenji Johjima "single" that would've been the third out had it not taken a wacky lateral bounce by a charging Orlando Cabrera. Escobar still looked strong, but a couple elevated mistakes were all the M's needed to jump out to what felt like a bigger lead than it really was.

The fifth was almost comical. Kendrick and Kennedy each went up trying to be patient, but as soon as Felix dropped a first-pitch strike they hacked away, getting a groundout and a foul pop-out for their efforts. Jose Molina actually saw a ball and a strike before his groundout. Another seven-pitch inning where nobody made any kind of solid contact. After five, Felix's count: three line drives, two fly balls (both bloopers), 13 grounders.

The Mariners sent a few guys to the plate with bats but if you blinked you didn't notice.

In the sixth we saw a change in Felix's approach. He'd only thrown 45 pitches up to that point but he started to labor a little bit, missing higher in the zone than he had been earlier. A 3-2 mistake to Chone Figgins got drilled into center but it found Ichiro's glove, as did Izturis' flyball that followed. A Cabrera line drive single on the first pitch was enough to raise my eyebrows - two flies and a liner weren't the kinds of results we would've expected based on the first five innings. That's when Felix got mean. At the time, David Cameron thought the fly balls spooked him. I thought he snapped awake after getting lazy. Whatever the case, he attacked Vladimir Guerrero with two sharp breaking balls out of the zone to get ahead 0-2 and, two pitches later, put him away on an outside fastball that FSN recorded at 100mph. Inning over, still two-zip. What was most amazing about the Guerrero at bat was how different it was from all the other ones we'd seen all game long. Felix didn't try to induce a groundball with a single low two-seamer; he began the AB trying for a strikeout and got his wish on four pitches. He knew it was a big situation, and he adjusted his approach accordingly.

The Mariners sent a few guys to the plate with bats but if you blinked you didn't notice.

The Angels sent a few guys to the plate with bats but if you blinked you didn't notice. By this point, though, it was clear that Felix had changed his gameplan, as he replaced half his sinkers with breaking balls to try and put guys away. It certainly worked on Howie Kendrick, who whiffed on a 1-2 count to end the frame. Felix only had two strikeouts through seven, and yet it still felt like his most dominant start of the season.

The Mariners sent a few guys to the plate with bats but if you blinked you didn't notice.

The Angels sent a few guys to the plate with bats but if you blinked you didn't notice. Strikeout, strikeout, groundout. The at bats were getting longer as Felix kept going for the glory instead of the easy out, but because of his efficiency earlier in the game he still had the juice to pull it off.

The Mariners sent a few guys to the plate with bats but if you blinked you didn't notice.

We got to the top of the ninth before 9pm, on pace for the shortest game in Safeco history. Felix was beginning to run out of steam, missing high and getting a little less tail on his fastball, but he was still able to get both Izturis and Cabrera to ground to Betancourt at short (good defensive replacement, if eight innings later than I would've liked), setting up a Felix/Guerrero showdown as the final at bat. Felix started him off with another brutal slider in the dirt for strike one, and you felt like he was going to put everything he had left in the tank into striking Vlad out for the second time in a row, but it wouldn't get that far, as Vlad somehow got under a low fastball and hit a 375-foot flyball to the deepest part of the park for the final out. In one hour and fifty-one minutes, Felix wrapped up the first complete-game shutout of his career, needing just 95 pitches to put away a batting order that, if not for a defensive miscue, wouldn't have gotten a runner to third all night.

This is exactly the kind of pitcher Felix needs to be going forward. Tonight was probably the smartest game he's ever pitched, and one can only hope that he learned something, specifically that  you don't need to strike everyone out to be an effective pitcher. His fastball location isn't good enough to get him 15 punchouts a game, but it is good enough to allow him to be an efficient groundball machine that routinely gets into the eighth inning. I've said it before and I'll say it again - Felix's dominance is indicated by grounders, not strikeouts. We knew that before. Hopefully he knows that now. We've seen him have the most success against aggressive lineups that swing early and often, because he learns that he can take advantage of this by making them get themselves out. All that's left is for him to figure out that he can use the same approach against the New Yorks and Bostons of the world, because even the best hitters in the league can't go deep on groundballs. They'll take a few more pitches and they'll hit a few more singles, but when Felix is putting that two-seamer where he was all game tonight, he's going to do well against any lineup you throw out there.

Rely on grounders. Go for the strikeout when you need to. See how simple that is? If Felix finishes the season by stringing together a bunch of strong starts, tonight is unquestionably the watershed.

Jered Weaver rides a one-game losing streak into the start tomorrow night, although if someone puts a room fan on the mound and aims it toward the visiting bullpen he might never make it there. Washburn for the M's, 7:05pm PDT. Take one of the next two games and that's a pretty impressive trio of series victories.