No matter the opponent, no matter your place in the standings, no matter how bad you looked for the rest of the game, moments like this have a way of erasing your memory and making everything feel wonderful, if only for a night. One swing of the bat pulls you out of your constant state of worried skepticism and fills you with euphoria, the kind of exhilaration that's one part happiness about the outcome and two parts relief that you won't have nightmares about Jae Seo or Mike Hargrove's tactical aptitude. The feeling of "we're gonna blow it we're gonna blow it we're gonna blow it we're gonna WIN!!!!" may have been popularized by someone else, but I don't mind borrowing it from time to time and making it my own, because it might be the biggest thrill in sports, and it makes all the loyalty worthwhile.
The Mariners didn't need Sexson to hit a grand slam. They didn't need him to hit a triple, or a double, or a single, or even a fly out to the warning track. They just needed him to hit the ball either deep enough or slow enough to score a runner from 90 feet away, and that would've won them the ballgame. But somehow this was just so much more appropriate. Richie's an all-or-nothing hitter, seemingly moreso this year than ever before, and he wasn't going to settle for a sac fly or a fielder's choice - he was going to either strike out and kill the rally or go deep to bring everyone to their feet. And for once, he chose the latter.
The Mariners are in no better position than they were two days ago, still 6.5 games behind the first-place A's. But you know what? I don't care. Keep winning and everything will sort itself out in the end. If and when they fall short, we'll all reflect on what might've been had certain things played out differently, but I just can't bring myself to be mad at this team after a game like tonight's. Even if they were trying to kill me for nine and a half innings.
Biggest Contribution: Felix Hernandez, +45.7%
Biggest Suckfest: Ben Broussard, -20.7%
Most Important At Bat: Ichiro double, +17.2%
Most Important "Pitch": Zobrist caught stealing, +10.6%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +62.1%
Total Contribution by Position Players: -44.0%
Gotta go straight to the bullet points. Even thought they don't necessarily make the wrap-up any shorter, they make it feel shorter when I'm writing, and the also let me jump from random topic to random topic without having to make any clever segues. And away we go...
- Felix Hernandez was absolutely dealing tonight. He seemed to get a little worse as the game wore on, leaving a couple balls up in the zone and escaping when Jorge Cantu just missed a pitch in the eighth, but for much of the night it was as good as he's looked all season long. His fastball was routinely in the upper 90's and moving all over the place while his breaking balls were sharp and consistently around the knees. You always have to be a little wary about games like this since the Devil Rays' lineup has a tendency to help pitchers out a fair bit, but based purely on how Felix looked, I don't think anyone would've done much against his stuff tonight. The 4.29 ERA is his lowest since April 7th, so he's definitely trending in the right direction. Don't go crazy yet, but this was very encouraging.
- Jae Seo, on the other hand, was just the latest in a long line of generic arms to show up throwing slop and shut the Mariners down. As has been the case all year long, the hitters went up there hacking, their propensity for making quick outs allowing Seo to trim his repertoire to only his most effective pitches. He was throwing "his pitch" all night and the Mariners were going after it, and if not for a couple of mistakes by Dioner Navarro on the same play we might not be in such bright spirits. This lineup so badly needs a guy capable of walking 90-100 times a year. I suppose you can put some of the blame for the current lousy approach at Jeff Pentland's feet, but a lineup composed of naturally aggressive hitters is going to swing the bat, so there's really only so much a batting coach can do. I'd love to know why Richie Sexson has suddenly stopped talking walks. That certainly hasn't helped matters any.
- Speaking of Seo, he threw an outside 2-0 slider to Adrian Beltre in the bottom of the eighth and immediately shook his right hand and grimaced a little bit, prompting Joe Maddon and a trainer to come out to the mound for a check-up. By itself, that's not so weird, and we've seen it happen with the Mariners a few times this year. That's not all that happened, though. Maddon came out, asked Seo if he was fine, and - dissatisfied with the response - physically grabbed Seo's arms and made him look his manager in the eyes while assuring him that nothing is wrong (screengrab available here if you're interested). Seo presumably said as much, and Maddon/trainer returned to the dugout. One lousy pitch later, Seo was yanked.
Pitchers are a notoriously stubborn breed, and they're perfectly willing to pitch through fatigue or pain without admitting to anything until it becomes so unbearable that they have to sprint off the field a la Victor Zambrano. Jake Peavy's doing it right now, Julio Mateo did it a few months ago, and so on and so forth. Unless you've just got a really honest, genuine hurler on your hands, a pitcher's only going to ask out of a game when it's 110 degrees and he's clearly gassed. Which is why it's always so strange to me when a manager lets the guy on the mound tell him what to do. Most of the time they're not being honest when they say they feel fine, so why leave it up to them? It's important to have a trusting relationship between player and coach, but at the same time a manager's job is to do what gives his team the best chance of winning, and if the radar gun or opposing batters are telling him his pitcher is done, then his pitcher is done, and that's the end of it. Take the guy out and go to the bullpen. He might be annoyed, but he'll understand that you're just doing what you think is in the team's best interests.
- Everybody loves mammoth no-doubter home runs for the broadcast call and the fan response. What typically goes unnoticed, though, might also be the most satisfying part of the whole thing - when an outfielder stands still, tracking the ball's flight with his eyes without even bothering to jog after it because he knows it's way gone. So thanks, Rocco Baldelli, for making Sexson's homer that much more enjoyable for all of us.
- I posted this in yesterday's game thread, but it bears repeating: presented with a choice of either demoting Adam Jones or playing him every day, the Mariners (specifically Mike Hargrove) chose to do neither. The justification for keeping Jones on the bench these last two games is that "he still has things to learn" while Willie "needs to get some at bats," but Jones isn't going to learn anything from the dugout, and Willie needs as many at bats against right-handed pitchers as the Moose does. It's just a total waste; Willie's gone to the plate 16 times in August to Jones' 7. I won't let myself freak out about this too much since the net loss for Jones isn't that large and Hargrove isn't a permanent fixture, but the current arrangement has zero upside and too much downside.
We had two main arguments against Jones' initial promotion: that (1) he was at risk of having his confidence crushed by the big leagues, and (2) Hargrove was unlikely to use him how he needs to be used. So far, it looks like they're both coming true. What better way for Hargrove to show Jones how little he thinks of him than by benching him in favor of the worst bat on the team? It's a blow to the ego, and it's completely uncalled for.
- Adrian Beltre since June 2: .288/.359/.536. with 52% of his hits going for extra bases. That's Maximum Value Beltre right there, and about as good a line as he could ever put up playing half his games in Safeco. Whether he's able to sustain this kind of performance is another question, but fortunately he could get 10-15% worse from what he's been for the past 2+ months and still be a valuable player. For the time being, he's an awful lot of fun to watch at the plate, as his ugly swings are few and far between and he's finally drilling those fastballs over the plate that he used to foul back or swing through entirely. I'm not going to make any predictions about his future performance since he's been all over the map during his time in Seattle, but if nothing else, we have reason to be way more optimistic now than we were in May.
- Since the beginning of July, George Sherrill has retired 35 of the 43 batters he's faced, with three hits, five walks, and 14 strikeouts. Batters just can't touch the guy; his OPS against is .482, courtesy of a .193 SLG. If he doesn't walk you, you don't have a prayer.
- Everyone has their own complaints about the Mariner announcer team, be it Niehaus' dawning senility, Hendu's bumbling incoherence, Valle's hairplugs, Fairly's tendency to state the obvious, or Rizzs' grating insincerity. For me, though, as much as these things may get on my nerves, nothing's even close to being as disturbing and uncomfortable as the intro to the bottom of the fifth, when Rizzs and Valle take over the broadcast and recap everything that's happened up to that point in the game. See, between the highlights are shots of Rizzs and Valle sitting next to each other in the booth, and while it would be bad enough just to have to watch one of them talk to you, it's made a gazillion times worse by the fact that whichever one isn't speaking invariably maintains a steady gaze towards the camera, which you can see here:
Every time I see Rick Rizzs he seems to have a reliably unsettling facial expression, and I don't appreciate my game-watching being interrupted by an old man undressing me with his eyes through my computer screen (although I suppose I should be flattered that, if this image is any proof, he apparently likes what he sees). It's almost like he's asking you to come sit in his van with his eyebrows.
Day game tomorrow, with Jarrod Washburn going up against James Shields at 1:35pm PDT.