A selection of starting pitchers to whom the Mariners have lost this year:
Darrell Rasner, Matt DeSalvo, Justin Germano, Ramon Ortiz, Carlos Silva
A selection of starting pitchers the Mariners have defeated:
Dan Haren, Daisuke Matsuzaka, Andy Pettitte, Kelvim Escobar, Greg Maddux, Scott Kazmir
This team may be nearly as frustrating as the last few that we've seen sometimes, but if nothing else, they seem to be much less predictably so. Whether or not that's an improvement is up to you, but hey, it's different.
Biggest Contribution: Jarrod Washburn, +22.4%
Biggest Suckfest: Adrian Beltre, -27.9%
Most Important At Bat: Sexson single, +20.8%
Most Important Pitch: Upton DP, +9.6%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +41.1%
Total Contribution by Position Players: -1.5%
Total Contribution by Opposition: +10.4%
Let's be honest - as much as the term gets thrown around all willy-nilly by a lot of people, this was just about as much of a must-win game as any the Mariners have played all year. Already in the midst of a slump and falling further and further behind the Angels, this team couldn't afford to get off on the wrong foot against the Devil Rays, not when they represent the first "break" (weak opponent) we've seen in weeks. No, it'd be critical for the M's to come up with a strong performance against a tough pitcher and put themselves in position to catch fire against Tampa and Kansas City, leading up to the Anaheim series. That's what these guys need to do to stay in the race. No comeback is impossible, especially when you're talking about the standings in May, but a basic understanding of probability is enough to show that this is a big week for the 2007 season.
So with that in mind, the M's didn't appear to be treating the game any differently than usual in the early going. Sure, Jose Vidro drew a walk, and that's always a little more exciting for us than it would be for anyone else, but the rest of the lineup made four outs in the top of the first, failing to cash in after Ty Wigginton converted one of them into a baserunner. It seemed like Adrian Beltre had just bounced out to end the inning a second ago when we saw Elijah Dukes slice a liner into right field for a leadoff triple. Almost immediately it felt like we were already playing catch-up, and that's not a good way to kick off such an important game.
(As an aside, the people who call triples "the most exciting play in baseball" have obviously never watched Ben Broussard try to track down a routine fly ball in left field.)
I think at that point we all just wanted to concede the run and move on, but Washburn refused to make it that simple; he proceeded to walk BJ Upton and give up a run-scoring single to Carl Crawford, teaching us all a lesson in expecting better from Mariner pitchers. Finally he made a good enough pitch to get somebody out, but Wigginton's sharp grounder to third got through Adrian Beltre and allowed a second run to come around to score. Already we felt doomed, and the game was barely ten minutes old.
Then the damndest thing happened - Brendan Harris hit a ball on the screws, but before we could turn off the game and slam something nearby in frustration, Adrian Beltre snared the liner with reflexes so fast you wonder how he looks to be taken by surprise so often at the plate. He threw to second to double up Crawford, and in an instant what seemed like a developing disaster scenario was suddenly the virtual end to a threat. Washburn would end the inning having allowed the two runs, but it could've been a whole hell of a lot worse, and in situations like that sometimes you need to hang your hat on such a consolation.
The Mariners, of course, took their sweet time in getting back into the game, since this lineup has an uncanny ability to not feed off of momentum at all, but Washburn settled down, avoiding the part of the plate that nearly got him torched in the first. Watching him work got me thinking - Washburn almost never dominates an opponent the way he did New York, but he also doesn't get knocked out in the early innings. He's basically a two-outcome pitcher, in that while he'll give you a half-dozen or so frames in every start, sometimes he'll give up four or five runs, and sometimes he'll surrender one or two. The thing is, all of those starts pretty much feel the same. Seldom does Washburn depart and leave me thinking "man, he sure did suck today." It always seems like he's been effective, even when the line score suggests otherwise. The reason for this, I think, is that he throws strikes, and tends to allow runs in a hurry. He doesn't fall into spells where he loses the zone and labors through long, exhausting innings. He takes the same approach game after game, sometimes getting hit and sometimes not. That's it, and it does wonders for his "feel" as a pitcher.
The way I figure, Washburn ends up with about two or three big at bats in every game, where he has to work to a guy in a run-scoring situation. And what happens to the ball that guy puts in play determines how Washburn's line looks at the end of the day. Regardless of the outcome, though, the at bats are always over quickly and before long Washburn's out of the inning, leaving you feeling like he did pretty well, even if he didn't. I think his flyball tendencies are a part of this; sometimes that batter may hit a home run, but it's over so fast that you kind of forget about it. Earlier this year Washburn went six against the Rangers and allowed four runs, but while that's not very good, when he left you felt good about his start, because Ian Kinsler's two-run shot in the fifth was over in a flash, and it didn't make any difference in how Washburn was pitching. So, yeah. This isn't in any way related to Washburn's actual value as a pitcher, but it's something that's been bouncing around in my head for weeks. Most of Washburn's starts feel the same, it's just that sometimes you reflect on them with a smile, and other times you look back and wonder when all those runs happened.
Anyway, the Mariners finally got to Kazmir in the fifth. With one down and none on, Jason Ellison showed up his coaching staff by turning a 1-2 count into a walk, and after Ichiro dropped a single in front of Crawford in center, Jose Vidro tapped a 30-foot roller for his ninth infield hit of the season, tying him for sixth in the league. That brought up the hottest hitter in the order, who was in a position where he basically had to come through since Sexson was standing on deck. Guillen, though, forgot which team he hated just long enough to strike out on a ball at his eyes, bringing up Sexson in another situation where nobody liked what they could totally see coming. Even after getting ahead 3-0, Richie got two identical cut fastball strikes on the outside corner, and we knew what was going to happen. We just didn't know if it'd be swinging or called.
Then he singled. For just the ninth time this season, and sixth with men on base, Richie Sexson singled, rolling a grounder between the dual pylons of Wigginton and Harris on the left side of the infield. Two runs scored to tie the game, and we were struck by the most unfamiliar of feelings: a successful comeback, capped by a guy we were paying to be a run producer. It was almost too good to be true. You see, fans of other teams are spoiled by their David Ortizes and Travis Hafners and Vladimir Guerreros. Us, we truly appreciate these kinds of hits, something which I have to imagine is a direct result of their scarcity. It's the rarest elements that're worth the most money, after all.
Washburn got through his half, and when we got to the top of the sixth we were greeted by the complete and utter shock that our lineup had actually worked Kazmir hard enough through five innings to knock him out of the game. While this team hasn't been able to hit righties to save its life so far, the righties in Tampa's bullpen have to be easier than a lefty like Kazmir, so things were looking up. So far up, in fact, that two batters later Yuniesky Betancourt hit maybe the first no-doubter of his career off of stathead sweetheart Chad Orvella to give the Mariners a 3-2 lead. The ball landed seven rows back in left field, narrowly missing the only man wearing suspenders on the planet.
When I say "maybe the first no-doubter of his career," by the way, I'm being serious. Of Betancourt's 13 Major League home runs, it seems like pretty much all of them landed just beyond the left field fence. According to Hit Tracker Online (which, as of this writing, hasn't been updated to include today's games), the farthest home run he'd hit flew 399 feet, which isn't very far. For the sake of comparison, 16 of the 28 measured home runs hit last Sunday went at least 400. Betancourt just isn't a power hitter, which is why moments like his sixth inning AB today are so surprisingly awesome. He crapped all over Orvella's pitch, delivering what I'm sure both of them thought was essentially the least likely outcome.
One of the things I like about Hit Tracker Online is that the data it provides gives you an indication of whether a guy's trouble hitting for consistent power stems from physical weakness or a bad approach. Betancourt, for example, has never hit a home run farther than 399 feet, suggesting that he just isn't strong enough to be a 20-homer threat. Adrian Beltre, though, hit one 416 a little while back, and last year hit a bomb off Kirk Saarloos that went 435. The implication here is that Beltre's plenty strong to knock the ball out of any park, and that the problem lies instead in how he attacks the pitcher. Nothing we didn't already kind of subconsciously understand, but still interesting.
While Betancourt's homer only gave the Mariners a one-run lead, it felt comfortable, as the Rays hadn't threatened since the first. Those of you who require a little more of a cushion to ease up were then rewarded in the seventh, when - with Ichiro on first - Jose Vidro stuck his bat out in front of an Orvella fastball and roped it into right-center. While the ball bounced over the fence for a ground-rule double, the umpires allowed Ichiro to score, since they determined he would've come around had the ball stayed in the park. Joe Maddon came out to argue, but while many thought the issue was the Ichiro run, Maddon's beef was with home plate umpire Brian Knight, who gave Vidro second base on a play where Maddon thought Crawford could've thrown him out at first. Maddon lost the debate, surely an unusual turn of events for a man who wears glasses, and returned to the dugout wondering when Baseball Prospectus was going to start a Major League franchise of its own and relieve him of his Orvella problem.
The Mariners went into the bottom of the seventh up 4-2, and with a man on and one out, Mike Hargrove called on Brandon Morrow to relieve Jarrod Washburn. Morrow did his usual thing, throwing the ball all over the place and putting enough zip on his pitches to render the lack of command a fairly insignificant problem. Elijah Dukes went after a high fastball for a strikeout, then the absurdly good BJ Upton popped out to second to end the inning. One more time, Morrow proved that you don't even need to have a clue where you're throwing as long as you're a reliever with a 95mph moving fastball. Watching the Dukes at bat, it seems like Morrow has just enough velocity to make it work, and that he'd be in trouble if he were throwing 92-93 instead, but fortunately that's unlikely to happen as long as he's in the bullpen. (Can we ignore the whole "he should be a starter" issue for just one day? Please?)
We skipped ahead to the eighth, where Gary Glover made the mistake of throwing Kenji Johjima's Power Pitch to Kenji Johjima, giving the Mariners yet another remarkably unnecessary-feeling insurance run. Up 5-2, Hargrove stayed with Morrow for the bottom half of the inning. Ordinarily this would probably be a spot for Chris Reitsma, with Morrow having done his work in the seventh and a handful of righties coming up after Crawford, but in a display of spectacular cosmic irony the durable, dependable Reitsma was unavailable due to elbow soreness, while the fragile, unreliable Raffy Soriano sat smiling in the Atlanta bullpen, chatting with teammates on a day off after recently working his 21st awesome appearance. Some people miss Chris Snelling, but for my tastes, it's the Soriano trade that'll haunt me for decades.
Nothing particularly interesting happened the rest of the way, save for a towering fly ball off the bat of Greg Norton in the ninth that looked to strike the catwalk before coming down in Ellison's glove for the third out. It probably should've been a home run, since the ball was hit harder than any I've seen in weeks, but even then it's still a 5-3 game and Tampa Bay only has one out to get two more runs against JJ Putz, so it probably wasn't worth the heated argument put forth by Joe Maddon, who's probably had better days. The umpires walked off the field while Maddon mouthed big people words and made all kinds of futile nerdy hand gestures, and the Mariners celebrated the first of what'll hopefully be several victories over this critical road trip. It wasn't the sexiest win we've ever seen, but we're not in any position to get greedy, so I've no reason to complain. You need to be able to win before you can worry about looking great doing it.
Miguel Batista and Casey Fossum tomorrow, in a 4:10pm matchup of awful pitchers whose combined ERA is still better than Jeff Weaver's.