I hadn't really thought about it like this before, but in some respects, rooting for a team in the Mariners' situation might be the most consistently exciting way to follow a baseball season, simply because every game seems to have so much meaning. Someone who likes, say, the Rockies might get up for a dozen or two games over the course of the year, and spend the rest of the time hoping for the development of younger prospects. A fan of the Red Sox, with as big a lead as they have, uses the big cushion as a reason to not get too emotionally invested in a lot of the day-to-day activity, since there's such a huge distance between them and everyone else. Meanwhile, we have to deal with the daily reality that every game is important, and that this team can't afford to drop winnable contests if it wants to stick in the race. Every day we scoreboard-watch and hope for a win while the rest of the division struggles. Even now, barely a quarter into the season, we're worrying about things like staying over .500 and Anaheim's recent winning streak. Ordinarily these things don't really start until deadline time at the earliest, but we're in a position where we know that the games now mean every bit as much as the games down the stretch.
The inevitable result of this sort of fandom is frequent overreaction. Every win means this team's good enough for the playoffs, and every loss means they're pathetic spineless sons of bitches who need to be torn apart and rebuilt for the good of the franchise. It's like this because .500 teams are difficult to read. Half the time they play well enough to look like contenders, and half the time they roll over and lose. It never occurs to anyone to say "well maybe they're just a .500 team and that's it" because on any given day, they look like someone way better or way worse than that. In the end it evens out, but during the season, they always manage to sweep you up in the rapidly changing current.
Today, the Mariners played like a contender and gained a game on the Angels. If the first quarter of the year is any indication, they're just as likely to lose tomorrow as they are to finish the sweep, but in the afterglow of today's final out, for the 21st time this season, we're left expecting good things. That may seem to an outsider like poor pattern recognition, but there hasn't been a pattern to this season so far, and that's a big part of what makes it so exciting. The big appeal of sports is the uncertainty of outcomes, and the Mariners have been one of the most unpredictable teams in the league so far. I may love them today and hate them tomorrow, but as long as they're generating that kind of powerful emotion, I know they've got me hooked.
Biggest Contribution: Yuniesky Betancourt, Miguel Batista, +21.8%
Biggest Suckfest: Jose Lopez, -19.4%
Most Important At Bat: Betancourt double, +22.1%
Most Important Pitch: Upton homer, -9.6%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +30.2%
Total Contribution by Position Players: +7.1%
Total Contribution by Opposition: +12.7%
When I come home, boot up MLB.tv, and hear "after two, the (Mariners opponent) has one run on five hits," there's a spectrum of possible responses, depending on who's on the mound:
Felix: Man, he must not have anything today.
Washburn: So it's going to be another one of those get-by-and-strand-the-world games, is it?
Batista: Uh well I suppose it could be a lot worse.
Baek: I think I'll go find something else to do, since this thing's about five minutes away from getting out of hand.
Ramirez: Wow, he's dealing!
I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised when I came back to a 1-0 deficit. If anything, I should've been thrilled, given how many hits Batista had already allowed. When, after two innings, you have a pair of singles and your opponent has three singles, a double, a steal, and a homer, you should probably thank your lucky stars that it's only a one-run game. Armed with the knowledge that the Mariners were in a better position than they ought to be, I sat down and promptly watched them helplessly flail away at Casey Fossum's 'our high school doesn't allow cuts so we have to let this guy be on the team and throw meaningless garbage innings' repertoire. His fastball was coming in at a pedestrian 85-86mph, and his curveball - the loopy, hittable sort - was accompanied by this deliberate and laughable arm action, like you see from a teenager who just learned for the first time how to throw the pitch and is trying too hard to spin the ball out of his hand. Fossum flashed the occasional changeup, too, but outside of Adrian Beltre's at bats it was pretty ineffective. In short, it was easy to see why this guy has never come close to living up to the potential people thought he had as a Boston farmhand. What wasn't so easy to see, however, was why no one on the team could hit him. He was throwing like a batting practice machine set on easy mode, and I have trouble believing that the Mariners look as bad in BP as they do during games against similar pitches.
After Kenji Johjima made possibly the best throw to second of his entire life to nail Carl Crawford by a good five feet, the Mariners got another chance at Fossum in the top of the fourth and finally made him pay for mistakenly believing in himself long enough to make it this far. That is, they got another chance after Josh Wilson turned an easy groundout into another baserunner by matadoring the bouncer. Even when they make substitutions, the Devil Ray infield still manages to give the opponent a few extra outs to play with every game. Wilson's error got the ball rolling, and Richie Sexson drew a walk to give the M's their first runner in scoring position of the day. Fossum then struck out Adrian Beltre in what was essentially a Little League encounter on a Major League stage, but a walk to Johjima opened the door for Yuniesky Betancourt to drill a two-run double down the third base line past Wilson to give Seattle the lead. It was a ball that a better third baseman probably would've knocked down, but Wilson's both (A) unfamiliar with the position, and (B) a Devil Ray, so it managed to sneak its way through. In case you're wondering why Betancourt of all players is leading Mariner hitters in WPA despite a sub-.300 OBP, it's because of things like this - he's been phenomenal in close games. All four of his home runs have broken ties, and on the year he has nine hits that've improved the Mariners' odds of winning by at least 10%, against one out that hurt it by the same amount. This isn't necessarily a repeatable statistic, but so far in 2007, even with a mediocre batting line and inconsistent defense, Yuniesky Betancourt has helped his team win.
Anyway, we got into the bottom half of the inning, and while Batista wasn't pitching like a superstar, the outcomes he was getting were far better than they were earlier on. He was working quickly and starting to make big pitches when he needed to, such as the one that got Dioner Navarro to bounce into a Vidro Special to end the fourth. (Navarro, as you may or may not have noticed, is unquestionably one of the worst players in baseball, nothing more than another busted product of the Yankee Prospect Hype Machine who's just waiting for his team to replace him once and for all so he can retire and go wait tables with Erick Almonte.) Batista kept right on going for another two more innings after that, avoiding damage by striking out BJ Upton and then getting Delmon Young to bounce out with two on in the sixth. It wasn't the sexiest start we've ever seen, but then none of Batista's are, and a season full of games like today's gives Batista a perfectly respectable 4.70 FIP. While his contract looks like a mistake, it's important to realize that, where Ho Ramirez is an ugly AAAA nobody who doesn't belong anywhere near a contending team in the AL, Miguel Batista can still be fairly effective, and isn't one of the glaring problems on the roster. His ERA is trouble, but that's a fluke, and it's gonna come down.
For the Mariners' part, they didn't stop hitting once Batista settled down. The second Vidro DP of the game nixed an opportunity to cash in on another Tampa defensive miscue in the fifth (Vidro is now one off of Rice's pace for the all-time lead in double plays), but the sixth inning saw Johjima line a double into left field to extend the lead and all but chase Fossum from the game. Those of you who wondered about Johjima's reverse platoon split from last year can probably stop worrying. Jose Lopez bounced into a double play after the first intentional walk of Yuniesky Betancourt's career loaded the bases, but even with the disappointment of watching what was supposed to be one of the best young infielders in baseball keep digging himself into a hole, the two-run lead felt safe. Worrying about Lopez's stagnation as a hitter is all well and good, but more important in the here and now is actually winning the game.
By the way, during Ichiro's at bat in the top of the fifth, the Tampa Bay announcers struck up a conversation with pre-game host and in-game correspondent Todd Kalas, who was standing amongst what I have to imagine was a very carefully selected group of Devil Ray fans:
(Kalas not shown because, unlike Safeco's, the Tropicana cameraman knows what he's doing.)
At one point Kalas said on the broadcast that he'd "found the most attractive row in the ballpark." Kalas, by the way, graduated from college before some of these girls were probably born. It was...unusual and a little uncomfortable, not because I was offended, but because I can't even imagine anyone on the Seattle announcing team being that unapologetically direct about the quality of the women in the stands. Hendu made some suggestive remarks in his day, and so far this year Dave Sims has probably crossed the line once or twice when talking about the ballgirls, but I can't imagine anyone going into the seats, standing near a bunch of attractive young women, and basically staring at their tits while trying to carry on a conversation about said tits with the lead announcers upstairs. You can see how much that guy in the backwards hat was enjoying Kalas' presumably non-threatening but obnoxious company.
It was just a weird thing to see in the middle of a baseball game. Maybe this is completely normal, and FSN Northwest is just more prudish than the sister networks for other teams, but I'm skeptical. I think it's more along the lines of Tampa Bay understanding that the quality of the gameplay isn't quite good enough yet to keep viewers happy, so they have to play to their demographic through some other means. And since you can't very well show a football game during a baseball game or personally deliver beer to every house that's tuned into the broadcast, then hey, boobs. In my experience, it's hard to go wrong with boobs.
(Incidentally, Kalas [who is single, according to his MLB.com bio] is nothing if not persistent - four innings later, he was caught on camera chatting up the same girls he'd been standing near before. Even more, he seemed to have their attention, although dyejob on the left probably just saw something shiny on his collar and the girls furthest on either end seem to be displaying two different expressions for "why the hell won't this creeper leave us alone?" Nevertheless, if Kalas isn't scoring as I write this sentence, it's not for lack of effort.)
Anyhoo, if 3-1 was comfortable, 5-1 was pretty much a guaranteed victory. Jason Ellison and Ichiro led off the seventh with identical rollers up the middle, and after Hargrove wised up and had Vidro bunt the runners over in what would've otherwise been an obvious DP situation, Jose Guillen put one through the hole in the left side of the infield to plate another two runs. I don't know how much of this game was good Mariner hitting and how much was bad D'Ray defense, since they're both error-prone and lead-footed in the field, but I'll take every opportunity I can to celebrate Guillen's success. He's predictably having a lot of trouble at home, as you'd expect from any right-handed flyball pull hitter, but the .338/.400/.485 line on the road is something to behold. The power's been nice, but it's the on-base ability that's been the real pleasant surprise. Sure, part of that is his league-leading seven HBP's, but he's always had a target on his back, so it's not like this is a fluke. Pitchers hate Jose Guillen, and it works to our benefit.
From that point on, the remaining two and a half innings were but a formality. Miguel Batista was pulled after six innings and just 86 pitches, presumably because he'd had a lot of tiring work with men on base, and was relieved by the freshly-recalled Sean Green, who unloaded a few dozen Wiffleball sinkers in tossing a pair of perfect frames. George Sherrill and his dramatically improved .591 OPS against righties quietly slammed the door in the ninth, and that was that. The Mariners pulled themselves back to .500 and gained a game on the Angels, putting themselves in position for their first sweep of the season tomorrow against Jae flipping Seo (unless you count their one-game sweep of Texas and their two-game sweeps of Oakland and Chicago, which I totally do). Beating up on Tampa Bay is nothing to write home about, but if you win all the games you're supposed to win over the course of a season, you might be surprised where you stand in September.
Ho and Seo, 12:10pm.