Some games you want to win because they're hugely important in determining the outcome of your season. Some games you want to win because you haven't won in a while, and you're getting tired of the losing streak. And some games you want to win because holy crap that guy sucked for us for so long that we better jump all over him and pound his sorry ass three weeks from Tuesday. Guess which this was!
Biggest Contribution: King Felix, +17.9%
Biggest Suckfest: Jose Guillen, -5.1%
Most Important At Bat: Sexson double, +10.2%
Most Important Pitch: Shealy DP, +5.5%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +19.0%
Total Contribution by Position Players: +29.1%
Total Contribution by Opposition: +1.9%
For a game between what was essentially one thankfully pathetic Rangers club away from being a pair of cellar dwellers, this one generated more than its fair share of buzz. Sort of. I was excited, anyway, having turned down $5 tickets to an event at Whole Foods featuring all the beer, chocolate, and pizza you want so that I could sit at home and watch Felix go to work. It sounds stupid, especially when it's spelled out like that right in front of your eyes, but there was a reason for my choice. See, I like to think of a Felix/Meche showdown as kind of representing the evolution of the Mariners over the past few seasons. To me, Meche is kind of a specter of the past, a time when the Mariners thought he could be their ace provided he screwed his head on straight and figured out how to make the most of his decent but obnoxiously overrated repertoire. We heard the same story every year, but he never quite put it all together for more than few innings at a time. Felix, meanwhile, just does his thing with his A+ arsenal of pitches in front of the coaching staff and they say "fuck it you're our ace" without thinking twice. It's much more effortless and much less uncertain from start to start. Gone are the days where the Mariners have to try and create a #1 with their bare hands; now they've had one fall in their laps, and it's a much better situation to deal with. Watching Felix and Gil go head to head, then, is kind of like having my 2007 baseball experience oppose my 2004 baseball experience, and it serves as a strong reminder of why I still follow this team every day. Tonight's matchup was a symbolic representation of the fact that things are getting better.
While I was busy making sense of all those thoughts and putting them together in my head, Ichiro took out six years of frustration with Meche by taking him deep to lead off the game. We know that Jose Guillen gets amped up when he's facing ex-teammates, and I have a sneaking suspicion that Ichiro's the same way, albeit for different reasons - where Guillen's just a stab-happy red ass who doesn't like being disrespected, I imagine that Ichiro harbors a much deeper, much more embittered contempt for former Mariners who were at least partially responsible for all the disappointment he's had throughout his time in Seattle. He's been frustrated with the team's lack of success for a while, now, but he knows enough not to start shit in the clubhouse, so he waits until his teammates depart for greener pastures so he can pick them apart and destroy their confidence one by one. Unfortunately for Ichiro there isn't nearly as much roster turnover as he'd like, but he's a patient guy, and he still has a bunch of years left to exact his own special brand of revenge, so there's no rush. Some of you may be thrown off by Ichiro being 0-2 against Matt Thornton, but that's because Ichiro's so busy thinking of ways to physically end Thornton's pathetic little life that he ends up swinging the bat like an axe. Different people deserve different degrees of payback.
As if the leadoff homer weren't satisfying enough, Gil continued to supply us with flashbacks of a pitcher who less than a year ago drove grown men to tears for all the wrong reasons. A walk to Vidro and a two-out RBI double to Richie Sexson gave Felix what would probably be more run support than he needed before he even threw a pitch. With a homer, a walk, and more fly balls than grounders, first inning Gil put all our uneasiness to rest and reminded each and every one of us of why we're glad we didn't give him KC's contract. Hell, the best part might've even been that Sexson's double wouldn't have happened had Tony Pena Jr. made a good throw to first on the relay after Raul Ibanez hit a DP grounder. Giving up runs after you should've been out of the inning? You can toy with Gil's delivery all you want, but you'll never get the mental midget out of his brain.
Then it was Felix time. I'm going to say "he could've looked better," but that's only because of who Felix is, and what we've seen him do - for pretty much any other pitcher in baseball, Felix looked phenomenal. While his fastball command wasn't all there and he was missing up in the zone a little too often, his breaking balls had obscene amounts of break, and left Royal hitters flailing helplessly like so many of their predecessors. The hands-down highlight of the night was Mark Grudzielanek's at bat in the bottom of the first, where - with none on, one down, and a 2-2 count - Felix threw a 91mph slider on the outer black that fooled Grudzielanek so bad that he accidentally threw his bat towards the seats behind him. Ordinarily, when hitters lose their bats, it's because they took an awful swing at a pitch way out of the zone that makes them reach to the point where they lose their grip. Felix did that to Grudzielanek with a pitch that might've been over the plate. When you can throw a strike that screws people up that badly, you know you have the stuff to dominate the Major Leagues for a long long time.
Following a mercy single to keep Buddy Bell from calling his players into the dugout and forfeiting the game, Felix got out of the first, sending Gil Meche back to the mound to do what the Gil Meche with whom we're all familiar does best - give up extra-base hits and two-out runs. In all fairness, Betancourt's double wasn't particularly well-struck, but it's difficult to stop the forces of regression when they get a head full of steam, and tonight the universe was dead set on knocking Gil back down to Earth. With two down, Ichiro came to the plate, mouthed "I will destroy you" to the mound, and laced a single into center to extend the lead into the realm of the unnecessary, since Felix was pitching and all. Vidro followed that with a fly out that left many people joking "that's as hard as he can hit the ball!" If only we knew.
Bottom 2nd: Kansas City
S. Costa struck out swinging
A. Gordon grounded out to pitcher
R. Shealy struck out swinging
For a period of about 15-20 minutes, nothing really happened - Mariner hitters proved that sometimes bad approaches can trump bad pitching, while Felix got lazy and allowed both a long fly ball and a pair of singles, but at the end of the dry spell the score remained the same, setting the table for more hilarity at Gil's expense. Adrian Beltre rolled a double down the line that Alex Gordon should've been able to pick (but again, unstoppable forces of regression and all that) and scored on a gapper that Jose Lopez absolutely killed into right-center field. It was one of those hits you could see coming as soon as the ball left Gil's hand - his fastball hadn't had much zip all game long, and this one was elevated above belt level out and over the plate. Lopez put a good swing on it and managed to satiate both our need for him to collect extra-base hits, and the coaching staff's need for him to go the other way. Afterwards, Gil chose to avoid comebacker homicide by intentionally walking Ichiro, but the thing about doing that is that you can't follow it up with singles to Vidro. Intentional walks only work if you're confident that you can get the next guy out. Otherwise, it's just putting more people on base when you clearly don't need any additional help in doing so. Since Vidro's single got more than three feet past the infield dirt, Carlos Garcia waved Lopez around third on a dangerous play, but the throw was off line, and the lead was 5-0.
Felix threw pitches and got a double play.
The top of the fifth is when the wheels finally came off of the Gil Meche Radio Flyer bandwagon. As if letting Raul Ibanez hit a ball more than 20 feet weren't humiliating enough on its own, consecutive singles by Johjima, Beltre, and Betancourt upped the lead to 7-0, at which point the coaches and trainer came out to pay Gil a visit on the mound. An organization that employs Zack Greinke probably also keeps a team psychiatrist hanging around the dugout, but even with one of baseball's more notoriously fragile consciences struggling on the field he never walked out with the rest of the staff, presumably because a month and a half spent dealing with the Royals' clubhouse morale made him kill himself. After a brief discussion, Gil walked off the field accompanied by a trainer who, uh, well, I have to imagine there are other people from whom a professional baseball player could get better advice about staying in shape.
Zack Greinke's eight year old equivalent entered the game in relief and got two outs, but the damage had been done, and by this point the game was a laugher. It became something even more than that when Jose Vidro led off the sixth with an improbable home run over the right-center fence. In an inning that featured Vidro going deep, Ibanez doubling, Sexson and Beltre singling, Johjima hitting a long fly ball that he didn't pull, and Betancourt getting doubled up, Jose Guillen smacking a double might've been the only result of seven that wasn't completely unexpected. It was a weird inning that gave the Mariners a double-digit offense for the second straight day, and that's good news for the ol' Pythagorean won-loss record.
Unfortunately, it was bad news for Felix. Another long inning spent sitting in the dugout apparently made his back tighten up. It was clear that something was wrong when, in the span of four batters, Felix allowed a walk, wild pitch, triple, and double, but at the time no one was really sure what, and when we saw Rick Griffin come out to the mound, we all sat motionless with terror in our eyes and fear in our hearts. Felix tried to talk his way out of being removed, and appeared visibly upset that they wouldn't let him keep pitching (a good sign, since last time when he was really hurt he pretty much came right out), but at the end of the day if your recently-DL'd star young pitcher is walking off the mound with the trainer, it's never good news. I hadn't noticed any mechanical changes over the course of the game, so for the time being it remained an unsettling mystery.
It'd be a little while before we got the official word: "stiff lower back." You know, the kind of injury you get when you sit around a lot and let your body get cold before going back on the mound and torquing the snot out of yourself with a pretty fast and violent delivery. Felix was shown chewing seeds in the dugout without a trainer in sight, so it appeared as if it wasn't anything to worry about (and it's not). It was just a precautionary move taken by Hargrove and Chaves to protect their prized young asset in a game that was already well in hand. Aside from boosting Felix's short-term happiness, there was nothing to gain from leaving him out there and a whole hell of a lot to lose, so I totally approve of this decision. We can't afford to let Felix keep pitching if he's feeling a twinge anywhere in his body, because a little pain can alter your mechanics, and a little change in mechanics can alter your health. Hopefully Felix understands that the way this organization treats his arm isn't some kind of insult, but rather the ultimate compliment.
After Felix left, the rest of the game just coasted by, with little of interest taking place. Jason Ellison tried to hit David Riske in the seventh inning, and that was cute, because it seems like every time Ellison comes up to the plate he takes at least two swings that're way too slow to hit the pitch he's chasing. They're usually high fastballs over the outer half. The first one will blow right by him, the second will get fouled off to the first base side, and after that then everything's okay again, like Ellison needs two swings to get himself warmed up and into game shape. Maybe it'd benefit him to, I dunno, take those two swings before he's actually up at the plate, but he probably doesn't have time for that since I'm pretty sure he just sleeps through games until someone taps him on the shoulder and tells him to get a glove and go replace Jose Guillen in right field in the ninth inning of a blowout. You feel bad for him until you realize that he's getting paid more money than you'll see in years to do less work in a season than you do before lunch.
Time passed, George Sherrill looked awesome, Jon Huber reminded us of why Sean White is so pointless, and the Mariners got back to .500 again. Now it's time to mount another charge towards that elusive three games over mark. Baek and Bannister go tomorrow at 4:10pm as we look to get a third of the way there.