On the one hand, it's hard to get too excited over a sweep of the Royals or a 5-1 swing through KC and Tampa because, yeah. On the other, it wasn't too long ago that we used to be KC and Tampa, so it's always nice to deliver the occasional reminder that our dark ages come and go while they're still working on their first. Granted, we never had anything quite like their perennial doormat status, but once you suffer through one 63-99 season you're in no rush to have another, so think of series like these as necessary reassurances on the long path back to national relevance.
An outsider might tell you that the Mariners are still a crummy team, but read the MLB.com game summary and you'll find that they're borderline insulting in their reluctance to think that about themselves:
"We could have, but we sure didn't want to, and our guys haven't," Mariners manager Mike Hargrove said. "Anytime you play teams below you -- and I'm not saying that to denigrate the Royals or the Devil Rays -- those are the people you need to play well against and beat. So far this road trip we have.
(Keep reading and you'll run into a Washburn quote where he uses "good" four times in four sentences, but still manages to use "well" properly where the bulk of the American population slips up. Even in elocution is he effective in the clutch.)
...and so it was that the Mariners came into the game looking to sweep a Royals team that, following a stretch of successful play, seemingly regressed overnight as soon as God woke up and figured out what happened while he wasn't paying attention. With Washburn on the hill, the odds were stacked against Kansas City, who countered with an Odalis Perez that bears little resemblance to the pitcher we wanted Bavasi to sign just a few years ago. These days he bears a much stronger resemblance to a guy who spent the offseason eating Skittles. Perez entered without having allowed more than four runs in any of his ten starts this year, but it's easy to do that when you only get into the seventh inning once. A bad southpaw on the mound against this lineup gave the Mariners an undeniable edge.
In typical Mariner fashion, they seized their competitive advantage by making six ridiculously easy outs to begin the game, but the Royals cooperated by making six of their own as well. Not in order, mind you, since David DeJesus temporarily broke free of his shackles and tried walking to first, but Mark Grudzielanek quickly pulled him back with an "oh no you don't" double play and apologized to Washburn for his teammate's misdeed. The first two innings were completed in twenty minutes, and at the time the only thing keeping us off a ninety-minute pace was the lack of a run.
To the third we went, when the Mariners were finally able to jump out in front with the most toothless of three-run rallies. A walk and a pair of 'whatever' singles loaded the bases for Jose Vidro, who hit a DP roller to an empty part of the infield to score two runners. The next time someone tries to tell you that luck doesn't play a big role in offensive production, point them to this at bat. Vidro hit a two-run grounder up the middle and received a WPA boost of +13.6%. Had he hit it even just three feet further to the left, Pena would've been able to pick it up and start an easy 6-4-3 to end the inning, instead giving Vidro a WPA hit of -16.1%. Three feet changed the Mariners' odds of winning this game by 30%. I'm not trying to take anything away from Vidro, since everybody gets hits like this and it's stupid to be disappointed when you score two runs, but unless you believe that he somehow has the ability to pinpoint the exact location of his groundballs, that was a lucky single. Most announcers would say "when you're rolling, those hits go through, and when you're not, they don't," but I think it's the other way around - when those hits go through, then you're rolling, and if they don't, then you're not. If that makes any sense. Streaks don't determine the outcomes of balls in play. The outcomes of balls in play determine streaks.
An infield single and a sac fly later and the Mariners had themselves a comfortable 3-0 lead. The whole series was kind of like that, actually. They only trailed once, for about five minutes in the third inning yesterday, and the slimmest lead they had was two runs. Even then, they made it three just one inning later. The Mariners didn't just beat the Royals, they plowed the living snot out of them. The Royals, bless their hearts, attempted to mount a rally in the third by sending men to the plate with large wooden sticks, but somehow Washburn had expected this and came prepared for it, throwing pitches that the sticks couldn't hit very well. Taken aback by Washburn's foresight, Ryan Shealy stepped out of the box and looked towards the dugout with fear and helplessness in his eyes, but all Buddy Bell could do was shrug, sigh, and go back to the drawing board to develop another potential comeback strategy. Bats clearly wouldn't be enough by themselves.
As Bell set about brainstorming, the Royals made their third out, and no sooner did Odalis Perez arrive at the mound for the fourth than he threw an entirely hittable pitch to Adrian Beltre that Beltre had the unusual temerity to hit a long way. The ball came down in the Royal bullpen and landed in the middle of a heap of relievers who were diving forward for the opportunity to be hit in the head and sent to a much more blissful existence in the hospital ICU. The home run all but assures Beltre of his most successful start with the Mariners; after posting April/May OPS figures of .621 in 2005 and .594 in 2006, he's up to .750 in 2007, thanks to a strong month that's seen him knock half his hits for extra bases. He still has frequent at bats in which he looks totally clueless, but they've been less frequent so far than in prior seasons, and that has to bode well for the summer stretch. The earlier Beltre heats up, the longer we get to enjoy him when he's hot.
And as far as action was concerned, Beltre's homer was about it for a solid few innings. For a moment it looked as if there might've been some danger in the bottom of the fourth, when a Washburn HBP put two on with one out, but after a brief conference it was determined that Grudzielanek had made the, for lack of a better adjective, Royalesque maneuver of swinging at a pitch that hit him. Much like rising fastballs and drinking while you pitch, swinging at a ball that hits you is supposed to be one of those things that's confined to wiffleball, but Grudzielanek nevertheless found a way to make it a reality, and soon thereafter struck out to end the showdown. Which is probably appropriate, since there's really no excuse for letting a guy who swung at a pitch that hit him put the ball in play later in the at bat.
Batters came and went, and the Mariners did their part to put this one out of reach in the sixth, when the most awesome backup catcher ever sent an RBI single up the middle, and Ichiro followed with one of his own to extend his shameless and entirely selfish hitting streak to 20 games. Pay heed to those who say that Ichiro isn't a team player, because they're spot on - all those hits, steals, and phenomenal catches do absolutely nothing to help the Mariners rise in the standings, and they'd be better off with some blue collar white guy who bunts and dives and doesn't give weird quotes like "my knee is not my butt." Yeah, man, this team's gonna be so much better once they can get rid of that lousy six-time All Star.
Soon after Ichiro's at bat, the tarp was dragged out for the duration of a brief but heavy shower, and several Royal players and coaches welcomed the opportunity to disguise their tears of sadness among a much more thorough facial dispersion of raindrops. The delay was short, but between the stoppage and the lengthy Mariner inning that preceded it, Washburn got cold in the dugout and came out in the sixth off his game. His location was worse and his stuff wasn't as sharp, but he settled down after a wild pitch and managed to limit the damage to two runs. He clearly didn't have the energy of earlier innings, though, and after a shaky seventh and leadoff double in the eighth he came out of the game, relieved by habitual nobody Sean Green. Green did his usual thing - one line drive, two grounders, and a strikeout - and it was still a three-run game entering the ninth. The otherwise dull inning came with the unexpected bonus of watching Green strike out that annoying dwarf Tony Pena on three pitches. I used to think he was cute in his own little naive "I believe I'm good enough to be here and that's all that matters" way, but after watching him repeatedly foul off pitch after pitch and beat out grounders that had no right yielding a baserunner, I now want to see him get mercilessly squashed into the ground like the pest he is.
The Mariners scored in the ninth, the Royals did too, and after two typically dominating JJ Putz strikeouts of John Buck and Alex Gordon the sweep was complete, and the team turned its sights to the much more important series beginning tomorrow. I'm not sure how these games in Anaheim are going to go, but even if the M's get their sorry asses beat, as long as we can do this to teams like Kansas City, it could always be worse. Here's to two games over .500, going on three. Again. You know what they say: the ninth time's the charm.