If games were toilet paper, the Mariners just went from premium scented four-ply plush rolls to institutional-grade one-ply sheets of anguish overnight. And as anyone can tell you, once you get a feel for the finer stuff, it's always hard to revert back to the usual. You think the cartoon family of bears in those commercials would still be as pleasant if they ran out of Charmin and had to use leaves? No, they'd be just as pissed off as we are right now. Except a little more bitey.
Biggest Contribution: Jose Vidro, +6.5%
Biggest Suckfest: Kenji Johjima, -16.7%
Most Important At Bat: Johjima DP #1, -12.6%
Most Important Pitch: Hillenbrand homer, -21.6%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): -7.2%
Total Contribution by Position Players: -42.8%
Total Contribution by Opposition: 0.0%
I'm not going to sit here and say that baseball is a game of inches, because while technically true, it's a cliche, and cliches are incredibly aggravating and dull ("That's why they call it the hot corner!"). What I'll say instead is that baseball is a game of individual choices and events, and while countless decisions are made and actions taken in any given contest, even changing just one or two can make all the difference in the world. The best teams in baseball, at every moment, know exactly what to do and exactly how to do it. Tonight, the Mariners fell short because, on a couple critical occasions, they didn't. That's really the bulk of the story.
I'm thinking, of course, of two particular encounters - Kenji Johjima vs. Ervin Santana in the first, and Shea Hillenbrand vs. Ryan Feierabend in the fourth. The former resulted in a double play with one down and the bases loaded in a 1-0 game. The latter resulted in a tie-breaking home run that gave the Angels the lead for good. The two plays combined to hurt the Mariners' odds of winning by 34.2%; clearly, they were huge in determining the final outcome, and getting anything other than either of those results could've and would've given us a completely different ballgame.
If you were watching, I probably don't have to tell you how bad Santana looked in the first inning. He fell behind five of six hitters, gave up well-hit balls in play to the first three, and at one point threw nine consecutive balls to load the bases already having allowed one runner to cross the plate. It could've been a lot worse, too, were it not for Robb Quinlan making a diving stop on Jose Guillen's liner to third. The Mariners had Santana on the ropes, and had arguably their best hitter at the plate with an opportunity to blow this open way earlier than anyone expected.
Johjima got ahead in the count, too, after Santana threw a first-pitch fastball down in the dirt. Kenji's gotten ahead 1-0 64 times this year, putting up a 1.113 OPS in those plate appearances. He fouled off the next offering, but then took another pitch down and away, putting Santana in a fastball count. Everybody knew what was coming - it was just up to Johjima to deliver with a solid swing.
He couldn't. Santana came over the middle of the plate at the knees with his heater, but Kenji swung too late and wound up hitting a routine 4-6-3 to Howie Kendrick. The inning was over, with Santana having somehow escaped quite possibly his worst inning of the year with only one run on the board. The Mariners would only manage two more baserunners off of him over the following six innings. I don't know if it was the M's getting cold, Santana settling into a groove, bad luck, or Santana feeding off of some new-found confidence, but whatever the case this lineup blew its chance at a big rally thanks to Kenji's Worst Possible Outcome. Nevermind what happens if he gets on base; a sac fly or even a strikeout gets the red-hot Beltre to the plate in a favorable situation. That at bat was one of two that changed the whole game.
Where that event was about poor execution, the next encounter - Hillenbrand vs. Feierabend - was more about a bad thought process. After Ichiro lost a fly ball in the sky and handed the Angels a leadoff "double," Feierabend was one out away from escaping the inning, and only had to get through the worst DH in baseball. He got ahead 0-1, and after missing outside, came back over the inside corner for a called strike two. Feierabend was in control of the at bat - all he needed to do was make his pitch to put Hillenbrand away and take us to the fifth still knotted at one.
For the fourth pitch, Kenji set up just like he had for the third, but this time the inside fastball missed way down and in, nearly hitting Hillenbrand in the leg. Then, for the fifth pitch, they tried to do the same thing again, coming inside with a fastball to try and tie him up. The third, fourth, and fifth pitches of the AB were supposed to be carbon copies of each other. Hillenbrand, seeing the third consecutive inside fastball, turned on the 2-2 pitch and tucked it just inside the left field foul pole for an improbable two-run homer. The Angels had the lead, and given the way the Mariners were struggling against Santana, it felt pretty safe.
I still can't for the life of me figure out what Kenji and Feierabend were trying to do there. Ryan Feierabend's fastball tonight was ranging between 87-89mph, with the occasional 90. That's not nearly fast enough to use as a weapon against right-handed batters unless it's located with absolute precision, of which Feierabend wasn't doing much tonight. If a lefty with that fastball tries to come inside to a righty with ideas of blowing it by him for strike three, he's running the huge risk of speeding up the hitter's bat and letting him yank the pitch into left. That's exactly what happened. It doesn't matter if the hitter is Vladimir Guerrero or Shea Hillenbrand; everybody in the Major Leagues outside of Tony Pena Jr. and Wilson Valdez is able to do damage to belt-high 88mph inside fastballs, especially if they've just seen the same pitch two times in a row.
What Kenji and Feierabend should've gone with was a changeup, preferably over the outer half, a pitch that Feierabend had working against righties all game long. It's how he got Kendrick swinging in the at bat immediately prior, along with Willits in the first. Feierabend's changeup is his best pitch, and it looked terrific tonight, so I don't know why they chose to avoid it as a putaway pitch against Hillenbrand. I obviously can't say for sure whether or not it would've worked, but given a choice between a 78mph change on the outer half and an 88mph inside heater in that situation, I go change every time. When you're ahead of the hitter, why risk getting beat on something that isn't your best pitch?
Those two at bats weren't the only big events in the game, but they were the most important, and each represented situations where the Mariners got the worst outcome possible. I usually don't like to narrow my window of analytical observation that much, but tonight I think it's warranted. The Johjima double play and the Hillenbrand home run shaped the whole game, and I think everyone watching knew it the moment they happened.
It's not that the Mariners didn't deserve to lose; they did. That's not why I'm upset. It's that they lost because of events that easily could've gone way different (and the second one should've gone way different). That's frustrating to me. If the Mariners lost because Santana was working with phenomenal stuff or because Vlad and the rest of the lineup just did a great job of hitting good pitches, then that'd be one thing, but instead I'm left feeling like the M's in large part beat themselves thanks to a little bad thinking and bad execution. And in a game against the team in front of you, that sucks.
Whatever. Tomorrow's Felix Day, so 24 hours from now hopefully we'll have forgotten all about today's game. And on the bright side, even though Feierabend got the loss, that Hillenbrand deal was the only real bad at bat he had all night long, so he might've earned himself another start and a shot at keeping Horacio Ramirez's sorry ass out of the rotation for a long long time. There's always sunshine behind even the darkest of clouds.