The Mariners just put the finishing touches on the Rangers' worst May in franchise history. We call that a "role reversal."
Biggest Contribution: George Sherrill, +14.9%
Biggest Suckfest: Jason Davis, -7.7%
Most Important At Bat: Sexson single, +14.1%
Most Important Pitch: Laird homer, -14.0%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +23.0%
Total Contribution by Position Players: +23.4%
Total Contribution by Opposition: +3.6%
(By the way, what I'm going for above is that Padilla looks too angry for a multimillionaire, and Dreifort looks too smug for a guy who blows. I realized that isn't very clear as soon as I put the pictures in the chart, but by that point taking them back out again was too much work. So.)
There used to be a time that I loathed playing the Rangers. Not only did they seem to cause a disproportionate amount of trouble for the Mariners, but those games also had a way of putting me to sleep, even when they should've been exciting. I don't know what it is, but something about Texas just totally killed the fun.
Until now. Because, you see, after a lot of people predicted them to compete for the division in March, out of nowhere the Rangers have turned into one of the worst teams in baseball somehow, and their active pursuit of next year's #1 pick is gaining steam by the day. No longer is this team boring to watch; it's actually interesting to tune in and see just what's causing them to tank so bad, and wonder why we couldn't see it coming. Consider them sort of a case study in season forecasts gone wrong. What can we learn from the Rangers and apply to future predictions to make them more accurate?
As it turns out, those of us who expected the Rangers to play ~.500 baseball this year missed the boat on two key points:
(1) they can't hit
(2) they can't pitch
(They also can't field, but we already knew that way ahead of time.)
These two points became readily evident at various junctures of the game. After Texas found a way to strike out swinging twice against Cha Baek in the top of the first (with Sosa going down on one of the textbook Beltre sliders), Vicente Padilla walked his dreary ass to the mound fully determined to execute his plan of taking a nap between every pitch. The first inning wasn't over for something like 38 minutes, and while it obviously takes a lot of time to work to nine different hitters, it shouldn't take that long, as Padilla was clearly reluctant to pick up the pace. Blowers and Niehaus remarked on more than one occasion that Padilla looked like he didn't want to throw a pitch, and given how much time he was taking between each delivery, it's hard not to agree with them. I'm not a big believer in the significance of body language (certainly not as big as Rex Hudler was regarding Santana on Tuesday), but if I were, I'd probably be all over Padilla right now, as he seriously didn't do a single thing right in the inning. When your pitches suck, you need to work quickly and try to escape as fast as possible so you can move on. If your pitches suck and you take forever to throw them while looking like a frightened candyass, your team is going to lose confidence in you and start to think that you don't trust your own stuff. I don't know how much that means, but it certainly can't be good for anyone.
As for the damage done, there was a lot of it, even though only one ball was put in play with any authority. Among baserunners, Ichiro reached to lead off with a dying quail that fell between three players, Guillen had an infield single, Ibanez walked, Johjima hit a "lined blooper" (if that makes any sense) over the shortstop's head, and Betancourt reached on an error. Only Richie Sexson's single was drilled, but it came with the bases loaded and plated two runners to give the Mariners an early lead. (Sexson is regressing to the mean just like we thought he would, only this time "regressing to the mean" is good. His batted balls are way better than his overall stats would suggest.) Johjima's single then made it 3-0, and before long Jose Lopez came up with two down and the bases loaded again with a chance to blow things wide open before a California crowd would've even found its seats. After working a full count, though, Lopez bounced out on an obvious ball four, leaving us all with a taste in our mouths that was a little more bitter than we would've liked, given the lead. It was a crappy way to end a good inning, and looked like a harbinger of things to come - Padilla was probably going to settle in and throw a bunch of 9-pitch innings while the Mariners started getting themselves out again like usual. I hate when that happens, and it happens a lot.
The Mariners, of course, did exactly that and gave Padilla an easy second, but Baek was able to keep the Rangers off the board thanks in part to a spectacular defensive play by Yuniesky Betancourt, who scrambled towards the outfield to stop a grounder by Gerald Laird and threw a strike off his back foot to get him at first. It's plays like those that make you wonder how he could possibly be on pace for a 39-error season. While I have no data to back this up, it seems like Betancourt's a better defender when he's in a hurry, and runs into trouble when he has a little more time to set up and make the throw. I wonder if he just learned to play flashy defense and make throws on the run to the point where those come more naturally to him than throws where you have enough time to set your feet. No idea. He still probably has more range than any other shortstop in baseball, but until those throws to first stop sailing (and Sexson has saved more than a few), I think we're all going to be a little nervous every time there's a grounder to short.
After three innings of Baek doing his usual thing, it was time for the Mariners to put together one of those rallies that they made famous in 2004 - a relentless assault of singles that make a pitcher both pleased because he's not getting hit hard and frustrated because holy crap why won't the singles ever end. With one on and one down, five consecutive Mariners reached base thanks to a beanball and four singles, and one productive out later we were staring at the least awe-inspiring 7-0 lead most of us had ever seen. It's not that scoring runs is bad or anything, but singles are far too inconsistent and situation-dependent, and besides, there are way more glamorous ways to put up a four-run inning. Still, no one was complaining, and after three the nightmare that was yesterday's game was the last thing on anyone's mind.
That took us to the fourth, where Cha Baek reminded us that people can have nightmares two days in a row. Baek's first pitch drilled Mark Teixeira in the leg with clear intent - Johjima had been hit in the prior inning by the 2006 league leader in hit baseman, and Baek wanted to send a message - but while the reasoning was good and something I'll happily defend, the fallout sucked. Either because the HBP knocked Baek out of his rhythm or because Baek's not that good in the first place, he fell apart and let the Rangers right back into the game with a two-run double to Frank Catalanotto and a three-run homer to Laird that cleared the bullpen in left-center. Ramon Vazquez and Kenny Lofton killed the rally by being Ramon Vazquez and Kenny Lofton, but after the Mariners had worked so hard to get four runs, letting the Rangers take the easy way to five was the last thing anyone needed.
The comfort was still there, but it wasn't the kind of comfort that lets you get up and go do something else for a little while like you get in a 7-0 ballgame. At 7-5, I still felt good about the Mariners' chances, but I didn't feel certain, so I didn't dare leave the room. Fortunately, while the M's had stopped hitting, the Rangers had as well, helping the game get back on course for a three-hour duration after a first inning that made such an achievement look impossible. The fifth passed, and then the sixth passed, and somewhat surprisingly given Frankie Francisco's relief appearance and our designated hitter's striking physical resemblance to Jennifer Bueno. We moved to the seventh, and Texas' five-run fourth was but a distant memory.
Distant memory no longer. After Vazquez popped out to lead off, Kenny Lofton celebrated his 83rd birthday by getting beaned, and that was the end of Cha Baek for the day. In came Brandon Morrow to put out the fire, and while he got the job done in the end, he took the scenic route in getting there, walking the first two guys he faced to load the bases before blowing a fastball by Sosa's retarded old uppercut and getting Catalanotto to bounce out. With a breaking ball that he hardly ever throws, Morrow's essentially a one-pitch pitcher out of the bullpen, and with that in mind, he has to have the worst control of any relevant Mariner I can remember seeing in my life. While Matt Thornton was bad, at least he had the excuse of having to harness two pitches instead of one. Only 57% of Morrow's 380 pitches this year have been strikes, against a league average of 62%, and that includes the frequent balls at which batters still swing. Matt Thornton threw 58% with Seattle. Jeff Nelson was about the same. Sean White's worse, but he doesn't serve any real purpose. Among Mariners who've been counted on to contribute, Morrow's control is as bad as anyone's has ever been.
The 17 walks in 20.1 innings aren't a mistake. More often than not, Brandon Morrow is just reaching back and throwing his insane fastball at Kenji Johjima and hoping that either it nicks the zone or the batter swings and misses at a ball. Sometimes he figures it out and puts the fastball where he wants, but that isn't what usually happens, and it certainly isn't what happened tonight. Brandon Morrow is a one-pitch pitcher who often doesn't know where that one pitch is going.
And that's precisely what makes him so remarkable. The reason Morrow gets away with his lousy control is that his fastball is unhittable, in pretty much every sense of the word. The reason his walk rate is so much higher than Thornton's ever was, despite comparable strike rates, is that batters can't put the ball in play too much against Morrow, meaning at bats get extended and the balls start to add up. In his last twelve appearances (each of them being short, hence featuring his fastball at full throttle), Morrow has thrown 12 innings and allowed just four hits to go with a 15/11 K/BB. Basically one walk per inning, but no runs allowed, because a walk is pretty much the worst anyone can do to him right now. I can't be sure, but what Morrow's doing out of the Seattle bullpen these days strikes me as historically unique, both in terms of approach and statistical performance. You keep thinking that the league will catch on eventually, but time keeps passing, and Morrow keeps not getting touched, so maybe he's going to keep this up all year. It's not how he'd succeed as a starter, but if this is what works for him as a reliever, then kudos to Morrow for possessing one of the only unhittable pitches in the Major Leagues.
No sooner did Morrow walk off the mound than the Mariners made three outs and Mike Hargrove called on Jason Davis to set up George Sherrill for another display of utter dominance. Davis did his thing, getting one out and putting two men on base, and then Sherrill did his, striking out both Matt Kata and Kenny Lofton swinging to end the eighth. He's not quite Hideki Okajima, but after a season of spotty command it looks like Sherrill's finally taken the next step and become one of the top left-handed setup men in the league. That he's suddenly pitching effectively and with confidence to righties helps Hargrove trust him in the later innings, and takes away some of the sting we all feel with respect to Soriano and Lowe. We've expressed our doubts before, but once again, the bullpen is the strongest component of this team.
The little rally the Rangers tried to stage in the eighth seemed to exhaust them of all the energy they had left in the tank, because the Mariners plated a pair of insurance runs in the bottom half without breaking a sweat, and JJ Putz came on to blank the 2-3-4 hitters of the Texas lineup on twelve pitches. With the Mariner win and the Angel loss, things are right back where they were on Tuesday, and we've still got another three games to take advantage of the worst team in the division. The bullpen might be a little tired tomorrow, but
thankfully we signed us an innings-eater over the winter, and Miguel Batista's as good a bet as any to...er. Hmm. Uh ohs. hey it's Washburn yessssssssssss