As the eighth inning came about and I watched all of our hope dissipate away into nothing, I knew I had my intro. It came together in my head during the Peralta at bat, and it went something like this: the Mariners will have these kinds of games. They will make defensive miscues on easy plays. They will strand runners that should've scored. They will make mistakes while pitching and give up clutch base hits. Whether it be JJ Putz, George Sherrill, or somebody else in the bullpen, at some point everything was due to go wrong and the Mariners were going to blow a game they should've won. It happens to everyone, even the best teams in baseball (think back to that game in Cleveland six years ago), and while it absolutely sucks to go through, in the end, it's nothing more than a single loss, and all you can do is suck it up, learn a few lessons, and move on.
Then a funny thing happened - the Mariners got out of the inning, scored another late go-ahead run, and held on for a victory so dramatic that it felt like we won twice. In a flash, somber rationalizations were out the window and we were right back to virtual high-fives and celebration. You know what? The Mariners will have horrible games. They will screw up, they will blow leads, and they will make us upset. But it's just so much easier to think about after a win.
Biggest Contribution: Raul Ibanez, +67.1%
Biggest Suckfest: Brandon Morrow, -23.0%
Most Important At Bat: Ibanez double, +34.9%
Most Important Pitch: Blake double, -28.5%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): -20.4%
Total Contribution by Position Players: +73.4%
Total Contribution by Opposition: -3.0%
As good as the Indians are, and as much as we were all afraid of this game, there was reason to be hopeful - as mentioned in the game thread post, Paul Byrd throws nothing but strikes, which plays right into the hands of our extraordinarily aggressive lineup. These guys suck when they don't know what's coming, but they're awesome if you put the ball over the plate, so one could argue that Byrd was maybe the best possible pitcher for the team to face. The Mariners bat like you do when you play baseball video games. They swing at everything, and even when they try to tell themselves to be patient and wait on balls out of the zone, they quickly get frustrated and revert back to hacking mode. That's why, like you, the Mariners never walk, but it's also why, like you, they slaughter guys who refuse to work out of the zone. (Now that I think about it, I'm pretty sure this is how the Angels won that World Series.)
So with a fairly high probability of teeing off on Paul Byrd, and with the confusingly effective but still reasonably hittable Cha Baek on the mound, this one looked like a potential barnburner from the start. Anxious, I booted up MLB.tv just in time to see the Doublemint twins handling today's Cleveland broadcast:
When I think of two people deliberately wearing the same outfit, the images that come to mind are a father and son, friends during Twin Day in elementary school, or maybe a totally whipped husband with his short-haired controlling wife. An image that doesn't come to mind is that of two fully-grown men who spend several hours sitting beside and talking to each other 162 times a year. Maybe this is something they always do, I dunno, but it seems peculiar. I mean, they have to know that they'll be on camera, right? And it couldn't just be a coincidence, meaning this is something they talked about and planned to do ahead of time. Is it a show of solidarity? Do they think that matching get-ups will make the home viewer more comfortable and less likely to change the channel? Maybe instead of coordinating their wardrobes the announcers could use that time to learn that our center fielder goes by Ichiro, not Suzuki. But hey, whatever keeps them interested.
I think the first inning went just about how everyone expected it to. The Mariners made a bunch of solid contact against Byrd and scored a run, while the Indians made a bunch of solid contact against Baek and didn't. Hafner's double was actually the weakest hit of the inning, as Jason Michaels and Ryan Garko each came within 5-10 feet of towering home runs to left field. Neither pitcher seemed long for the game; it was simply a matter of Baek staying lucky just long enough for the lineup to give him a suitably comfortable lead. It's happened before, after all. Baek is no stranger to run support, and I think it's precisely because the Mariners know they'll need to score if they want to survive Baek's patented big inning with a chance to win.
The second inning passed without incident, but the third is when the fun officially got started. After a leadoff single by Jose Guillen, Raul Ibanez launched an opposite-field homer that looked identical to the one he hit in San Diego over the weekend. Then, after two balls that were crushed into gloves and another base hit, Jose Lopez put the Kenji Johjima Power Pitch to use and clobbered a line drive over the big fence in left for another two-run homer. It was only his third extra-base hit of the month, but with a .145 isolated power, Lopez is beginning to tap into that power potential more consistently than we've seen in the past. Given what we know about trends and likelihoods, the worst hitter in our lineup going forward is either our .300 shortstop or .290 DH. That's unbelievable to me. What this team lacks in plate discipline it makes up for in obnoxious line driveitude.
Cha Baek kept right on nervously surviving, and in the top of the fourth it looked like Ibanez might've put the cap on the game with another home run, this one a pull shot to right. This was the swing that we've been missing all season long. This was a classic Raul Ibanez home run, and it was enough to convince me that his hurt shoulder explanation was valid after all. Since May 29th - the first day that, according to Raul, his shoulder became pain-free - all he's done is bat .345/.419/.618 with eight extra-base hits. He has seven of them in his last five games, and given that even with a healthy shoulder he still had to work on getting back to his normal swing (instead of the one he used to compensate for the pain), it makes sense that there's been a little delay. The important thing is this - yeah, Raul's bat was slow when I made that post a few weeks ago, but the reasons for that turned out to be far less worrisome than I thought. Raul wasn't struggling due to age, he was struggling due to injury, and now that he's apparently back to 100%, he finally looks like a cleanup hitter again. This lineup needed some left-handed power in the worst way, and now that they apparently have it again, it takes so much pressure off the other guys in the middle. Welcome to the 2007 season, Raul.
(One could argue that Raul was struggling due to age in a way, since age probably contributed somewhat to his getting hurt, but that's different than saying "Raul's bat is slow because he's old." Yeah, he's more likely to get injured now than ever before in his career, but as long as he can mash when he's healthy, then we're doing okay.)
It looked like we had the Indians right where we wanted them - really far away - and when Cha Baek closed the fourth with consecutive swinging strikeouts, everyone was breathing pretty easy. But that's when the tides turned. Suddenly on to us, Eric Wedge took out his strike-throwing dynamo and brought in some guy named Fernando Cabrera, who entered with 18 walks in 23.1 innings. By this point, I think we all have a pretty good idea of who we're going to hit and who's going to shut us down, and sure enough, Cabrera kicked our asses for three innings while the Indian lineup staged its comeback attempt. I know we've talked about it a million times already, but I still find it hilarious that we hit good pitchers and suck against bad ones. I think the best part is that even when the book on us gets out and people realize that we beat the crap out of accurate pitchers, opposing managers still won't know what to do, because no matter who you're facing it'll never feel comfortable to intentionally call on your wildest and least efficient arms to get big outs. The Mariners probably couldn't touch Sean White, but if White were on the A's, do you think Geren uses him to shut down a rally? Of course not. If your lineup has to have at least one glaring problem, the Mariners have chosen a pretty good one for themselves.
Anyway, while Cabrera was making us look stupid, the Indians finally got around to showing up, loading the bases against Baek in the bottom of the fifth. It seemed like Baek might actually escape when he got Casey Blake to bounce into a force play at home for the second out, but singles by Hafner and Peralta trimmed the lead to four. Their singles also scattered a massive flock of seagulls that were gathering around the playing field and seemingly between the ball and the camera on every single hit. Meaning that either the seagulls knew where the ball was going ahead of time more often than the advance scouts did, or they were actually covering the entire field, and we only saw a few of them at a time. It seems like there'd be safer places to hang out than the playing field of a baseball stadium in a game featuring Paul Byrd and Cha Baek, but given that these seagulls live in Cleveland on purpose, they're probably not operating at full cerebral capacity.
When Garko flew out to end the fifth with the score 7-3, I still felt pretty comfortable - we knew the Indians would score eventually, and three in five innings wasn't bad at all - but then trouble started right back up again in the sixth, and once we got into a Putzless bullpen, I think everyone started getting a little flop sweat. Baek's inning began/outing ended with a deep fly out, a single, and an RBI double, and Eric O'Flaherty lasted exactly one batter (single) before getting yanked himself. Sean Green came in and did whatever it is that he's started doing this year to make him miss bats way more than he used to, but following the strikeout was another RBI single, and suddenly the go-ahead run stood at the plate in the person of one Travis Hafner. George Sherrill thankfully stifled the rally by getting a foul out (Hafner is 0-6 against Sherrill with four K's in his career), and that was cool, because Sherrill is one of the best lefty relievers in baseball, but he could only go so long, and we knew in the end it'd come down to Davis, Woods, or Morrow. That didn't sit well with any of us.
The top of the seventh is lucky that the Mariners wound up winning, because if they didn't, we'd all menacingly turn our eyes to the half-inning and threaten to beat it to a pulp if it didn't explain itself. A leadoff triple by Ibanez was a hell of a start, but when Johjima lined an out to center in the next at bat I think Raul was still gassed from running so hard, so he didn't try and tag up. That was irritating, but the far bigger annoyance came two batters later, when - after an intentional walk to Broussard - Adrian Beltre pulled an absolute rocket down the line that found Blake's glove on the fly. Line drive double plays are never easy to stomach, but in a game like this where we needed a little insurance in the worst way imaginable, it felt even worse than usual. Even when the Mariners managed good contact against the kind of pitcher who's usually their kryptonite, they couldn't do anything.
The situation officially became terrifying in the bottom of the eighth. Because he had to inherit a runner after Sherrill coughed up a leadoff single, Brandon Morrow flipped his switch to suckass mode and gave up, in order, a single, a walk, a run-scoring fielder's choice, a run-scoring double, a walk, and a walk. He was all over the place with his fastball, and for the first time in forever, a few of his pitches actually got hit with authority. The only thing that saved him was a fantastic relay from Ibanez to Betancourt to Johjima on Blake's double to get Dellucci at home. The lead was gone, but at least Morrow hadn't let the Indians climb on top. He kept trying, and when Garko came up with the bases loaded I think everyone watching thought he'd change the score, but a swinging strikeout on a high outside fastball sent us to the ninth at 7-7. Given that we kept expecting to fall behind, I don't think Mariner fans have ever felt so good about an inning in which they gave up the last of what had once been a formidable lead. Somehow, despite coughing up the tying touchdown, the Mariners had new life.
Somehow Wedge thought it'd be a good idea to bring Joe Borowski into the game, but I imagine he came to regret that decision rather quickly. Single, deep fly out, RBI double, single...Borowski did exactly what he's been doing all season long, which is why it was so weird that they brought him in. He was saved by a double play when Ibanez was tagged out trying to score on a Broussard sac fly, but the Mariners were back ahead 8-7 with their latest demonstration of late-inning awesomeness, and because of the huge run it almost felt as if the massive comeback never happened. In the span of about ten minutes, momentum had shifted almost completely right back to Seattle.
To the bottom of the ninth we went, and while we were all pretty nervous about Morrow, at least this time he was starting the inning without inheriting any baserunners. And sure enough he looked better, getting two quick outs despite falling behind 1-0 both times. With Victor Martinez due up and Grady Sizemore waiting on deck, things still weren't comfortable, particularly after Martinez lined a base hit to center, but then Morrow froze Sizemore with a perfect 1-2 fastball to end the ballgame.
...only, wait, no he didn't, because somehow it was determined that this pitch missed:
In home plate umpire Troy Fullwood's defense, this was only like his first or second time calling balls and strikes in the Majors, so a little inconsistency was to be expected, but still, that was an outrageously bad call on what was really a perfect third strike. It wasn't just there that Fullwood screwed up, either - all game long he'd been calling a weird zone (for both sides), being especially generous with outside pitches at one moment and then unbelievably strict the next. I generally hate arguments that cite lousy ball/strike calls, so I won't take this one any further, but let me just tell you that had the Mariners lost the game today, Troy Fullwood could look ahead to a lifetime of bitter contempt. When Mike Reilly fucked us sideways, we were 44-49. Today we were seven games over. Yeah.
Morrow, of course, went on to walk Sizemore to put the winning run on base, but professional hitter David Dellucci thought it a good idea to swing at the first pitch in the next at bat, and he rolled a grounder to Lopez for the final out. It was a weird feeling of happiness, because in my celebration I didn't know if the Mariners had actually deserved the win, or if they'd escaped with another minor miracle. I mean, on the one hand, it's pretty embarrassing when you blow a lead that big, but on the other it takes some talent to establish such a lead in the first place, and then bounce back after the Cleveland rally to score again and win the game without your best pitcher. I still don't know which it is. I guess the important thing is that, for the fourth game in a row and eighth in the last nine, the Mariners won, trimming the gap between themselves and the Angels to four games. This team just refuses to go away.
In every streak, something amazing has to take place, because otherwise the streak wouldn't exist. That's the nature of the thing. Basic probability tells you that every so often a team will win ten in a row, or a pitcher will throw a perfect game, but in order for those things to happen, events on the field still have to make it so. The winning streak might involve a lot of hits with men in scoring position, while the perfect game might be due to a handful of terrific catches by the defense. Those are the things that're easy to overlook when you accept that something was bound to happen eventually. The Mariners have won four straight against very good opponents, and while some people will look at that and think "hey, I guess they're not such a bad team after all," the real magic of the thing is in how they've done it, and that's lost on many of the observers. They've all been one-run games, with the Mariners scoring the winning run in the final inning of each. There've been impressive comebacks by each side in every game, but somehow the Mariners have been able to either feed off their own momentum or stop the momentum of their opponent in seizing the late leads, and once they'd taken that lead, they've slammed the door. These have been four of the most exciting days of baseball that I can remember, and I never want it to end.
This is the greatest sport on the planet.
Trip to Wrigley tomorrow for Rich Hill and the rest of the Aramis Ramirez-less Cubs. Hill is a fairly extreme flyball pitcher who loves to throw strikes, so, uh, I guess you see where I'm going with this. The Mariners' next four series come against NL Central opponents with a combined 105-147 (.417) record. Win eight of those and we come home to face Boston at twelve games over. I don't want to get ahead of myself, but please, let me get ahead of myself.