A lot of times when a series draws a ton of attention and humongous crowds, you hear that there's a 'playoff atmosphere.' I wouldn't go that far - the Reds are terrible and I don't think people at Safeco remember what the playoffs look like - but there was an undeniable buzz at the ballpark this weekend that isn't usually there. As it happens, of course, the buzz was mainly centered around a player on the other team, but any time you're able to cram 46,000 people into a stadium, you're going to have a spirited environment, regardless of why they're there. I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss the years that Safeco was packed on a nightly basis. Not even necessarily because those teams were better; vocal crowds just make the game more enjoyable.
This particular vocal crowd got what it came for in the first, when Griffey uncharacteristically went the other way for a characteristic home run. There was a moment of uncertainty as Willie Ballgame tracked the ball in left-center and leaped to make a catch, and when he came down looking like he'd caught it the crowd came as close as it ever has to booing his ass. As he took a few steps back to his position, though, it became apparent that his glove was empty, so the crowd roared in apostatic approval and Griffey jogged around the bases, satisfied with his demonstration that all the hustle in the world is no match for raw, unadulterated talent. I'm still not entirely comfortable with the idea of standing ovations for opposing players' success, but given a choice between either (A) the fallout after a Griffey longball or (B) the fallout after a Willie Ballgame run-saving catch, I take A every time. Good on you, Kid.
I think on some level we all kind of wanted Griffey to go deep at least once, so while the timing could've been better, at least now it was out of the way, and we could go ahead with trying to win the game without further distraction. The only trouble was, Griffey didn't exactly see things the same way. In the bottom of the second he made a diving catch to rob Adrian Beltre of a single, and for good measure threw to first to double up Ben Broussard. A few minutes later, he dropped a single of his own into right to put men on the corners. And two innings after that, he hit an absolute no-doubter deep into the right field bleachers to give the Reds a 2-0 lead in a game where runs would evidently be hard to come by. By that point it was like he was just showing off, and even the people who were happy for him in the stands had to be nervously glancing back and forth and clapping a little slower than they did the first time. The whole thing was kind of like running into your first kiss and her deadbeat boyfriend at the mall. At first it's nice to see her and you're glad she still looks good, but before long you get uncomfortable when they start doing it wheelbarrow style on the sidewalk. Just a totally unnecessary exploitation of your warm hospitality.
It was something of a miracle that the game stayed so low-scoring as long as it did. It was still 2-0 Reds after five and a half despite 15 total baserunners, thanks to some absolutely godawful situational hitting. For the Reds' part, they put men on the corners in the second, third, and sixth, getting ample opportunity to blow the game open, but each time Miguel Batista was able to wriggle off the hook. This is nothing new; Batista's allowed 1.5 baserunners per inning over his entire career, and stands at 1.65 so far in 2007. He's just been good enough to limit opponents to a .271 average with men in scoring position, when .281 probably would've knocked him out of the league a few years ago. Maybe this is where Batista's remarkable intellect pays off. Or maybe it's happenstance. I prefer intellect.
Meanwhile, the Mariners had chosen a completely different way of screwing themselves. In the first, they couldn't so much as advance Ichiro to second after a leadoff single. In the second, Broussard was caught way too far off first when Griffey made his diving catch. In the third, Willie was caught stealing. In the fourth, Beltre took one out of the Reds' book and grounded out with men on the corners. And in the fifth, an attempted hit-and-run with Jamie Burke on base failed in spectacular fashion when Willie swung through a belt-high 87mph fastball and left Burke out to dry. Throw in two more Betancourt infield pop-ups - giving him four in six at bats - and what you had was even more frustrating than those games where the Mariners don't do a thing. They say it's better to have loved and lost, but if loving and losing is failing to convert baserunners into runs because you're equal parts incompetent and weak, I'd much rather spend my whole life alone. Bronson Arroyo looked like crap and you just knew deep down that we weren't going to make him pay in the least.
Thank goodness for the sixth. Even then it was like pulling teeth - after getting the first two men on base, we wound up with men on second and third with two down thanks to a sac bunt and fielder's choice. Mostly lost in the pleasant response to Vidro's bunt was the fact that Vidro is our #3 hitter and DH. We went out of our way to trade for this man to be a cog in our lineup, and now not only is Mike Hargrove asking him to bunt in run-scoring situations, but we're actually happy about it. Among designated hitters with at least as many plate appearances as team games played, Vidro ranks first in sac bunts, first in double plays, and 12th (out of 14) in OPS. Seriously, how much longer can this go on? I have to think that half of the reason Griffey looks so appealing right now is because our current DH would make a below-average offensive middle infielder. Adam. Jones. Needs. To. Play.
Arroyo wasn't out of the woods yet, as Ben Broussard still stood between him and a sixth shutout inning. Now, I have to admit right now that I'm a way bigger Ben Broussard fan than I should be, since he double-science-majored in college (biology/chemistry) and narrowly beat my GPA with a 3.5. That's awesome on its own. But he's also a pretty good hitter, and while I concede that he swings through a lot of pitches, it seems like almost everything he hits is on a line. His style is a good fit for the ballpark. Arroyo fell behind 3-1, but while he fooled Broussard with a good breaking ball on the next pitch, the sixth was a fastball over the inner half that Broussard turned on and mashed into right-center for a ground-rule double. The game was tied, and Broussard's big dorky cracker smile stood contentedly at second base. Even if you're hesitant to call on Adam Jones, at the very least can't you just give Broussard a little more of a chance? He won't make the left field defense problem any better, but at least he gives you the power that your DH left behind eight years ago.
With a brand new ballgame on hand, Eric O'Flaherty came out of the bullpen and made another strong case for earning some high-leverage innings with a 1-2-3 against the top of the Cincinnati order. The point was emphatically driven home with a phenomenal three-pitch sequence to Griffey to end it - a slider and two fastballs put in the exact same place on the low-outside corner. O'Flaherty couldn't have drawn the sequence up any better. All three were called strikes, and Griffey's homecoming ended with a whimper. Not that he's going to get any sympathy from me after the game he'd already had.
The bottom of the seventh is probably going to go down as one of the more fun half-innings of the season, and while I know I'm not going to make any friends with this statement, maybe the Angels are on to something, because this one was right out of their playbook. Instead of popping up to the infield, Betancourt did that other thing he does and smacked a single into left. With the ball dropping pretty shallow and Dunn taking his sweet time to get there, though, Yuni seized the opportunity to take second with a leadoff hustle double. To this day I still can't figure out how a guy with that much footspeed can be such a shitty basestealer. Jamie Burke followed that with a should-be sac bunt, but instead of going for the easy out Arroyo picked it up and threw to third. I think this may be the manifestation of a broader life philosophy by which Arroyo never takes the easy road. It would be easy to gain some weight. It would be easy to get an acceptable haircut. It would be easy to drink juice instead of bongwater. But Bronson's his own man, and he does what he wants. Anyway, a terrific slide to the back of the bag helped Betancourt avoid the tag, and suddenly there were men on the corners with nobody out.
With Willie Ballgame at the plate, everyone knew what Hargrove had to do. And he did it. An absolutely flawless suicide squeeze put the Mariners in the lead, and Willie beat the throw to first base for good measure. Now, I'm rarely a big fan of bunting a guy from first to second or from second to third, but that's because there are no guarantees of that run ever scoring, and you're generally better off swinging away. The suicide squeeze, however, is at the same time both my favorite and the most underutilized strategy in baseball. As long as you have a reasonable bunter at the plate, it's practically an automatic run, and an exciting one on top of that. Why so few managers seem willing to do it as often as I want them to is beyond me. Even when a defense sees it coming, it's borderline impossible to prevent. When there's a man on third and fewer than two outs, and Willie's at the plate, by all means, bunt away, and keep doing it until the opposing team's manager brings his infield in shallow enough that Willie can actually hit it over their heads.
With two on and none out again, Ichiro laid down the third consecutive bunt of the inning, a sacrifice that I think was meant as an attempted hit. That brought up Jose Lopez with men on second and third, but as much as I wanted to see the second squeeze of the inning, Hargrove let him swing away, and he popped out to the catcher. You see what happens when you don't squeeze? You fail. I can absolutely guarantee you that having Lopez squeeze right there would've sent the stadium into a God damn frenzy if it worked. Squeeze plays and home runs tend to elicit a similar response (which is weird, considering they're basically opposites), and that would've been incredible. Alas, it wasn't to be, and the Mariners wouldn't score again in the inning.
Still, they carried a 3-2 lead into the eighth, and with Sherrill coming out of the bullpen with JJ behind him, the game was already over. The Reds tried to rally, but Sherrill got a big strikeout of Josh Hamilton with a man on second before JJ came in for another multi-inning save. He wasn't at his best in terms of command, but the velocity was there and so was the splitter, and before too long Richie Sexson was catching a toss from second base for the final out. Griffey was originally due up fifth in the inning, but you had to know it wouldn't get that far, and I think Griffey did too since he waved to the fans in right field before running in after the eighth. I suppose in retrospect a JJ/Griffey matchup with the game on the line would've been pretty intense, but I don't know how well people would've responded to whatever result might've come out of that at bat.
So here the Mariners sit, a solid 39-33 (88-win pace) but still a step below the other playoff hopefuls. They blew their chance to make up some ground with that nightmare of a losing streak, but what's done is done, and no self-respecting .500+ ballclub has ever written off a season in June. The Red Sox come to town tomorrow, and while they currently look like the WS favorites, enough people are going to be there that having a strong series on the heels of all this weekend attention could really start to get the city excited. The man being entrusted to get us off on the right foot is Jeff Weaver oh shit no not again