I see my words were inspiring. How I'm still not on the team payroll is anybody's guess.
Biggest Contribution: Adrian Beltre, +13.1%
Biggest Suckfest: Jose Vidro, -6.9%
Most Important At Bat: Ballgame single, +13.2%
Most Important Pitch: Drew "single", -10.0% (I recorded it as a miscue by Lopez)
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +17.1%
Total Contribution by Position Players: +22.2%
Total Contribution by Opposition: +10.7%
I've said it before and I'll say it again (I've also said that before, and will say it again, I imagine) - as much as I hate the Red Sox and Yankees for their omnipresent flocks of supporters, they always have a way of getting me up for the game. These things are never boring. They're events, competitions wherein every out is important and every run is worth celebrating. You can't say the same for series against, say, Texas or Baltimore. I don't know if it'll change when the Mariners become real solid playoff contenders and start drawing 35,000 every night, but for now - and believe me, this is not an easy point to concede - the Red Sox and Yankees make my baseball experience more enjoyable. There's always a sense of excitement and suspense there that no other team can match.
So, yeah, even during the whole Griffey thing over the weekend, I was looking ahead to tonight. Oh, I watched them play the Reds, and I was interested, and it was good to see them win, but I knew it didn't mean much, because as soon as I woke up this morning the series was forgotten and all I could think about was tonight. These are the games that reaffirm your loyalty. This is when you get to remind yourself just how devoted a Mariner fan you really are. Games against other teams can make you happy or sad, but at least for me, the Red Sox manage to stir dormant emotions that I haven't felt in ages. It's a reawakening of sorts, and even when it comes during the doldrums of a lost season like it did last August, it's always a welcome break from the prevailing monotony of the rest of the year. I have few reasons to be thankful for Boston, but this is one of them.
One would think that the enthusiasm would be tempered a little bit upon observing the pitching matchup, but on the heels of Weaver's miraculous blankage, and given the endless series of jokes to be made at the expense of Julian Tavarez's topographic face, I wasn't deterred in the least. Not buying Weaver's turnaround? No problem - even though I had him pegged for five runs in five innings (a marked improvement over his last game against these guys), I was still excited, because Tavarez is a pimply bag of suck himself, and five runs seemed unlikely to be enough on its own. This looked like it was going to be a barnburner, and for the first time in years I feel reasonably confident in this offense's ability to participate. Let the run scoring commence.
So, naturally, the exact opposite happened. It almost didn't - David Ortiz launched a shot to right-center that looked gone off the bat in the top of the first - but the divine wind that blows in our favor in the northwest knocked it down for an easy out well in the field of play. Lacking the home run, the top of the first will instead be remembered for Weaver's strikeout of JD Drew on a low-and-in slider that would've made Felix proud. It'll also be remembered as the inning that Weaver flashed a consistent 90+ fastball. Facing Manny Ramirez with two down and a man on, Weaver came with five straight heaters and jammed him into a flyout with one at 92. As the Mariners ran in after the third out, the same thought was creeping into all of our heads: this is a Jeff Weaver that can succeed. It felt uncomfortable in its unfamiliarity.
The Mariners wouldn't do anything in the first, but after another strong Weaver inning they clawed their way into the lead with a run-scoring double play. Against any other opponent I would've been cursing Kenji for killing the rally, but every run's a big one against the Red Sox, so I found myself unusually content with the whole thing.
Unfortunately, 1-0 wouldn't last too long, as the top of the third tried its damndest to be one of the most unwatchable half innings of the year. Remarkably, it wasn't even Jeff Weaver's fault. While the leadoff single was hit pretty well, the bunt that followed should've been an easy out, but because nobody thought it appropriate to cover first on the play Weaver had to spin and make a hasty throw to second, which wound up off the mark. With men then on second and third as the result of the error, JD Drew hit a bouncer to Lopez that should've been a run-scoring fielder's choice, but instead it sneaked under his glove into the outfield for what the Safeco scorer would generously rule as a base hit. I don't know if this was a case of him always erring on the side of the defense or simply a display of preferential treatment for Lopez over Weaver (and in all fairness Weaver hasn't really done much to earn a break), but it was another bad scoring decision in a long line of bad scoring decisions made in this ballpark. It's a wonder that guy hasn't come up with an innovative way of blaming the pitcher for Yuni's throwing errors.
Ahead 2-1, the Sox tried to continue the rally with an Ortiz seeing-eye single right back through the box, but a deadly slider low-and-in to Manny got him for the second out, and a little later Mike Lowell popped out to third to end the threat. It was an inning that could've been a whole hell of a lot worse, but this is the new and improved and self-confident Jeff Weaver we're talking about, a guy who refuses to throw in the towel even when things look their darkest. Or I could be making things up and trying to read too far into a handful of inept at bats with men on base, but being a Weaver believer myself, I'm inclined to give him every benefit of the doubt that I can. Try and stop me.
Julian Tavarez - who, dammit, ought to be nicknamed The Man In The Moon and I'm not going to let it die until it catches on - took a break from being fitted for paper bags long enough to retire the Mariners in the fourth, but the fifth wouldn't go quite so well, as the M's suddenly started jumping all over his mistakes. A leadoff double by Beltre that looked like a homer off the bat pushed the Mariners' win expectancy back over 50%, and an ensuing throwing error by Tavarez on a Betancourt bunt put us in an identical position as the day before, with Willie Ballgame at the plate with none out and men on the corners. Every single one of us was calling for the squeeze again - because, why wouldn't we be? - but instead Willie grounded a 1-0 fastball back through the middle to tie it up. Willie is a lot of things, most of them bad, but since taking over a semi-regular role in early June all he's done is hit .348 over 18 games. Is it sustainable? Of course not, but what's done is done, and Willie's done a terrific job of stepping up when the team needed him to. Sustainability matters for the future, but when you're reflecting on things that've already happened, it's often the unpredictable performances that end up being the biggest.
The rally wouldn't stop there; no, Willie's known as the Igniter (or Ignitor if you're going for the futuristic robot touch) for a reason. After losing Ichiro on a 3-2 ball in the dirt, Tavarez then allowed a two-run single to Jose Lopez past Lowell at third with the infield drawn in. After chasing a butterfly around left field with his arms outstretched Manny wound up playing pretty shallow when Lopez's ball reached the grass, but where a little more hustle might've given him a play at the plate, the gleeful pursuit had left Manny exhausted, so he let the ball come to him before returning it to the infield. I tell you, the minute - the minute Manny stops being one of the best hitters on the planet he's going to start taking a lot of shit, but until then he's just an hilarious oaf with the work ethic of a banana and the power of Thor.
Still dissatisfied with the slim two-run lead, we were pulling for Ben Broussard to blow it open against Kyle Snyder with the bases loaded, but after very misleading camera work on a well-struck foul ball Broussard wound up popping out. Just when you thought that killed the rally, though, you were reminded that Kyle Snyder is a rally, as he walked both Kenji Johjima and Adrian Beltre - no small feats - to force in another two runs. Yuniesky Betancourt even then got ahead 2-0 before inexplicably deciding to swing and get himself out to end the inning, but a 6-2 lead felt much more comfortable than a 4-2 lead, and even better the two additional runs all but negated the gifts our defense had given Boston in the third.
Even though he'd already amassed 96 pitches and sat for a long time during the bottom of the fifth, Weaver came out for the sixth, got into a jam, and worked himself 67% of the way back out of it before being relieved by the totally awesome Eric O'Flaherty. Weaver departed with 104 pitches, an ERA that's finally within striking distance of other players, and the applause of a Safeco crowd that didn't expect to give Jeff Weaver two standing ovations in a week. O'Flaherty, as he's prone to doing, retired his opponent to end the inning. Seriously, the guy rocks. Remember, it is never ever ever ever ever ever ever a good idea to sign a middle reliever to a multiyear contract. I don't care who he is or how good his numbers look, there are always guys who can do the same job for the league minimum. And sometimes they're Irish.
Once again, we were all unanimously thrilled with Weaver's performance, as his two runs in 5.2 dramatically exceeded each and every one of our expectations. Armed with a 90+ four-seamer, a two-seamer, a slider, a shiny new curve, and more arm angles than Jose Vidro has jars of fried mayonnaise, Weaver kept one of the best lineups in baseball in check all night long, a testament to the importance of keeping hitters off balance. As I sat in my chair watching him go to work, I tried to predict what he'd throw with his next pitch, but rarely did I get it right. This was like the complete opposite of a Felix game. Weaver actually mixed his pitches and came after guys with a new approach every time. You don't luck your way into a start like this against the Red Sox - this one was all Weaver, and while the results weren't jaw-droppingly amazing, he was effective enough to earn my trust going forward. The way he was changing speeds and pitching to the corners reminded me of some guys who've gotten a lot of money, even if the stuff itself fell short. This was Jeff Weaver pitching a solid game.
All that said, we've now entered into a quandary I like to call the Jeff Weaver Conundrum. For his last few starts, we've expected Weaver to suck like nobody's ever sucked before, so his success has been met with an entirely positive response. Even when he was partially responsible for getting into trouble and coughing up the early lead tonight, we were still thankful for his getting out of the jam without too much more damage. In short, with the bar of expectations set at zero, Weaver's pleased us, even when he's struggled. But what happens going forward as we begin to expect a little more out of him? A big part of the novelty of his last few games is that we still think of Weaver as being one of the worst pitchers in franchise history. What if we start seeing him as an actual #5? Suddenly we start to rely on him. Suddenly his struggles aren't as oddly charming. With trust comes responsibility, and I'm afraid that as Weaver earns more confidence, he's also going to start getting more crap when he has trouble. I don't like that, and I don't want it to happen. Weaver's last two starts have been some of the most enjoyable games I've watched in a long long time, in large part because I couldn't believe it was Jeff Weaver who was leading us to victory. With that in mind, I'm going to do my part and try to resist any developing sentiments that he's anything other than a godawful pitcher. It just makes the game more fun. I don't care if he runs a 2.00 ERA from here until the end of the season - in my book, Jeff Weaver still sucks, because he has to still suck in order for me to love him. If he didn't, he'd probably just frustrate me, and there are already enough guys on this team who do that.
As the bullpen took the game over, the offense decided to drive the point home by lighting Mike Timlin's sorry ass up like a slack-jawed and presumably alcoholic Christmas tree. After Ben Broussard did his best to decapitate the son of a bitch with the busted barrel of a bat, Timlin - spooked by either the near miss or the gall of the Mariners in making him face a minority player (while I know little of Timlin's actual character, he has the look of a wife-beating white supremacist) - got lazy and gave Kenji his first Power Pitch in a little while to make it an 8-2 ballgame. Moments later, Adrian Beltre turned on a low-inside fastball for his first home run since the Kenny Lofton incident, putting the finishing touches on what had become a 9-2 laugher. Beltre seemed like he was on the verge of a hot streak during the Cincinnati series as he kept just missing a few pitches, but now it looks like he's warming up, just as Richie Sexson appears in the midst of his annual turnaround. We all saw what this offense was capable of when those two guys were hitting a year ago; now the lineup's even better. If this really is the start of a dual hot streak, then it's a bad time to be an American League pitcher. But I'll stop here without getting ahead of myself.
As Red Sox Nation started to file out of a ballpark that, unlike their own, offers seating areas acceptable for non-midgets, the underbelly of the Mariner bullpen toyed with the idea of making things interesting before it thought better of the whole thing and put the Sox away for good. Ryan Rowland-Smith allowed a pair of runs in the ninth, but they were entirely inconsequential, and besides you could forgive him for the hits after watching him strike out Ortiz, Hinske, and Lowell while flashing the kind of looping curveball that's going to give lefties nightmares for as long as he's hanging around. The two doubles came against righties, which is both encouraging and something to work on; in the meantime, there are worse things than being able to strike out David Ortiz in your second day on the job, after whiffing Ken Griffey Jr. in your debut. Ryan Rowland-Smith will not soon be forgetting these few days.
In the end, the Mariners defeated the forces of dark by a 9-4 margin, becoming the fifth team in the AL to reach 40 wins. As neat as that is, though, particularly given preseason expectations, this is no time to be content with our progress - the war rages on, and the Red Sox are not an army which one can afford to take lightly. Their battalion must be cornered and smothered until beyond its final breath. Only by thoroughly extinguishing evil may we wish to entertain thoughts of a happier tomorrow. Felix, take the sword. For it is you whom we shall send to deliver the second of three deathly strikes. Fear not your cherubic opponent; he knows not of whence you came. Strike thee instead upon the lineup, and ye shall be handsomely rewarded.