Chalk tonight up as proof that no close game can be properly judged until it's over. For four and a half innings this one had the feel of one of those sleep-inducing nightmares with which we've become all too familiar in recent years, but things turned around at the drop of a hat, and by the end it was another nailbiter that would've fit well into that first winning streak last month. The lesson is, while it can be difficult to stay with a game that's going poorly, as long as the deficit's small enough to go away in a flash you should never completely give up. Your faith may not be rewarded every time, but when it is, it's far more satisfying than getting a win you expected from the start.
Tonight, the Mariners had to make their own momentum in what seemed like an energy vacuum, and they prevailed. They weren't riding a wave; for four and a half innings they were clinically dead, yet they were able to resuscitate themselves in time to claim victory. The first part sounds a lot like 2004, but the second part reminds us that this is a new season, a better season, a season where the Mariners you see in the first inning aren't necessarily the Mariners you'll see in the next eight. And who doesn't love a little element of unpredictability? It's gotten us this far.
Biggest Contribution: Adrian Beltre, +32.2%
Biggest Suckfest: Raul Ibanez, -14.0%
Most Important At Bat: Whatever the fuck happened on that Beltre play, +34.8%
Most Important Pitch: Thames double, -13.8%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +47.4%
Total Contribution by Position Players: -14.2%
Total Contribution by Opposition: +16.8%
For at least the past month or so it's felt like every single game the Mariners play is critically important. When you're hovering on the outside of the playoff race looking in, you can't afford to risk losing ground very often, nor can you pass up many opportunities to make some hay. The solution? Win, and win constantly, and hope that it's enough. The Mariners have been doing this for a few weeks, and it's helped them get back in the race just when it looked like they were bottoming out.
Not since the end of May, though, have they been able to play a set against one of the teams standing in their way. They played Cleveland, but that was just one game. With that in mind, this series started to look absolutely crucial. The Tigers currently lead the Central, but only by the slimmest of margins, and whoever isn't leading that division is competing for the Wild Card. Detroit, then, is a direct enemy of Seattle. I don't think it would be overstating it to say that, to date, this is the biggest series of the Mariners' season. Lose it and you're dealt a harsh blow, having to scoreboard-watch the Indians. Split it and you've earned some respect and proven yourself against a team many consider the best in baseball. Win it and you've essentially pulled yourself into playoff position. We woke up this morning knowing that this series would tell us a lot about just where the team stands relative to the rest of the AL competition.
And who better to kick things off than Felix, a guy who's finally decided to add a little intellect to his arsenal? Weaver's got that 1.67 ERA over his last six starts, but Felix has recently resumed pitching like we expected him to pitch, and you'd be silly to call for a different Mariner in a really big game. As Felix took the mound in the first and completed his warm-up tosses, I think most of us actually trusted him for the first time since that night in Boston. Speaking for myself, I was brimming with a little too much confidence for a guy whose team doesn't currently have a playoff spot. I think I just find it entirely too easy to slide back into that mode of believing that Felix is untouchable. Still, I felt in my heart that despite everything Miller and Detroit's offense bring to the table, we legitimately had the distinct advantage. There wasn't any shaking that sense.
The first inning presented my beliefs with a peculiar challenge. On the one hand, the Tigers got two hits and scored a run to take an early lead. On the other, Felix still looked really good. Sheffield's single was just a good piece of hitting on an outside slider, and wouldn't have even gotten through had the Mariners not been so concerned about Granderson's running game. Later, Magglio Ordonez hit what would've been a routine 4-6-3 double play had Sheffield not stolen second earlier in the at bat. I didn't know if I should be happy about Felix's appearance or sad about his results, so I spent the next little while existing in limbo, waiting for something to push me in one of the two directions.
I didn't get that push. At least, not immediately. As I waited, the Mariners did their best to flail away against Andrew Miller, who for extended periods tonight looked like the ace he could become despite being barely a year out of college. He came with a fastball anywhere between 90-97, where even the slower ones were deceptively quick and got to the plate in a hurry. And to balance things out, he mixed in a breaking ball with tight spin that's going to give people like Raul Ibanez night terrors for years. If Miller had a problem in the early innings, it was inefficiency; it took him 75 pitches to get through four frames. That was about it, though, because outside of Jose Vidro, the man was cruising. The way he worked the fourth was absolute mastery, and it felt like all we could do was tread water and bide time until the Tiger bullpen made an appearance.
Felix, meanwhile, was making do. He was pitching well and getting a lot of balls on the ground, but it was unsettling how he wasn't missing many bats. Through his first 46 pitches he recorded only one swinging strike, a fastball to Ordonez. He also allowed a second run, this one coming on a chopper that took far too long to come back down for Beltre to make a play. While Felix wasn't at his classic best, you still got the sense that he was unlucky to be trailing 2-0. Even when he's avoiding the fat part of the bat, Felix still finds a way to get bad breaks. Or maybe it's just Ordonez's extraordinarily good luck taking advantage of its latest victim. The man has a .388 BABIP while hitting 18.6% line drives. Colossal. Fluke.
The top of the fourth started with two first-pitch fastball singles and an error by Jose Guillen, putting men on the corners with nobody out. It felt like Detroit was on the verge of breaking things open, and with the way the Mariners looked against Miller, things looked bad. Felix couldn't afford to fall behind any more than he already had.
Felix knew it. After getting Omar Infante to hit a soft lineout to second base, he got angry and came after Brandon Inge with a handful of sliders when he was looking fastball. A 1-2 breaking ball down and away got him swinging for the second out, Felix's first strikeout of the game. Up came Curtis Granderson, who was also looking fastball. Felix didn't oblige, and in a 2-2 count threw one of the nastiest, most unhittable sliders he's thrown all year. It was down and in, with sharp late break and an Enhanced Gameday-recorded speed of 93 miles per hour. Every other slider he'd thrown in the game was somewhere between 88-91. This one was basically any other pitcher's fastball. Only it dropped off the table. Granderson swung through it and the inning was over, as Felix found a way to preserve the 2-0 score.
As mentioned earlier, the Mariners didn't do anything against Miller in the fourth, although the inning wasn't without its action. For one thing, Rizzs/Valle decided to one-up Sims and Blowers by delivering Rally Fish And Chips (to some LL readers, even) instead of the cheaper Rally Fries. For another, Adrian Beltre's obnoxious check-swing appeal finally worked in his favor, as appealing a third strike delayed Ivan Rodriguez long enough to let Beltre scamper to first after the ball got away from the catcher. You just know this happened to Beltre one time about eleven years ago and he's been doing it ever since. Behold the power of positive reinforcement. Beltre would later steal second and take third on a wild throw by Rodriguez, but rather than accept Rodriguez's argument that he was interfered with by Yuniesky Betancourt, home plate umpire Mike Winters instead decided that Rodriguez would be able to get over the incident sooner in the clubhouse. Betancourt, of course, popped out as the Mariners wasted their opportunity, but it's not like this was a particularly dull half-inning.
Felix came out rolling in the fifth, touching 100mph for the sixth time during a strikeout of Marcus Thames. Assuming that Gameday isn't lying to me on purpose, I think it's safe to say that Felix finally has his Opening Day velocity back. He was throwing as hard as he ever has tonight, and he was able to use that speed to control some big at bats. The only hit he allowed in the inning came off another bit of terrific work by Gary Sheffield, who went 3-4 against pitch sequences that would've left a lesser batter hitless. Felix did everything he could to get him out, but Sheffield just had the edge tonight. It happens. Sheffield is that good.
Still down 2-0, we entered the bottom of the fifth hoping that the offense could get a lift from Felix's improvement on the mound. If that didn't work, they could also stand to get some momentum from Ken Levine, the textbook honkey who Star Trekked his way into the announcer's booth to spread his infectious brand of congenial geekery and incorrect name-calling as a Dave Sims stand-in. Almost the minute Levine arrived, the Mariners started to get something going at the plate, and back-to-back two out walks brought Adrian Beltre to the plate with the bases loaded in a showdown that I think we all knew at the time would pretty much decide the game.
I wish I could say that I saw the hit coming, but I didn't, not after watching Miller make Beltre look retarded the first two times. It came down to another two-strike count and I feared the low-away breaking ball, but by some stroke of fortune Miller missed his spot and wound up hanging the curve, which Beltre smacked into right field for a base hit. Two runs would score, and the game was tied.
That, as it turns out, was only the beginning of the play. As Ordonez threw home to try and get the second runner, Beltre took off for second. Rabelo threw down, but Beltre slid in safely. However, he overslid the bag, and Guillen came up to apply the tag. Several times. And missed. Several times. With Sexson now gunning for home and Guillen between him and second base, Beltre decided to get up and sprint for third, outrunning an utterly bewildered Guillen who dropped the ball while expressing his confusion. Suddenly it was 3-2 Mariners, and while you couldn't believe that Guillen had missed all those tags, FSN Northwest's third base camera angle backed it up.
As if that weren't enough, though, Miller then appealed the play by throwing to second before his next pitch, at which point Beltre was called out for never touching the base. This despite (A) clear video evidence that Beltre did, in fact, get the bag with a few of his fingers, and (B) Bruce Froemming actually calling Beltre safe when he slid into second in the first place. As the teams changed sides, Beltre stood at third with an incredulous expression of amusement and disbelief. Gameday froze for about seven hours as people tried to figure out how to score this clusterfuck of a play, but in the end it became a two-run single with an unearned run scoring on an error and Beltre getting called out on the basepaths. If you missed it live, I wouldn't worry, because you'll probably be seeing it on highlight and blooper reels for the next ten years.
Armed with a shiny new lead, Felix came out and mowed right through the Tigers in the sixth, touching 100 another two times against Brandon Inge. He'd do it one more time in the seventh, making it nine in the game. Nine times reaching 100mph according to a sophisticated and completely objective system of cameras. Felix was throwing gas tonight. More importantly, while he didn't strike out any of the first 17 batters he faced, he got six of his final 13. Velocity, strikeouts, and groundballs. Even without a changeup, reliable curveball, or good command, Felix looked like a #1 pitcher against a 1000-run offense. The box score says ten hits, but he was a whole lot better than that. For the most part, this was exactly what I wanted to see him do, even if I was hoping for a little better location.
Felix left the game in the seventh with two men on base (one of them having bounced a single off of Beltre at third), but all that meant was that we got to replace one right-handed groundball and strikeout machine with another. Sean Green came in throwing his usual two sidearm pitches and parlayed the frisbee slider and sinking fastball into a whiff of Ordonez and groundout by Guillen. Just like that, the inning was over and the threat was put to rest. Magglio Ordonez is batting .365 and at no point during that at bat did I think he was in control. With a GB/FB ratio pushing three and a K/BB over two (excluding intentional walks), Sean Green has quietly turned himself into one of the more underrated relievers in the league. Forget replacing Morrow with Reitsma in the eighth; if McLaren needs to have a high-leverage setup righty, Green should be the guy.
The Mariners kept doing nothing against the Tiger bullpen, which I suppose I should've expected since we've pointed out time and time again that this lineup can't hit crappy pitchers, but with the game in the trustworthy hands of our bullpen, it was hard to be worried. While Reitsma could've made things easier in the eighth, Sherrill had given him a head start, and it's not like he gave up any long outs or fouls. I think it's just (rightfully) hard for us to believe in a reliever who gets outs by putting the ball in play. Once you get a bunch of strikeout arms in the later innings it's hard to imagine living without them. In that regard, Reitsma's a clear departure from guys like Putz and Sherrill and Morrow and Green, and so he's going to have to do a lot to earn our trust. Although I really hope he just never gets the chance, since he's probably the worst guy we have out there.
After throwing away a chance at some insurance runs in the eighth, we came to the top of the ninth, with JJ Putz set to face the top of the Tiger lineup. He's had easier assignments. I'd be lying if I said I was 100% confident on the heels of his All Star Game showing; even though I knew it was stupid, I couldn't shake it, and I think it's because JJ's been so unbelievably amazing that I keep looking for the slightest indication that he's human. It's just my nature. JJ certainly didn't make things easier, either, when he gave up a line drive fly out and double to the first two guys he faced. It was terrifying to see him working upstairs against Sheffield, too, but part of that might've been a memory of what Sheffield had already done to that point in the game. Fortunately, a harmless fly out to right brought us within one batter of a big, big series-opening victory.
And that's when Standard JJ took over. He got ahead with a 98mph high fastball, worked his way to two strikes, and after Magglio fouled off a splitter, JJ put him away with a 97mph heater high and away. For the third time in the game a Mariner pitcher struck out the league's leading batter. The game was over and the Mariners celebrated their 50th win of the season, a total which has incidentally eluded every team in the NL so far. Any doubts that I had about JJ were immediately put to rest by that final at bat, as the chance of ASG struggles snowballing fell to zero. JJ's fine, and even if he's a little pissed off that he couldn't finish the job on Tuesday, tonight's contest was far more important, and he slammed the door.
Washburn and Bonderman tomorrow. We've already won the game we were supposed to win. Now it's time to prove to the Tigers and the rest of the league that we're more than a one-starter ballclub. So what if it isn't true? Perception is everything, dammit.