Bad ball/strike calls are made so often that they're not really worth complaining about. If it were easy to call every pitch properly, umpires would never make a mistake. In reality, it's actually quite difficult, and occasionally they slip up and call something what it wasn't. This was one of those times. It sucked. But then, maybe Washburn should've thrown a sixth pitch that didn't suck more. The life of hindsight is a disconsolate one.
Biggest Contribution: Adrian Beltre, +8.0%
Biggest Suckfest: Jarrod Washburn, -30.0%
Most Important At Bat: Guillen funk blast, +10.8%
Most Important Pitch: Sheffield grand slam, -28.8%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): -31.2%
Total Contribution by Position Players: -18.8%
Total Contribution by Opposition: 0.0%
Much like that Matsuzaka/Ho Ramirez matchup from earlier in the season, my expectations for this one were not very high from the start. It's one thing to expect to beat the Tigers with King Felix going against a talented but raw rookie in Miller, but Washburn against Bonderman? Detroit's got a 1000-run offense with an .864 OPS against left-handed pitchers, and Bonderman has that slider that he's used to mow through countless opposing lineups. Yeah, we scored five times the last time we faced him, but that felt like a fluke; he's an extraordinary pitcher, and not the kind of guy this team could nickel-and-dime.
Even after Jose Guillen hit a surprising home run to give the Mariners an early 1-0 lead, I still found myself saying things like "maybe we'll be able to steal this one after all." All of my notions of victory were predicated on getting away with theft, and at no point did I dare venture to suggest that the M's had any kind of edge. The pitch Guillen took out was a hanging slider; outside of that mistake, Bonderman looked terrific, and Washburn was racking up the kind of high pitch count that didn't make him seem long for the game. The early lead was nice, but there was no way it was going to stand up on its own.
To Washburn's credit, he wasn't racking up a high pitch count because his control sucked - he was racking up a high pitch count because the Tigers were having trouble putting the ball in play. He struck out four of the first seven batters he faced, none of them cheap; Thames, Monroe, and Ordonez are all lefty-killers by trade, and even Raburn was solid in AAA. It was the most unusual of starts for a guy who's ordinarily among the more predictable pitchers in baseball. Against an average lineup, a guy with a 12% strikeout rate stands a 0.4% chance of whiffing at least four of the first seven hitters. That's exceedingly small. For a little perspective, Willie Ballgame has gone deep in about 0.5% of his career plate appearances. What we saw out of Washburn through the first two innings tonight was approximately as rare and amazing as a Willie Ballgame home run.
With that in mind, I suppose we probably should've known that it wouldn't continue. I mean, if Willie hits a ball 400 feet in one at bat, it's not like you suddenly expect him to do it again. It's a freak occurrence that should be celebrated for its peculiarity more than anything else. Washburn reverted to a more normal version of himself in the third, struggling to put Raburn away in an eight-pitch walk and loading the bases with one out for the .983 OPS'ing Gary Sheffield.
Every single one of us knew this was a bad situation. I've heard from friends and observers that whenever Ichiro comes to the plate, they expect him to hit a single every time. Sheffield's worse. Just like Vlad, every time I see him stand in against a Mariner pitcher, I'm looking for him to do a ton of damage, probably by yanking an extra-base hit into left field. He has to be one of the most intimidating batters in recent history. On any other hitter that whole bat wiggle would look ridiculous, but for Sheffield it's just part of what makes him so downright terrifying. You know how if you wave your hand back and forth in front of a kitten it'll coil up and then suddenly pounce forward? Pitching to Sheffield is like doing that to a velociraptor. You'd be better off not doing it at all, but if you have to, you just close your eyes and hope that whatever he's going to do he does quickly.
Washburn actually managed to get ahead, and on a 1-2 count he froze Sheffield with a 92mph heater - his fastest of the game - that appeared to nick the low-outside corner of the zone. Gameday confirms that it was a strike, and Washburn badly wanted the call, but Brian Runge refused to ring Sheffield up, giving the most dangerous hitter in the Tiger lineup a second chance against a guy who'd just put everything he had into the previous pitch (Washburn threw two fastballs at 92 tonight, both to Sheffield. You think he was coming after him with a little something extra?). As we all stared in disbelief that such a critical borderline call could go against us, Sheffield immediately jumped all over something down and offspeed, putting a grand slam in the bullpen behind the left-center wall. The juxtaposition of events couldn't have been worse. In a flash the lead was gone and we were dealt a harsh reminder of what we were up against. Forget that fluke Ordonez; Sheffield is an out-and-out terror, the kind of bat that this lineup's sorely lacked for years. The Mariners have a bunch of hitters for whom you can develop a plan of attack. Sheffield, though, just doesn't have weaknesses. That's why our offense is good and Detroit's is fantastic.
(Let it be known that I do not blame Brian Runge for this. It was a borderline pitch, and even if it goes your way 75% of the time, that still means that for the other 25% it's called a ball. This time we just didn't get the break. I do, on the other hand, have a problem with the wildly inconsistent zone that Runge was using for most of the night, but whatever, shit happens.)
The thing about Washburn's bad innings is that they tend to happen so quickly that you can't immediately digest the significance of what's just happened. Sheffield's grand slam added four runs to the board, but Washburn came back to get two quick outs to end the inning, and as he walked off the field you were left thinking that it wasn't as bad as it seemed, that a four-run inning was somehow better than it could've been. That's just how it is with guys who work quickly and throw strikes. When Brandon Morrow goes to a bunch of three-ball counts, walks some guys, and gives up a run, we think he's the worst pitcher in baseball. When Jarrod Washburn gives up a two-run homer in the middle of three quick outs, we tend not to think very poorly of him at all. I think that's one way that his consistent mediocrity manages to fly under the radar.
If the Mariners were taken aback by the sudden lead change, they didn't show it - with Betancourt on first in the bottom of the third, Jose Vidro pulled an inside fastball and hit it as hard as he's hit a ball in weeks, sending a liner over Magglio's overachieving ass in right field for an RBI double. That's the swing that Vidro's going to have to use pretty often if he wants to keep his job, and while I'd really rather just see Jones come up right now, I'm not going to complain as long as Vidro's getting on base. Considering that the instant he slumps we're likely to see a lineup change, it's essentially a win-win situation. Anyway, while it would've been nice to sustain that rally, Raul Ibanez came up to kill it, but at least a third of the deficit was erased. It was something, especially considering the source.
That was it for a while, though. While Washburn sort of settled down and sort of didn't (I'm convinced that Magglio's bases loaded DP in the fifth was just a demonstration of God hastening his well-deserved regression to the mean), the Mariners were predictably having trouble breaking through for more runs against Bonderman. Slowly it began to dawn on us that the Sheffield grand slam was a huge event after all, because scoring four runs was looking like a tall task. Only with someone like Washburn does it take a few innings to regret the home runs. Bonderman wasn't necessarily at the top of his game, but he was getting a lot of grounders, and it didn't really help our case that only a third of our lineup is hitting right now. Getting back into this game was going to be a chore.
For as much as Washburn deserved his fate in the third, what happened in the sixth was just crappy luck - after another error on Betancourt (#20), two groundball singles found holes to the outfield to score Detroit's fifth run. I think Carlos Guillen crossing home plate right there was the sign that we just weren't going to win this game. Jarrod managed to get out of the inning without sustaining any more damage, and his seven strikeouts are the second-most he's ever recorded in a Mariner uniform, but at the end of the day five runs in six innings against Jeremy Bonderman isn't very likely to leave you in good position. Washburn ended his night regretting one pitch, but it was a really, really bad pitch, the kind of pitch that decides ballgames. It's not Runge's fault that Jarrod made a horrible mistake after missing out on a borderline call.
Washburn was replaced in the seventh by Brandon Morrow, who immediately allowed the first home run of his professional career, a no-doubter line shot into right field by Sean Casey. If the fifth run tied the noose, the sixth kicked the chair out from under our feet. Morrow came back and touched 99 against Sheffield (I think it's pretty clear which hitter is commanding the most attention), but for the most part he spent his two innings around 96 with 39% offspeed stuff. This wasn't the same Morrow that we saw in all those high-leverage situations earlier in the year. That guy was a one-pitch pitcher who put everything he had into every delivery. This guy sacrifices a few ticks for better command, and isn't afraid to change speeds. Mind you, he didn't look great or anything, and he only got one swinging strike in 23 pitches, but the Brandon Morrow we saw tonight was a hell of a lot closer to a guy who can start than the Brandon Morrow we had in April and May. He's clearly a work in progress who has a long way to go before he's ready to help a Major League rotation, but why wouldn't he be? He's a year out of college and spent a lot of that time pumping straight gas out of the bullpen. As he hits some bumps along the way through the rest of the year, try not to get too angry at Morrow, since it's not really his fault that he's up here.
Adrian Beltre drilled a convincing home run in the bottom of the seventh - even Dave Sims called it straight off the bat - but that was as close as the Mariners would get, because too much of this lineup is slumping right now to sustain any kind of rally. Ichiro, Beltre, and Guillen had both home runs and five of our nine hits tonight (Guillen, by the way, has a 1.202 OPS in his last 12 games). The rest of the guys covered the spectrum from bad to clueless, with Raul Ibanez being possibly the worst offender. At this point I regret jumping the gun on saying that he was "back" after that Cleveland game; since that point he's hit just .188/.225/.330, and while it's not as bad as Kenji's current rut, at least Kenji had more than one or two games of success beforehand. Perhaps Jose Vidro isn't the guy we should bench when Adam Jones gets the call from Tacoma.
After Sean Green kicked some more ass in the ninth the Mariners did get one more chance against probably the worst closer in baseball, a guy with a .352 OBP against, more hits than innings pitched, and an 87% contact rate. Sure enough, they managed to get the tying run to the plate, which is probably as much as you can ask for when you're facing a three-run deficit in the final inning. At that point John McLaren actually made the right call and pinch-hit Broussard for Lopez, and the potential for a dramatic finish became legitimate. When Broussard got ahead 3-1, you couldn't help but feel like good things were about to happen. You could visualize Ben pulling one of those extra-base hits into the right-center gap, even though it doesn't happen nearly as much as you think it does.
But then he fouled a pitch off. And another one, this one possibly ball four. And then, on the seventh pitch of the at bat, he chased a fastball high and away for the final out. Just like the Mariners - a team capable of getting into good hitter's counts but incapable of taking advantage once they get there. It's one thing to be aggressive and try to put the ball in play early in the count, but at bats like this remind us that a lot of these guys don't have a real strong idea of the strike zone, and that their aggressive tendencies aren't so much a choice as they are the only option, since it's the only way to compensate for a bad eye. A better hitter would've recognized the high fastball and taken the walk, bringing Ichiro to the plate as the winning run, but Broussard, like so many other Mariners, was determined to end his at bat with a swing. He failed.
In the end, this wasn't a game we expected to win, and we might as well just be glad they kept it as close as they did and made their final out with a chance to tie the game. There's a reason so many people consider the Tigers the best team in baseball. All we can do now is look ahead to tomorrow, when Rogers and Beluga Tits gives us a much more favorable matchup. Win that one and you'll be surprised how quickly tonight fades from your memory.