When I'm not out using my chiseled abs to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or railing Brazilian supermodels in their boyfriends' apartments, I spend a lot of my time complaining about how dull it can be playing against boring teams that aren't going anywhere. The Red Sox and Tigers may carry the unfortunate side effect of making us lose more often, but at least those games are meaningful and interesting. Taking on the Rangers or Orioles just makes for a lackluster ambiance. Sometimes, though, games like this serve a purpose. Following that mind-numbingly difficult series against Detroit, Baltimore was exactly what we needed. Big games are cool and all but at some point you need to start reeling off a bunch of wins, and those are far easier to collect against the chaff than the wheat.
I don't want to poke too much fun at the Orioles, because a few years ago we were the Orioles, and it still hits a little close to home. Besides, the unwritten rule is that crappy teams get criticized enough by their own fans that other people needn't intervene. The point, though, is this - the Orioles, especially as currently constructed without Tejada and Mora, are really bad. Really bad teams lose to playoff contenders. This is a good opportunity for the Mariners, and while I'm sure a few of these games will just about put us to sleep, better to be bored by a win than a loss. I'm always willing to sacrifice a little short-term excitement for the sake of the team's longer-term well-being.
Biggest Contribution: Yuniesky Betancourt, +30.0%
Biggest Suckfest: Adrian Beltre, -18.4%
Most Important At Bat: Betancourt double, +27.8%
Most Important Pitch: Gomez triple, -10.8%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +31.8%
Total Contribution by Position Players: +18.2%
Total Contribution by Opposition: 0.0%
I wish I could sit here and tell you that I was excited about Ho's long-feared return. I wish I could tell you that I believed his injury was real, and that I seriously thought a healthy Ho might be the answer to our #5 slot rotation woes that've plagued us all season. But I can't. As comebacks from DL stints go, this was about as little enthused as I've ever felt. In the history of my Mariner fandom there've been precious few players who I hoped would never come back off the DL, but Ho was one of them, because there's just no indication that he's a Major League pitcher, and the longer we dick around trying to fit a AAAA square into a round hole, the less time we have to go forward with whichever new starter we'll inevitably acquire.
So, no, I wasn't really looking forward to this. The pitching part, anyway. The opponent looked nice and vulnerable, but even then I wasn't as confident that we'd beat them as I should've been. Ho Ramirez is just a drag like that. If you're a bad, injury-prone pitcher who comes over in exchange for one of my favorite players, and you continue to be bad and injury-prone, only instead of bad you're actually worse than you've ever been before in your life, you're not going to be a favorite in the Sullivan household. If Jeff Weaver started the season from scratch in my book, Ho started at -50, and since then he's only dug himself an even deeper hole.
Ever the forgiving and generous type, though, I was willing to give Ho one last chance, mostly because there was nothing I could do about it. And lo and behold, the damndest thing happened - Ho struck out the first guy he faced. For only the eighth time all season long in 193 plate appearances, Horacio Ramirez struck a batter out swinging. It wasn't even a crappy batter, either (although Roberts has never been much against lefties in his career). This was truly a cause for celebration.
The next two Orioles grounded out harmlessly to end the frame, wrapping up what was probably the first 1-2-3 inning by a Mariner #5 starter all season. Shaken and bewildered, Ho walked back to the dugout gesturing towards the egg-shaped typo on the scoreboard, but before he could get an answer Ichiro stepped up to the plate and the focus shifted from the surprising top of the first to "dear God I hope his knee is okay I'll bet you $5 his knee isn't okay this is too upsetting I'm going home." A born showman and warrior with joints impervious to blunt trauma, Ichiro responded to the widespread concerns by stretching what's usually a simple base hit into left field into a leadoff double. Following one of the worst bunts anyone's ever seen, Ichiro decided to one-up himself by stealing third, which was pretty much a big middle finger to Justin Verlander's sissy fastball. I'm pretty sure Ichiro doesn't have any idea which team he plays for, and that he just goes out there taking on the opponent by himself and trying to top his previous efforts with each successive swing or sprint. Anyway, he'd come around to score on a Raul Ibanez groundout, which was probably the best possible outcome of his at bat against a lefty. The rousing applause that followed wasn't so much for the run as it was for Ibanez actually making contact, as 23,000 people acted like parents who for the first time saw their child spell the word "dog" without three p's and a colon. Perhaps we just need to get Raul on the gold star system.
Happy thoughts about the Ho lasted all of two batters into the second, as the third took something 87mph and flat into the left-center bullpen. The usual post-game reflection you'll hear about things like this is that the homer came off a mistake pitch, but if the alleged mistake pitch has so much in common with all the other pitchers the pitcher threw, perhaps a more fitting explanation would be that the pitcher's standard stuff isn't good enough to not get the crap beaten out of it.
As this and other similar thoughts went through my head, the game started to fly by, as the Mariners challenged Baltimore to an out-making competition and the Orioles perked up, excited to finally have something to play for. The most entertaining thing that happened over the next little while was Jason Ellison actually drag-bunting his way on base on a 3-1 fastball. There are a lot of different indications that a player needs to spend more time in the weight room, but none are more blatant than seeing a guy bunting on 3-1. In Ellison's defense, it worked, but not in Ellison's defense, he was immediately thrown out trying to steal 2nd when Baltimore correctly guessed with a pitchout. Brian Roberts applied the tag, and I was hoping that Ellison would get to his feet and shove Roberts' sorry ass to the ground in retaliation for his All Star Game buffoonery, but with Ichiro slotted in at DH and Willie preoccupied with an atomic wedgie, Ellison knew he couldn't risk getting ejected, so he thought better of it and instead asked Ichiro to punish him with mental signals upon walking back towards the dugout.
The Orioles, in behavior unbefitting of what we've come to expect from the dead, took the lead in the fourth thanks to a sequence of humiliating events - for one, Ho Ramirez allowed the cryogenically frozen remains of Chris Gomez to line a ball into right field; for two, Jose Guillen misplayed the liner as it took a funny bounce and Gomez pulled into third; and for three, when Nick Markakis then grounded a ball to a diving Richie Sexson at first, Ho kind of stood on the mound and neglected to make even the slightest effort to cover an open first base. Pitcher fielding practice exists exclusively for situations like this. Anyone who's ever played for a baseball team knows that PFP consists almost entirely of grounders hit to the infield where the pitcher covers first. It's a tediously awful drill of borderline torturous repetition, with the intent of giving pitchers an immediate subconscious reflex to sprint towards the base at the first sign of trouble. Ho Ramirez is 27 years old. He's been doing PFP for most of his life. He didn't budge. I wonder if he was just stunned that Markakis didn't use the pitch to discipline an unsuspecting fan in the right field bleachers.
The inning could've been worse, but a little while later Aubrey Huff made his third and fourth outs in two at bats, killing the rally. The Mariners then came back to tie it up again in the bottom half, with Guillen making up for his gaffe and prolonging his hot streak with a double, and Sexson raising his July batting average to a majestic .138 with an RBI single.
That's when it started to feel weird. Even though we were only tied with the Orioles, and Ho Ramirez was still going to work on the mound, I began to feel strangely comfortable. I think it's because by the fifth inning I came to realize just how jaw-droppingly awful Baltimore's offense really is without Tejada and Mora in the middle. Ho isn't a Major League pitcher, but he wasn't facing a Major League lineup, so the usual problems didn't really apply. Who cares if he can't throw consistent strikes or miss bats or keep the ball on the ground? Few of these hitters were likely to make him pay for his substandard offerings. As the top of the fifth ended with Ho having thrown fewer than ten pitches for the second frame in a row, I felt the warm blanket of taking things for granted descend from the heavens and wrap around my shoulders.
Soon thereafter the top of the sixth came and went with Ho only having to throw another eight pitches, and despite a Beltre double play in the bottom half, the Mariners were able to put together a rally to take the lead for good. With two down and none on, Sexson drew a walk and a Johjima grounder sprouted eyes up the middle, bringing Betancourt to the plate with an opportunity to make a difference. No sooner had I typed "Yuni's last extra-base hit: June 24th" than he took an offspeed pitch deep to left field, where it bounced off the yellow on the wall to drive home two runs. While a lesser fan would've let Dave Sims' relentless insistence that the yellow should be a home run harsh his buzz, I didn't care; this was the hit that rewarded my overconfidence, and there are few greater feelings in the world than acting like an arrogant jackass and being proven right.
The seventh saw Ho put up his third consecutive 1-2-3 inning, as he seemed to be having his own little Jeff Weaver renaissance start. Maybe there's something to these fake injuries after all. Ho only recorded two swinging strikes on 83 pitches - that's 2006 Joel Pineiro when he's off his game - so this kind of performance isn't sustainable, but who cares? And who's expecting it to be? We know damn well that Weaver and Ho are pretty bad pitchers, but if they're able to luck their way into starts like this every so often, what difference does it make how much predictive value those starts actually have? What's done is done, and Ho allowed two runs in seven innings. He's still a problem and the organization knows it; the front office is no less likely to get a pitcher now than they were yesterday. In the meantime, though, we got a 'quality start' out of a slot that usually doesn't provide them. That's good.
For the record, Ho was hitting 93-94 with his fastball far more often than he did earlier in the year. He's touched that velocity range before, but only infrequently - tonight it was more consistent. 24 of his 83 pitches were 93-94mph. That hints at an increase in arm strength over the course of his DL visit. What it means, I'm not sure, since he faced an awful lineup and still didn't miss any bats, but at least it's better than staying the same or getting slower.
The bottom of the seventh exposed us for the first time to the Baltimore bullpen, a veritable who's who of highly-paid gascans and flagellants. Tonight it was Rob Bell, a man who, two years ago, was released by the Devil Rays and re-signed four days later. I like to think of what happened prior to Bell's release as a first date between two really ugly people with few redeemable qualities but irrationally high standards. The evening ended abruptly and neither party was interested in pursuing the other, but over the next few days it began to dawn on them both that neither could do any better, so they grudgingly and reluctantly adhered to the three-day standard to call the other back about a second date. I don't know who called who first, but the conversation was probably sullen and cheerless, with hints of self-deprecation. A day later the contract was drawn up, and they went out for the second time. In the end, the relationship didn't go very far, but fortunately for Bell the Devil Rays had an ugly available friend.
Bell, of course, kicked our ass.
We went to the eighth, where Sean Green got the call in what's hopefully an indication of a change in mindset among the coaching staff with regards to Chris Reitsma. Green did his usual thing, getting a hilarious strikeout and a grounder back to the mound, but then he was removed with two out and none on and a lefty coming to the plate. You could understand McLaren's decision, since Green's got a .500 OBP and .486 SLG against vs. lefties so far this season, but with a two-run lead I think it would've been fine to leave him in to see what he could do.
Nevertheless, it was George Sherrill coming in from the bullpen. Or, as Dave Sims has recently taken to calling him, "The Governor." This got me thinking about similar nicknames for the rest of the bullpen:
Putz: The Overlord
Green: The Chancellor
O'Flaherty: The Senate Majority Leader
Reitsma: The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
Morrow: The Attorney General
Rowland-Smith: The Deputy White House Chief of Staff for Strategic Planning
Sherrill allowed a cute little double before politely asking the Orioles to leave, but they overstayed their welcome, forcing JJ to shoo them to the front porch and slam the door in their faces. JJ now has 27 saves and 27 baserunners allowed. I don't know if anyone's ever kept a ratio of 1.00 or lower over an entire season, but I'd love it if anyone could tell me. (Update: Dennis Eckersley, 1990: 48 saves, 45 baserunners)
So that was game one. Either you're happy that the Mariners fulfilled your expectations by beating an inferior team, or you're happy that the Mariners survived and won a game pitched by their fifth starter. Either way it's going to be an easy sleep, because we're one back of the Wild Card and tomorrow promises to be another heart-warming Felix Day. I am content.