Going hand-in-hand with the prevailing notion that every game right now is a life-or-death situation is the idea that every loss is the start of a slump. Admit it, after tonight, you feel it too. You think it would be really easy for the M's to fold up the tent as the All Star break approaches, and you're afraid that today's stinker is the first sign of another second half full of meaningless contests.
Try to relax. This is par for the course when you've got a team that's exceeding your expectations (which I imagine the Mariners presently are for each and every one of you). When you go into April expecting a team to finish around .500, you tend to stand by that prediction for a long time, even if there's substantial evidence to indicate otherwise. Speaking for myself, I know a big part of my brain still sees this group as being too average to make a legitimate run. But that isn't a criticism of or a gloomy forecast for the Mariners; it's an observation that by human nature we're generally slow to re-evaluate our stances. It takes us a while before we start using season results to overrule preseason expectations. How many people still get nervous when Sean Green comes into a big situation? How many people still expect Richie Sexson to go deep whenever he steps up to the plate? How many people still think Ben Broussard was a lousy acquisition with a clueless approach? There are exceptions, but by and large, we're usually reluctant to abandon our stated opinions, because nobody likes being wrong.
The point is this: even with today's loss, the Mariners are 11 over .500 and on pace to win 92 games. They could start slumping and slide back down to more familiar territory, but I think the more likely scenario is that they're simply better than a lot of us thought they'd be, and we're just slow to acknowledge that fact. I don't have the numbers on me, but if you go back through history and find all the teams who had 45 wins through 79 games, I bet far more of them wound up competing for the playoffs than falling apart in the second half.
Today's loss sucked, but as much as I know we all like to get emotional and overreact to stuff, it was one game. We still have another two against the Royals to right the ship. Don't run away now, because this is the best season we've had in a long time, and the more dedicated you are to the team, the more enjoyment you're able to get out of the highs. Just think back to yesterday afternoon. It's worth it. Believe me.
Biggest Contribution: Felix Hernandez, +29.7%
Biggest Suckfest: Adrian Beltre, -31.1%
Most Important At Bat: Lopez strikeout, -11.8%
Most Important Pitch: Brown strikeout, +18.9%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +21.7%
Total Contribution by Position Players: -112.1%
Total Contribution by Opposition: +40.4%
I'll admit it - for mostly selfish reasons I'd been looking forward to this game for days. Never in the past four years did I think that anything someone said on a blog could have any effect on what takes place on the field. And why would I? That's not why people write; if you're blogging with the intent of having an influence on a player or a team, you're probably in for a huge letdown. That said, given the opportunity, who wouldn't be excited? I've never been a big fan of savoring personal accomplishments for too long, but if ever there were a thing that could make me step back from the computer and say "holy crap," this was it. Felix is our prize possession, and thanks in enormous part to the incredible work of Dave Cameron and Dan Fox, he'd at last been presented with the information that, once digested, could help him finally turn the corner. Even being able to get him the data blew my mind, but a realistic chance that he'd actually apply it in a game? That's the sort of thing that would help me die happy.
So, yeah, I could hardly wait to get home from work and flip on the ol' MLB.tv to see what would happen. I was in such eager anticipation for Felix to take the hill that I barely even noticed the Mariners torching Gil Meche in the top of the first. Jose Guillen continued a three-at-bat streak of awesomeness with a quick two-run single up the middle, and it looked like we were in for Gil's trademarked Big Inning and an early laugher. Richie followed that with a base hit of his own, but then we were given the first ominous sign of impending terror - Kenji Johjima hit a screaming liner right at third base, and a dropped catch at second was all that kept us from a most unfortunate double play. Adrian Beltre then flew out to end the inning, and despite some ugly work on the hill and a bunch of solid contact, the Mariners carried only a two-run lead into the bottom half. It felt like more. It should've been more. It wasn't. I didn't like that.
Now, before I get to talking about Felix's performance tonight, I want to address something. Ever since the pitch selection argument was first brought up, there's been carping and disagreement. A lot of people think Felix really does need to establish the fastball and go from there. Their three main criticisms are as follows:
- Felix is a power pitcher with a 97mph fastball. All power pitchers build off their heater. Why should Felix be any different?
- You guys want Felix to throw fewer fastballs. For one thing, that'll make it easier to hit offspeed stuff, and for another, it makes him more likely to get hurt.
- It's not a pitch selection problem, it's a command problem.
- Felix isn't every other power pitcher. Felix is the rare power pitcher who's been gifted with even more tremendous secondary stuff. By throwing the fastball all the time in predictable counts, he's essentially negating the rest of his advantage over the batter.
- I don't want Felix to throw fewer fastballs. I want Felix to throw fewer predictable fastballs. All year long he's come out throwing heater after heater in the first inning, allowing a .963 OPS with a 13.7% strikeout rate as batters sit on the pitch. After the first, he usually becomes much better at mixing things up, and the results have been a .778 OPS and 26.3% strikeout rate. Batters can only hit consistently if they have a pretty good idea of what's coming. That's what Felix needs to avoid. And as far as the injury talk is concerned, he hurt himself using the fastball arm slot. That's why he's dropped down since. His curveball's never hurt him one bit.
- It's only a command problem in that Felix has terrible command of his fastball. And guess what? If you have bad command of a pitch, you probably shouldn't throw it 15 straight times to start every game. If Felix had pinpoint location of his fastball it'd be a different story, but he doesn't, he never has, and he probably never will, so trying to force it is a stupid strategy. In terms of command, his fastball is probably his worst pitch (currently tied with the changeup, which hasn't been good of late). He's much better with the slider and curve. And because those pitches move, he even has a little wiggle room. The fastball's straight. When the batter can see it coming, that's trouble.
Then something clicked. Felix abandoned the fastball and got a strikeout and double play in the span of seven pitches. This was big news. Against Boston in his previous start, Felix basically fed heaters to the first four guys he saw before changing things up. Today it took half that long. That's progress. I couldn't help but think that, after the German single, Felix thought "okay maybe I should consider that information after all" and switched gears. Is that what happened? I have no idea, but it was encouraging nonetheless, and even if it was just a coincidence, that's still something to build off. It was an annoying run for Felix to allow, but the optimistic part of my brain told me to be happy because it looked like Felix might finally be learning. If so, then the run was way, way worth it.
Then things got dull. And for a long time, too. While Felix went about his business, mixing pitches effectively and getting terrific results, the Mariners stopped hitting Meche, a drastic change from his gascan appearance in the first. There were a few almost-exciting moments, like Raul Ibanez's deep fly that chased DeJesus to the wall, but for the most part it was another awful display of ineptitude against a spectacularly inefficient pitcher who a better lineup would've chased from the game by the fourth. Gil threw just 66 strikes on 113 pitches through 6.1, but because the Mariners love to bail out sloppy pitchers, he left to a standing ovation. Okay, yeah, so Kansas City holds pitchers to a different standard than the rest of us do. The hitting was still pathetic, though.
Unfortunately, the two runs might've still been enough were it not for a 2-2 mistake to DeJesus in the third. Felix had the right idea and came after him with a curveball, a pitch the Royals hadn't been touching, but he hung it at the belt and DeJesus had his first homer in 61 games. Right then and there we all had the same two thoughts: "okay even Willie could've taken that one yard," and "I bet that's the end of the offspeed stuff."
But it wasn't. In what I thought was one of the most startling moments of Felix's season so far, he came right back with sliders and curveballs to German, who grounded out to end the inning. Felix could've taken the homer as evidence that all of us pitch selection guys are retarded, yet instead he kept right on working like we wanted him too. I couldn't help but smile. Yeah, the run sucked. Again. But if this was really going to be the game that got Felix thinking on the mound, I was willing to pay the short-term price for the long-term gain.
The teams traded blank innings for a long long time after that. While it was frustrating to watch the Mariners swing their way out of at bats, though, Felix looked to be gaining steam. With rare exception, and while the curve did disappear for a time there in the middle innings, he was going after batters with an unpredictable approach, the likes of which we've been waiting to see him take on a consistent basis all season. He was locating well and throwing a bunch of strikes, allowing him to either expand the zone with his slider or work economically, depending on his desire. After eight innings of work he'd thrown just 92 pitches, striking out five and recording another 15 outs on the ground. Part of it was obviously the opposing lineup, but Felix looked to be on cruise control, and even better appeared to be re-gaining the feel for his two-seamer.
...and then he was yanked. In the bottom of the ninth, the score tied 2-2 and with Felix having retired seven batters in a row (on 16 pitches), John McLaren went to the bullpen. I didn't like it at the time, and I certainly didn't like it a few minutes later, after Eric O'Flaherty got himself into a colossal mess and had to be bailed out by the second and third relievers of the inning. I'm obviously not going to let myself get too upset by this, since Hargrove had just burned through a bunch of arms in an inning a few days before and since McLaren probably isn't going to be very different in the long run, but I didn't understand that decision. Felix was rolling, and I'm sure he didn't like being removed when he (presumably) still had a lot left in the tank. Afraid of DeJesus, who'd already doubled and homered off of Felix earlier in the game? Okay, fine, whatever. But in that scenario you should go to your #1 lefty instead of the talented but inferior backup. McLaren tried to go the middle ground and almost got burned. Either stick with Felix - which I would've done - or go to Sherrill, a fine plan B. O'Flaherty was the wrong call. (Update: Felix was worn out from the heat. Still should've been Sherrill.)
Anyway, he was bailed out, thanks to huge strikeouts by Sean Green and, fittingly, George Sherrill, who I think whiffed Alex Gordon one or two times on should-be called strikes before finally getting him swinging to end the ninth. But leaving aside Sherrill for a moment, since we all know how awesome he is, how about this comparison?
Sean Green with the sidearm delivery: total awesomeness. For the league minimum.
Just when you thought the Mariners might be able to feed off the momentum of the big strikeouts, their bats stayed cold against Rule 5 pick Joakim Soria, with Ichiro whiffing on an attempted power swing and Vidro and Ibanez subsequently making two easy outs. The bottom of the tenth was another circus, as Morrow came out of the bullpen and had to work around a one-out double, but thanks in large part to Joey Gathright being an absolutely terrible baseball player, we were able to survive again and crawl our way into the eleventh.
By that point, though, I'm afraid we'd used up our last life. The line score will say we got two hits off Dotel, but one was a dying quail and the other should've been an error, as Kenji Johjima benefited for the third time from sloppy defense and avoided what most shortstops would've turned into a double play. Outside of those baserunners, Dotel looked like the absolute kryptonite for this batting order, peppering the notion of the zone with hard fastballs and then dropping his nasty slider out of the zone for easy strikeouts. Dotel whiffed the side and, had the game gone on for another inning, probably would've done it again in the twelfth. He is exactly the kind of pitcher this lineup will never be able to hit.
On we went to the bottom half, where Brandon Morrow finally did us in. A leadoff double (aided by another comically awful route by Jose Guillen) and following walk got us into yet another jam, but this time there wasn't any magic left. I'm guessing JJ Putz was unavailable tonight because otherwise he absolutely should've been in the game to try and keep it going. Anyway, after a Mark Teahen bunt put the winning run on third, Morrow allowed a long fly ball just shy of the track to the .613-OPS'ing Emil Brown (late edit: and on the wrong pitch!) for the winning sac fly. So many near misses, but in the end, this was a game the Royals deserved more than we did. It still felt horrible, but now that I've let a few hours go by, I'm a little more calm.
There are going to be people out there who suggest that Mike Hargrove's resignation played no small part in this loss. To those people I ask, how do you figure? During Hargrove's time in Seattle there were nearly constant rumors that some of the players didn't like him, and that he wasn't a very good leader. More recently, he's basically admitted to not really caring that much about the team's performance. How would losing that guy - and replacing him with someone who's no stranger to the clubhouse - cause this team to fall apart? To believe that he was the glue holding this group together would be ascribing traits which during his tenure he was never thought to possess. Maybe the team lost focus? That didn't seem to be a problem yesterday. It was a single loss that happened to fall on a new manager's first day. I can't imagine that things are going to be very different under McLaren than they were under Hargrove going forward. The managerial change will not be the reason behind whatever happens over the rest of the season.
I don't really know where else to put this, so I'll add it at the end:
Kauffman Stadium is not equipped for Enhanced Gameday information, and the FSN feed on MLB.tv wasn't showing radar gun readings, so I have no way of proving that Felix mixed up his pitches more effectively today than he did in his previous start, or over several previous starts. I feel like he did, but I can't be considered an objective source here, because I wanted him to change things so badly that I easily could've forced myself to see it. Believe enough in something and you can find evidence wherever you look. I'll have to find out what Felix's thought process was tonight before reaching any official conclusions, but I don't have that information yet, so in the meantime all I can do is explain what I thought I saw. If I was wrong, and it turns out he didn't consciously do anything different, then I apologize. But I think you can forgive me if wanted this bad enough to think it a reality, even if it wasn't.