There are a lot of people out there who think that bloggers want nothing more than to be totally right, and that they'll occasionally even go so far as to root against their own team in order to be proven correct.
Now, I'm only one guy, so I can't answer for everyone. Maybe some of those people really do exist, for reasons beyond my grasp. But let me tell you on behalf of many of us that as much as we all want to be on target with the things we say, sometimes when those things are pessimistic, there's no greater feeling than having it thrown back in our faces.
Me, all I can ever do on a particular topic is offer my best guess at the time. Occasionally those best guesses don't put the Mariners in a real good situation. But where you'd think there might be some conflict between my desire to be right and my desire for the Mariners to win, there isn't any. I'm a Mariners fan first and a crappy predictive analyst second, and if this team goes to the playoffs riding on the backs of Raul Ibanez and Richie Sexson while Adam Jones looks on from the bench, I won't be the slightest bit upset. While I'll certainly call for more Jones and Broussard along the way, if the guys I thought were finished keep contributing in big ways, I think I'll manage.
I don't know if this is the start of something or just a one-game fluke, but for the time being, Richie Sexson just chewed up and swallowed three hours of research and writing last Saturday and farted it out on my pillow. It smells like lilacs.
Biggest Contribution: Richie Sexson, +51.2%
Biggest Suckfest: Adam Jones, -24.3%
Most Important At Bat: Sexson funk blast, +36.5%
Most Important Pitch: Mauer double, -13.2%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +45.3%
Total Contribution by Position Players: +4.2%
Total Contribution by Opposition: +0.5%
For the first time since the Saturday game against Boston, today I was genuinely excited to watch the Mariners. It's not that I haven't looked forward to to their games in the meantime, but playing nobodies like Baltimore and Chicago just doesn't get the blood pumping quite like a showdown between the top two pitching talents in baseball. Where the other games were essentially must-wins that'd be embarrassing to lose, this one felt like a true test of a playoff contender, the kind of game the Mariners would have to pull out if they wanted to send a statement to the rest of the league.
I spent most of my workday daydreaming in anticipation, and hurried home so I could get all set up and comfortable around my computer with plenty of time to spare. I didn't want to have anything else hanging over my head tonight; this was going to be three hours of baseball, and baseball only.
Then I saw the starting lineup.
You have to forgive me - at the time, we hadn't been given any kind of official explanation for Beltre's absence. I thought McLaren had just decided to give him a poorly-timed day off, to go along with the left-handed Raul Ibanez at DH and Jose Vidro's gigantic ass at second base. I have no problem with occasionally resting regulars or getting creative with what's been a problem position, but with the likelihood of an impending ton of groundballs, I couldn't for the life of me understand what John McLaren was thinking in taking away a pair of Gold Glove-caliber infielders behind King Felix. It spoke to a bewilderingly complete ignorance of GB/FB profiles and proper defensive evaluation, and it drove me absolutely nuts.
Of course, we found out pretty quickly that Beltre had basically requested the day off. One could argue that McLaren should've said "no" and planned to rest him tomorrow instead, but that's a weak argument, and I'm not going to put any stock into it. He didn't have a choice at third base tonight. With his decision at second, though, I still disagreed, and I was proven just in doing so when Vidro bobbled a Joe Mauer groundball in the top of the first on what should've been the third out. Felix got out of the inning without allowing any runs, but the error had cost him 11 pitches, 11 pitches that would catch up with us later in the game.
As we went into the bottom of the first after a frustratingly drawn-out upper half, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. This team loves hitting strikes, but Johan Santana owns the best changeup I've ever seen in my life, the sort of pitch that could rip right through a lineup full of guess hitters such as ours. Knowing how many Mariner hitters like to sit back and think fastball, it was easy to think bad thoughts about a 12-strikeout massacre. This team doesn't strike out very often against a lot of guys, but Johan Santana isn't a lot of guys.
Jose Vidro got things started with a bloop single to right, but before I could even start thinking about a rally, I caught a glimpse of something in the background:
I didn't believe it at first, but after I texted Red to hold the sign a little higher so I could get a better look, my initial suspicions were confirmed - the greatest inside joke in the history of ever had made it onto FSN. On the Completely Serious DVD, Daniel Tosh jokes about how his comedy initially amuses everyone, but then he likes to continue with it until only six people understand what he's talking about. This was sort of like the end of one of those jokes. Of the people watching the game tonight, 99.9% of them probably thought "what in the blue fuck is that". But there were a select few of us who appreciated the genius.
Anyway, Raul Ibanez demonstrated how he's managed to have so much success against Santana by grounding a standard roller between the infielders, which put men on the corners with two out for one of the most currently loathed athletes in recent Seattle history. And one of the most currently loathed athletes in recent Seattle history sent a first-pitch inside fastball deep to the wall in center field for an enormous two-run double that would've been an enormous-er three-run bomb in pretty much any other ballpark in baseball. For at least an instant, Richie Sexson had won his hometown fans back over, and the Mariners held a seemingly improbable early cushion.
And then nothing happened. At all. For a long time. Felix didn't have even the slightest bit of command of his fastball, but thanks to a few well-placed breaking balls and a little more bad hitting by a lousy offense, he was able to get through the first four without any damage. Unfortunately, thanks to an exhaustive first two frames (due in no small part to Vidro's error), he was up to 77 pitches after four and didn't look long for the game, but fortunately he had arguably the best bullpen in baseball to back him up.
Johan didn't look particularly impressive, either, and the zero under "BB" in the box score doesn't really tell the whole story, because he himself was having trouble getting his fastball over the plate. His changeup looked spectacular and got him out of a lot of trouble, though, in particular the 3-2 pitch he threw Sexson in the fourth. He'd only record four strikeouts on the night, but as usual, the change was his bread-and-butter pitch, and he used it to avoid a lot of solid contact. Between the second and fourth innings, the Mariners barely did anything, aside from Adam Jones breaking his bat down to Willits size when he swung at a pitch in near the handle.
To the fifth we went, where Felix issued a leadoff walk to Nick Punto. Nick Punto entered the game with a .565 OPS as an everyday player. That's the worst in baseball among qualified hitters by a fairly comfortable margin. Felix walked him twice, on ten total pitches. It's one thing to pitch around a guy who can hurt you, but Nick Punto might be the worst hitter in baseball, and Felix didn't challenge him one bit. This is one of the things that still frustrates me about Felix - no matter who he's facing, he's still prone to making his own trouble. There's no excuse for not just putting a hit-me fastball over the plate and letting Punto get himself out, but if Felix was trying to do that, he failed several times, and if he wasn't, then he was trying to be too pretty against a hitter who doesn't require such an approach. I'm not sure which is worse.
Felix would come back with a boatload of offspeed stuff to record consecutive strikeouts, but after Punto stole second base, a very weak grounder back up the middle by Joe Mauer trimmed the lead to one, and Felix showed his frustration. This time, though, he kept control of himself and got Torii Hunter to ground out to end the inning. Felix had done well for himself considering he didn't have much control of his fastball, but at 99 pitches after five innings, his day appeared nearly through.
God bless Yuniesky Betancourt, who continued his torrid August with a leadoff double down the left field line. He'd advance to third on a Willie Ballgame groundout (kids, don't slide into first base), but then something pretty rare took place - he stayed on the bag while Ichiro singled. It made perfect sense if you were watching, but if you're just going through the play-by-play, it's strange to see a guy not score from third on a base hit. This is one of the reasons the Mariners haven't driven in as many runs as you'd expect given their average with men in scoring position: a shit-ton of their hits never leave the infield.
Jose Vidro's hit did leave the infield, which made it a 3-1 ballgame and put men back on the corners. This felt like a rare opportunity to pile the runs on Santana and establish a comfortable lead, but Jose Guillen went down on three straight changeups, and Ibanez grounded a 3-2 changeup to second to end the inning. I knew we were fortunate enough to have put up three on Johan in five innings, but I couldn't help but think that the team might regret wasting a great chance for more.
Aside from a Sexson strikeout out on another amazing straight curve and Adam Jones making an out on a ball hit way better than Ibanez's single in the first, nothing happened in the sixth, and with 110 pitches under his belt, it looked like Felix's night would come to an end with him in good position to pick up his ninth win. And with six whiffs in six innings against the most contact-heavy lineup in the league, this was a win he deserved.
To the seventh we went, but just when you thought we were safe in handing the ball over to an awesome bullpen, we were done in by the dreaded War Veteran Reliever. War Veteran Reliever is adept and experienced at meeting dangerous situations head-on, but War Veteran Reliever is also unaccustomed to appropriate peacetime conduct, so War Veteran Reliever will often make his own trouble so as to create the type of combat situation with which he is more familiar. John Parrish's inexplicably-timed Safeco debut consisted of a four-pitch walk, a line drive base hit to the worst batter in the league, and a retarded gimme sacrifice bunt. John McLaren would intervene before any more bullets could be exchanged, but the damage had already been done - Jason Bartlett drove in a run with a groundout against Sean Green to make it 3-2, and Joe Mauer tied it up with a sinking fly ball down the line in left field that went in and out of Adam Jones' glove. Jones was in a dead sprint towards the foul territory wall, and Raul Ibanez doesn't even come close to reaching that ball, but the bottom line is that Jones has to make that catch. All three of the balls that've come out of his glove since his promotion were difficult catches, but all three were plays that a non-Ibanez Major League outfield ought to make. Jones somewhat atoned for his gaffe by coming out of the seats into which he'd fallen to throw Mauer out at third base (why he rounded second, I have no idea), but this wasn't one for the highlight reels. AJ is doing precious little right now to force his way into regular playing time.
The Mariners didn't do anything at the plate in either the seventh or the eighth, but thankfully, with Parrish gone, they didn't have a single bad relief arm left to send out to the mound. Green worked around a Morneau single in the eighth with a whiff and two groundouts, when when McLaren made the strangely intelligent decision to go to JJ for the ninth, he responded with a shutout inning of his own, which included his strangest strikeout of the season when Nick Punto bunted a two-strike fastball into the seats behind home plate. Nick Punto is not good at hitting. Hopefully his ninth inning display was enough to capture the Mariners' attention.
After JJ recorded the final out, the first thought on everyone's brain was "we haven't had a walk-off funk blast all year, have we?" Matt Guerrier's a good reliever, but there's never any time like the present. Just as I was thinking that it might be prudent to pinch-hit Broussard for Sexson against a hard-throwing righty, though, Richie got a 1-0 offspeed pitch at the thighs, reached out, and absolutely unloaded on it, launching a moonshot over the left-center fence and sending me into one of my more unexpected tizzies of glee. Richie smiled as he approached the mob of teammates at home plate, and I wonder if this wasn't the best he's ever felt on a diamond in his life. Rarely does a player get the opportunity to swing public opinion so quickly, and rarer still does the player come through. It's taken Jeff Weaver a few months to gain trust and support. It took Richie one swing of the bat. Richie earned that ovation, and I imagine this was a moment he won't soon forget.
For the past month or so I've been all about Adam Jones while saying some pessimistic things about other, more established players on the team, but tonight Richie was the hero, Vidro had three hits, Raul reached base twice, and Willie played a spectacular defensive game at third on short notice. Based on what I've written here one could argue that this was the last game I expected to see down the stretch. But you know what? That doesn't make it any less awesome.
Back to work tomorrow night at 7:05pm. Matt Garza will be smiling the smile you only see on people who get to pitch against the Ho.