Nearly every 'almost' team has its kryptonite. After five innings, I was all set to let this be the intro to the recap. Last year's Mariners couldn't beat Oakland. The 2005 Indians couldn't beat Chicago. The 2004 A's couldn't beat Boston. The 2003 White Sox couldn't beat Seattle. The 2002 Red Sox couldn't beat Atlanta. And so on and so forth. It may not necessarily feel like it at the time, but at the end of the year, a lot of teams that just missed the playoffs reflect on their schedules and wonder where they'd be had they played better against one particular opponent.
For much of the afternoon, I was convinced that the '07 Rangers were playing the part of the jet engine in the Mariners' escaped parrot-like flight towards glory. With the miserable four-game sweep last month and what looked like another spiritless loss tonight, the M's were dropping important games to bad teams, games they couldn't afford to lose. Games on which they'd look back in October, thinking about what a different fate they could've had with one big hit here and another better pitch there. It's one thing to give it your best effort and fall short, but to miss out because you couldn't beat a last place team down the stretch? That would sting - and sting a lot - for a really long time.
Fortunately, it didn't come to that. At least, not tonight. See, one of the benefits of playing a bad team is that the score can change in your favor in a hurry, even when it seems like you're seconds from flat-lining. What just a few hours ago felt like the early stages of a disaster now feels more like a celebration, with the Mariners standing two games above the Yankees and just one beneath the Angels. In the span of four days we've solidified our place in both races and gotten the road trip out to a fairly inspiring start. This is real. Our playoffs have already begun, and at least in the early going, the Mariners have done pretty well for themselves. There's a lot standing between the present day and October baseball, but right now, the pressure isn't on us.
Biggest Contribution: Ichiro, +30.5%
Biggest Suckfest: Richie Sexson, -10.5%
Most Important At Bat: Ichiro double, +28.9%
Most Important Pitch: Wilkerson homer, -17.9%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): +8.3%
Total Contribution by Position Players: +33.4%
Total Contribution by Opposition: +8.3%
I wasn't looking forward to this. Truth be told, I never look forward to series in Texas - that stadium always gives us fits, the games are tedious and dull, and the announcers are what Vasgersian/Grant would sound like if they were reborn with fetal alcohol syndrome. Between these conditions, it being near the end of the week, and my not having slept very much last night, this looked like a perfect storm of game recap laziness, where I'd upload the chart, yawn, and throw up a little paragraph or two before aiming for an early bedtime. In short, I did not expect to have very much to say, nor the energy to say it.
And, for five innings, it looked like my fears were coming true. I tried to get myself re-energized before the game by taking a quick nap, but everything quickly dissipated as Loe and Weaver went to work in the deadest of environments. They both had easy first innings (with Weaver inducing a double play by The Best Position Player In The American League West), and just like that the latest snoozefest was underway. The only noteworthy sequence was the FSN camera getting several shots of John McLaren in the dugout. Last year I talked about how pretty much every manager in baseball assumes a distinctive and unique facial expression, and McLaren seems to have assimilated with ease - where Hargrove had the blank stare of someone who's vaguely preoccupied with his own thoughts that are without question way more important than whatever you're talking about, McLaren is squinty and looks kind of bewilderedly content, like an old man who doesn't know how or why he woke up on a park bench but who all things considered is quite happy to be there. It's uncanny the speed with which these things develop. I wonder if they're permanent.
Anyway, the second inning brought about some action, as Ibanez and Beltre got aboard with consecutive singles to start off. Sexson followed with a swinging strikeout on ball four (after watching an 89mph 3-1 fastball cross the middle of the plate), and Johjima hit a DP grounder up the middle, but one of the necessary conditions of a DP grounder is that an infielder is able to get to the ball, which The Best Position Player In The American League West was very much not. An actual shortstop ends the inning right there, but instead the Mariners grabbed a 1-0 lead and Kam Loe got stuck with an earned run he didn't deserve. I can't imagine what it's like being a groundball pitcher in front of that kind of infield.
Jose Lopez demonstrated the proper way to ensure a double play against the Rangers by grounding to third, and that ended the inning, but after Weaver got through the bottom half with little difficulty I found myself deeply nestled in the uncomfortably handsy embrace of overconfidence. The Rangers are terrible, right? As early as the second inning, I was already beginning to take this game for granted. I don't know if it was just the brain fatigue at that point or what, but I was definitely counting my chickens.
It wasn't long before the universe was alerted to my brash swagger and doled out a swift ironic punishment in the form of a two-run Brad Wilkerson homer. This is how the universe works. A while back I called the Wilkerson/Soriano trade a win for Texas, but Wilkerson's been ten shades of ugly since coming over, making me look like an idiot. His lead-changing home run today, then, was entirely appropriate, as it sort of served to support my trade review at the worst possible time. In some cases, after a while you'd rather just be wrong and leave it at that. I mean, for all the crap I've given Ibanez and Sexson, the last thing I want is for them to fall apart and prove my suspicions right as we head down the stretch. The whole Wilkerson thing was kind of like the universe interpreting my desire to be correct about the trade as a wish on a monkey's paw, with the price being that, okay, you can be right about him, but he'll do most of his damage against Seattle.
Today, anyway. At least, that's what it felt like. That made way more sense in my head.
After a strikeout by The Best Position Player In The American League West, the Mariners went to the fourth suddenly down 2-1, but as if one run wasn't enough of a deficit, I couldn't help but expect Adrian Beltre to go deep, so once again the universe smacked me in the jaw with a Beltre strikeout and a Saltalamacchia 'Arlington Special' home run to right-center. ("What's that? He liked the Teixeira trade for Texas, too? Well, we'll show him, won't we?") We live in a bitter, vengeful universe, and I apologize for setting it off today.
The fifth inning tried to lift our spirits, as the Mariners put men on the corners with two out for Jose Vidro, but a weak tapper back to the mound stifled the rally, and with the game halfway over the M's looked like they were almost out of gas. I mean, Weaver looked fine, but the offense wasn't doing anything against Loe but hitting the predictable rollers, and over just four remaining innings even a two-run gap in Arlington can prove daunting.
Fortunately, with my mind now utterly humbled, the universe thought it a good time to take off and intervene elsewhere, leaving the Rangers to fend for themselves. This was a crippling error on the universe's part, as last place teams are generally in last place for a reason. It took the Mariners all of one batter to cut the deficit in half, and almost immediately it became clear that Loe was out of gas. The Mariners saw this and seized the opportunity to jump on him before relief could arrive.
After talking it over a little with Dave, I've decided that this is where facing a team going nowhere really worked to our advantage. While the sample size isn't huge (186 plate appearances) and the numbers may not be indicative of any actual pattern, Kam Loe had a career OPS against of 1.006 between pitches 76-100 coming into the game. He entered the sixth inning at 77 and promptly surrendered a leadoff home run to Jose Guillen, a deep fly ball by Raul Ibanez, and a line drive single by Adrian Beltre. None of them groundballs, all of them killed. If I'm a manager who's looking to win the game, I yank Loe at the first sign of trouble once he's around 80 pitches or so and go to the bullpen, because that's when he's historically fallen apart. The Rangers, though, have more to gain by seeing what Loe can do than by trying to win their 55th game, so Washington left him out there to see if he could work himself out of it. After all, there aren't any starting pitchers in the Majors who're only capable of throwing 70-80 pitches a game. It makes sense for Texas to try and get Loe stretched out in a season going nowhere.
That certainly worked out for us. Sexson came up after Beltre and hit a rocket to third base off the glove of Metcalf; it was scored as an error but really could've gone either way, since it would've been difficult for the third baseman to get his body in front of the ball. Whatever the case, now there were two on with one out, and soon thereafter Loe hit Johjima's elbow on a 2-1 pitch to load the bases for Jose Lopez.
This set up a classic showdown - struggling, badly gassed pitcher against a struggling, feeble hitter. As thrilled as each of us was with the Guillen homer and subsequent rally, I can't imagine very many of us expected anything good to happen in this situation, what with Lopez's tendencies to suck and all. I myself was entirely prepared to go into the bottom of the sixth still 3-2. This is how much faith I have in a guy who's supposed to be slugging .450 by now.
Lopez quickly fell behind 0-2, but after fouling off a third pitch, he reached out and poked a fastball over Vazquez's head for an RBI single. It was pretty much the same way he got two hits in that second game in Minnesota, where he ends up on base not because of his good swing, but because of his good plate coverage. He's still not driving the ball, but in the meantime hits like this are better than nothing, so who am I to turn them down? If Jose Lopez is going to swing at everything and put as many balls in play as possible, he might as well drop a few in front of the right fielder. There aren't very many quicker ways to get on an adversary's nerves.
I think Lopez is ordinarily about the only guy we wouldn't trust in that situation. His tying single brought up Yuniesky Betancourt, who's been red-hot this month, but in the latest example of why individual baseball games are impossible to predict, he followed Lopez's base hit with a foul pop out to the catcher. I suppose it's the law of the land that at least one of those two guys has to hit a pop-up with each turn through the order, but that doesn't mean I have to like it.
Up came Ichiro with two outs and Loe at 94 pitches. In a 2-2 count, Ichiro every-so-barely nicked an outside fastball to stay alive, then got another fastball in one of his several wheelhouses that he drilled to center over another one of David Murphy's comically adventurous routes. The double cleared the bases - Ichiro's first RBI extra-base hit since June 5th - and gave the Mariners a comfortable lead where just 15 minutes earlier it looked like they might end up on the losing side of things without much in the way of a struggle. Apathy turned into anxiety, which turned into relief, which turned into ecstasy. Which moments later turned into an enraptured frenzy of laughter, as Jose Vidro greeted reliever Mike Wood with a first-pitch home run. This is what you get when you replace a tired starting pitcher with a frighteningly identical reliever and ask him to imitate his predecessor's fatigue.
Later on Raul Ibanez made his second out of the inning to end it, but with the score 8-3 and Rick White valuably informing the bullpen that leads are to be maintained, there was little reason to worry the rest of the way. The Best Position Player In The American League West bounced into a double play in the sixth, allowing Weaver to end his night in entirely respectable fashion, and Potatoes O'Flaherty made quick work of the 6-7-8 in the seventh, flashing a Sherrill-esque breaking ball to record a pair of strikeouts. O'Flaherty is so underappreciated.
The Rangers did mount a bit of a rally in the bottom of the eighth, chasing Potatoes and getting an RBI single off of Sean Green, but a double play by The Guy Hitting After The Best Position Player In The American League West stymied that attempt, and the Mariners would get the run back in the ninth when Sexson avoided the sombrero with a base hit of his own. Since Adam Jones clearly isn't going to get very many opportunities to start, I might as well savor the little things instead, and man, Jones did a phenomenal job of pinch-running there for Ibanez. Raul couldn't pinch-run half that well. Jones is easily one of the best pinch-runners on the team. And don't even get me started on how awesome he is as a ninth inning defensive substitution.
Because JJ hadn't worked in a while, McLaren called on him to slam the door, in a move similar to Gardenhire bringing in Joe Nathan to protect an 11-3 Minnesota lead a little while ago. JJ gave up a leadoff double but quickly settled down, burying Saltalamacchia with a devastating splitter, getting Cruz to ground out on a ball that The Best Position Player In The American League would've pensively watched roll by into the outfield, and then making quick work of Travis Metcalf, freezing him with a 97mph fastball to end the game. A solid inning of work, and a neat way to end a 9-4 ballgame that for a while didn't look like it would end up as comfortable as it did.
The win took the Mariners back to 19 games over, and even though I watched the end of the Angels game as well, it still hasn't really dawned on me that we're only one back, and that we're just Good Felix and Good Halladay (or Bad Millwood and Bad Weaver) away from knotting this thing up. One of the funny things about blogging is that you end up exerting so much energy explaining your feelings that you don't have much time to actually feel them. I think I'm going to go sit in bed and stare at the ceiling for a while.