Playing the Angels these last few nights, something's felt off. They're still good, and they remain a team I'd like to beat into the ground, but it seems to me that they're missing something, something that previously made the Angels the Angels, the team I found myself hating more than the Yankees, the team that first spurred me to foster a murderous dislike of everything north of my house and south of LA. Playing them just didn't feel the same, and for the longest time until a few minutes ago I couldn't put my finger on what was different.
As an Angel, Cabrera was everything that drove me insane. He always made contact, he'd fight off enough pitches to have those really long annoying at bats, he ran fast enough to beat out infield grounders, he'd hit bloopers into the outfield because he doesn't have any power, he'd make flashy plays with the glove, he beat the hell out of the Mariners, and he had that Wizard of OC nickname that made me want to water my lawn with the blood from Steve Physioc's wrists. Plus, just for good measure, he had the lingering stench of being a folk hero for the Red Sox. In short, with Darin Erstad and David Eckstein having long since moved on, Cabrera became the face of everything I hated about that team. For three long years, he practically took up residence under my skin.
Then they traded him for a pile of crap. And while guys like Chone Figgins and Francisco Rodriguez still make me crazy, it just isn't the same. With Willits on the bench, there's no regular capable of following in Cabrera's stupid footsteps. The Angels traded away a big part of their obnoxious identity, and all they have to show for it is a guy who couldn't even strike out Richie Sexson.
I like the new Angels.
Biggest Contribution: Richie Sexson, +22.8%
Biggest Suckfest: Brad Wilkerson, -7.7%
Most Important AB: Sexson funk blast, +26.4%
Most Important Pitch: Kotchman homer, -22.0%
Total Contribution by Pitcher(s): -1.4%
Total Contribution by Hitters: +45.4%
Total Contribution by Opposition: +6.0%
(What is this chart?)
I'll be perfectly honest - while I always get up for games between the M's and Angels, I was annoyed by the unusual 6:10 scheduled first pitch. I suppose it's good because it means I get to go to sleep an hour earlier, but there was some exciting hockey on TV this afternoon, and having to turn it off so I could watch Carlos Silva pitch to contact kind of got on my nerves. Felix Day would be one thing, but all Silva has going for him in terms of entertainment is his quick tempo, and it says something about a pitcher when fans most appreciate how little time they have to spend watching him.
Nevertheless, I got settled into my chair in plenty of time to be reminded that today was JJ Putz Soul Patch Night at the ballpark. What with JJ presently being clean-shaven and injured, this promotion couldn't possibly have had worse timing. It wasn't quite as bad as Chicago's Michael Barrett Bobblehead and Jersey nights last year after trading Barrett to San Diego, but you'd think they could've rescheduled or told JJ not to shave or something.
The Angels very quickly went down in order in the top of the first - with Silva getting a swinging strike from Vlad Guerrero of all people - and as we went to the bottom half and FSN introduced their starting defense, I found myself overcome with delight. For some reason I hadn't put this together before when filling in the LAnaheim lineup, but in a positively Hargrovian maneuver, Mike Scioscia had chosen to DH Torii Hunter with a contact flyballer on the mound to make space in the outfield for Garret Anderson. I understand that it's part of a rotation, since the Angels have four outfielders who all want to play defense, but a smart manager ought to pick his spots. DH Hunter when Saunders is on the mound or something. Don't play a corner duo of Anderson/Guerrero when you know that Garland's going to allow at least like 25 balls in play. That's a good way to fail.
It didn't take long to pay off. After Jose Lopez reached base on a Kendrick fumble, Raul Ibanez took an outside fastball deep to center field, clearing the heads of the outfielders and taking so long to get recovered and returned to the cutoff man that Raul found himself standing on third with an RBI triple. That the man has at least average speed only makes his defense all the more humiliating, but it's hard to complain too much about a guy's pathetic reads and range when he's hitting like Raul is these days. I've complained a few times about his tendency to try and pull the outside fastball to right field, but here he took what the pitch gave him and turned it into a super result.
Adrian Beltre followed with an infield pop-out. This got me thinking. In chemistry, you see a lot of talk about reaction rates. Everyone's always curious about how and why a reaction proceeds at a certain pace. Given a reaction X + Y --> Z, the rate equation can be written as r = k [X]^m [Y]^n, where r is the rate, k is the rate constant, [X] and [Y] are the concentrations of reactants X and Y, and m and n are exponents that depend on the reaction order.
I'll try to make this simpler. Most reactions are either Zero Order, First Order, or Second Order. A Zero Order reaction equation can be written as r = k, as the rate depends only on the constant and not at all on the reactant concentrations. A First Order reaction equation can be written as r = k[X], where the rate depends on the constant and the concentration of one of the reactants, but not the other. And a Second Order reaction equation can be written as r = k[X][Y], where the rate depends on the constant and the concentrations of both reactants.
Now let's put this in baseball terms and assign [X] to Adrian Beltre, [Y] to the pitcher, and r to the result of an at bat. Beltre's pop-out against Garland told me something: all Adrian Beltre at bats are First Order reactions. That is, whenever Beltre comes to the plate, r = k[X]. The identity of the pitcher doesn't make the slightest difference. If Beltre's in one of his grooves, he'll hit anything and everything 400 feet. And if Beltre's in one of those spells where he swings at pitches above his eyes and below his feet, then he can make any pitcher look successful. Today, in the first inning, it didn't matter that Beltre was facing someone as awful as Jon Garland. He might as well have been facing King Felix himself. Beltre was determined to make an out, and when it comes to Adrian Beltre it's just entirely out of the pitcher's hands.
I swear that didn't take nearly as long to think about in my head.
That's when Jose Vidro stepped up and drove in a runner from third with two down, which is one of those things that causes completely opposite reactions in the two dugouts. For the Mariners, it provided a psychological lift after Beltre's failure to hit the ball 100 feet. For the Angels, it was a devastating letdown after a big boost. It's a little like how in hockey you never want to allow a goal late in the period. You're so close to the end that you're already focused on going into the dressing room with the current score, and giving the opponent another one in the final minute is just an emotional kick in the face. After Beltre popped out, I'm sure the Angels were thinking they'd avoided the damage. But Vidro dealt them a blow by somehow lining a low-away changeup that was practically in the dirt over Kendrick's head at second.
Trailing 2-0, the Angels attempted to mount a rally in the next half-inning. Casey Kotchman drilled a two-out double to left and Kendrick followed with a line drive base hit into center, but where I could've sworn that Kotchman had rounded third like two or three seconds before Ichiro even got to the ball, Ichiro came up throwing and fired a heat-seeking missile straight to Kenji's glove to get Kotchman at home by the slimmest of margins. I've said before that I think Ichiro's arm is overrated, but where I do believe that his accuracy is inconsistent, his strength is borderline unparalleled, and when he aims a throw spot-on as he did here he can do things that few others can. That was one of the top five throws of Ichiro's Seattle career, and it stopped a potential big inning in its tracks.
LAnaheim got back at it again in the third, but this time they weren't done in by the defense so much as they were done in by themselves. With two on and no out, Chone Figgins bounced a fielder's choice to Richie Sexson, and Gary Matthews Jr followed with a classic 4-6-3 to end the inning. Life experience had taught me to be absolutely terrified by the prospect of having Figgins and Matthews at the plate against the Mariners, so I'm still not entirely comfortable accepting the actual outcome, but I'll work my way through it.
Of note: the top of the third also featured (A) Carlos Silva throwing a pitch between Erick Aybar's legs, and (B) Aybar proceeding to hit a groundball single up the middle that, again, 2005 Yuni turns into a double play. This inning was weird.
All kinds of bad things happened in the bottom half. Most notably, Raul Ibanez did two things that I hate when he pulled a 3-0 outside fastball to second base, and later on Richie Sexson popped up with the bases loaded. That half-inning was the complete opposite of Friday's sixth inning in which the same lineup used its newfound plate discipline to wear the crap out of Jered Weaver. It served to remind me that I'm still watching the Mariners, and that all this exciting improved approach stuff could go away as quickly as it appeared. Enjoy it while it lasts; I fear it may be fleeting.
Then Carlos Silva made a mistake and the game was tied. Really, in about 30 minutes the entire game went south at the drop of a hat. The Mariners blew a golden opportunity to pad their lead, Silva threw a bad pitch to a good hitter, Ichiro grounded into a double play, and the Angels went ahead 3-2. The go-ahead run scored on another classic 4-6-3 off the bat of Gary Matthews Jr, which is always kind of a weird feeling; you're happy about the double play, but you're sad that you're losing because of it, so you're left just sitting there with a blank gaze and your emotions canceling each other out. I imagine Giants fans will probably get this one quite a bit.
Down 3-2 halfway through the game, the Mariners again found themselves having to come back against the Angels. The rally didn't get off to the most inspiring start, but a pair of two-out line drives to left field tied things up, thanks in part to Anderson's nagging case of old. And then Richie Sexson stepped up and delivered what I think everybody hopes will be the hit that turns his fan support around on a dime. Ahead 2-1 but having just swung through a fastball at the belt, Sexson used the same swing he always uses to hit home runs to send a fastball over the outer half way back into center. Matthews gave chase but ran out of room, and while I realize that catching up with a Jon Garland fastball isn't the most convincing proof that Richie's bat speed is still okay, it was an absolutely huge moment that should buy Richie a lot of time to win people back over for good. I figure he bought himself at least two or three boo-less games with that bomb.
In a flash, all the mounting nastiness from the middle innings undid itself. The Mariners seized the lead, the Angels blew a golden opportunity to get right back in the game, and the M's took advantage of Matthews overrunning an Ichiro groundball to tack on another run. Ahead 6-3 with the bases loaded, things could've gotten really out of hand against Darren O'Day, but another First Order strikeout by Beltre and a fly out by Vidro kept the Angels hanging around.
Not that they could do anything about it, because after Figgins led off the seventh with a base hit, Matthews bounced into his third classic 4-6-3 of the day. In all, he grounded out once to Sexson, thrice to Lopez, and once to the pitcher Green on a groundball that was headed for Lopez before Green's interference. Throw in the error and you've got a cumulative WPA of -29.8%. His first double play was the most damaging, but all three of them came in situations that could've gotten the Angels going. Gary Matthews Jr is the biggest reason the Mariners won this game.
Not much happened for a little while after the third Matthews double play, as the Angels seemed to give up and the Mariners seemed to be content. But in the bottom of the eighth, just so Scioscia and the rest of the LAnaheim roster wouldn't have any doubt as to who was most responsible for kicking their ass, Raul Ibanez got an outside fastball from Jason Bulger and - wait for it - took it the other way. I've never really thought this about Ibanez before, but you have to have some incredible bat speed to go the other way and clear Safeco's left field fence. That just isn't something that many people have done. Especially Ibanez. It was a hard fastball, so I suspect the velocity contributed to the distance, but even so, I couldn't believe how far that thing soared. Raul deserves every bit of his current 1.196 OPS. He's just beating the shit out of the ball.
Even though Silva had only thrown 98 pitches, Sean Green came in to close things out in the ninth. This was Green's seventh appearance. Cha Baek has one. Personally, I think with an 8-3 lead you can safely call it a mop-up situation and give some work to Baek or O'Flaherty, who could probably use it. But McLaren disagreed and let Green throw 31 pitches before recording the final out on a groundball comebacker. The last pitch was the ninth of an at bat against Gary Matthews Jr, and as Green threw the ball to Sexson to finish things off, he sighed and rolled his eyes, sending a message to Matthews that hey I'd appreciate it if next time you weren't so annoying.
And that was it. The Mariners have now won three of their first four series, and tomorrow turn to the newer half of their 1-2 punch to try and finish off the sweep. I can think of few better ways to spend a Sunday.