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35-52, Game Thoughts

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For the first time in a long time, I got to listen to a lot of this on the radio, which, by the way, is a way different experience. I know the consensus opinion is that Dave is starting to lose it, but being on radio sure puts him at the top of his game. Granted, Dave's observation mistakes aren't quite as apparent when you aren't watching the game with your own younger eyes at the same time that he is, but the radio makes him sound more comfortable and energetic. It's Dave at his narrative best, and it's something I wish I would listen to more.

Anyway, after the end, Dave mentioned that, what with the timing, the complete game, and the late-inning heroics, this was probably the best win of the season. Now, I know a lot of people tend to throw around definitive adjectives like "best" and "worst" with reckless abandon, but Dave isn't one of them, and honestly, what's the competition? Was the Griffey walk-off single game really better than this one? Really?

I think this has to be at the top of the list. And what's funny is that I don't know if it feels the same if the Mariners are good, or in a playoff position, or something. A big part of what made this game so amazing is that the swing in the eighth was completely unexpected. The Mariners have struggled to score runs all season long. They've stranded baserunner after baserunner, and came in with the worst bases loaded OPS in the American League. Jose Lopez has been one of the least productive hitters in baseball. Even with one out and the tying run just 90 feet away, with this being the Mariners, and with Lopez being Lopez, I imagine most of us expected them to fail. They've done it before, and God knows they'll do it again.

Then they didn't fail. They did the complete opposite. Lopez went deep with a standard Lopez home run - even posing and watching his wall-scraper like a cocky son of a bitch - the stadium erupted, and Felix slammed the door for a complete-game victory. That's a sudden turn of events that's electrifying no matter the greater context, but I don't think it carries the same impact if the M's have 50 wins. I think the M's needed to be bad - bad in the nigh unwatchable way that they've been bad - for that moment to be that moment, and for this game to be this game.

A bad Mariners team will provide fewer satisfying moments than a good Mariners team. We would all rather the M's be playing meaningful baseball than not. But this game stands as evidence that you don't need your team to be good for a game to be so, so worth following. It doesn't matter that this was only the team's 35th win. That was a rush comparable to any rush felt by any fan of any team all season.

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If this was the best win of the year for the fans, you wonder if the same goes for Felix Hernandez. It wasn't his most dominant performance. It wasn't his most meaningful, as far as the standings are concerned. But again, it's about the timing and the context. It's always about the context in some way or another.

Cliff Lee was perfect. In every way. He was terrific on the mound. He was a leader. He was a role model. Cliff Lee, for the duration of his brief stay in Seattle, was a star in every way possible and in ways that may not have been invented yet, and because of the way people felt when they watched him pitch, the trade that sent him away yesterday, despite unquestionably being in the organization's best interests, was met with some degree of sorrow and heartache.

The trade may have officially signaled the end of competitive hope for 2010, but it also put the pitching staff firmly back in Felix's hands. Back to Felix, after 13 starts of Cliff Lee being everything anyone ever wanted a pitcher to be. Felix had some mighty big shoes to fill. Maybe the biggest. Though Felix wasn't exactly coming in to take Lee's place in the rotation, he was taking his spot in the front, and that put a lot of pressure on him not to be a letdown.

Felix came in tonight feeling the pressure of having to be The Guy again. The Stopper. Felix has probably considered himself The Guy and The Stopper since he was eight, but suddenly the pressure was coming from everywhere. Felix led this staff a year ago. He'd already been in this position. But now it was different. Now he wasn't just leading a rotation. He was leading a rotation previously led by Cliff Lee.

You think Felix didn't want to come out and prove that he could be just as effective? You think Felix didn't want to come out and shut down the Yankees and pitch a complete game? You think Felix didn't want to show everyone that, while Cliff Lee is awesome, Felix is The King, and The King plays second fiddle to nobody?

Felix came in a man on a mission, and because of his Herculean efforts, and because of Lopez's timely grand slam, he sealed the deal with his 126th pitch - an 84mph curveball over the outer half that froze Brett Gardner in his cleats. Felix rose to the task. Following the trade of Cliff Lee, Felix showed that he's comfortable taking the reins, and that the rest of us ought to be okay with it, too. Felix is The King. A king always wants to be first in command.

Having Cliff Lee, I think, probably did a lot to help every pitcher on the staff. Trading Cliff Lee - I think this could help Felix blossom even further. Felix has seen the standard. Felix has seen what there is to live up to. Felix has a challenge. And Felix likes a challenge.

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I use the word "endearing" too much. I use it as a crutch to describe certain situations and certain people, mainly because neither I nor Thesaurus.com can come up with another word that really conveys the same meaning. So with that in mind, there may be no more endearing instance than listening to Jose Lopez in a happy postgame interview.

I don't really know how to describe it to anyone who has yet to gather firsthand experience, but Lopez just comes off so sweet and innocent and charming in the way that a six year old who's proud of a picture he drew is charming. It doesn't matter that you can't actually understand half the words Lopez says. It's in the way that he delivers them that evokes such affection and amusement. He's matter-of-fact but wide-eyed, delivering his words with the animated bounce of a child but the confidence of a man who knew what he was doing all along. That's Lopez, really. He's 26, but he's a young 26, caught somewhere between being a man and being in kindergarten.

Those interviews make it impossible for me to dislike Jose Lopez. I dislike a lot of who he is as a player, but I could never turn against him all the way, because his smile and innocent naivete are infectious. So he makes a lot of careless mistakes and hasn't shown any progress with his plate discipline. You don't get mad at a dog for eating cheese off the floor. Jose Lopez is who he is. He's inconsistent, he's an underachiever, and he's as lovable a player as the Mariners have ever had.

I love the postgame interviews when Milton Bradley gives a smile to the camera. But an upbeat Jose Lopez could make me laugh at the dentist.