Coming in, I wasn't feeling too great. About the game, I mean. I felt great in general - did you see all that sunshine? - but something about facing Jered Weaver a night after getting enslaved by Francisco Liriano led me to believe that the Mariners would probably have a game to forget. As much as I've talked about how baseball games aren't predictable, and about how the starting pitcher matchup doesn't always determine the outcome, the starting pitcher matchup makes a huge huge difference, and Jered Weaver against the M's looked a good deal easier than Jason Vargas against the Angels.
And even though the M's did get on the board in the first, consider how they did it. Ichiro hit a weak flare to third base. Chone Figgins hit a weak flare to third base. Justin Smoak pulled a weak grounder to first. Jack Cust hit a ball off the handle into the outfield. When Franklin Gutierrez subsequently grounded into an inning-ending double play, the Mariners finished the frame with a run, but they didn't inspire any confidence that they'd score another, and I wasn't anticipating that Vargas would completely shut the Angels down.
So Vargas completely shut the Angels down. The Mariners would even strike for a couple more at the plate, but they didn't need to, because Vargas was that good. I don't know that any words that I write would tell you anything more than his final line of seven innings, zero runs, and nine strikeouts. Vargas didn't luck his way into a sexy line score. He pitched his way into a sexy line score - maybe the sexiest line score of his career.
I don't know which pitch in baseball is my favorite pitch, because there are compelling arguments to be made for each and every one, but when I sit back and watch Jason Vargas go to work, I always come away thinking, yeah, I like the changeup the most. I think the changeup is my favorite pitch. It's a little more sophisticated than a hard fastball. It requires a finer touch and takes longer to develop than a slider. It doesn't rely on gobs of movement like a curveball, and it doesn't feel like cheating, like a knuckleball. A changeup is essentially a fastball you throw slower on purpose. But it's so much more than that, and when you watch a great one with your eyes, it's like a parachute fires out from the back halfway to home plate. A good changeup is so effective and so daring, and so...well the word I want to use is "smooth" even though that doesn't make sense, but in my head it makes sense. A good changeup is a smooth weapon.
Jason Vargas has mastered the art of the changeup, and he's built himself a hell of a career as a result. He can't always have starts like this. Most of the time he will not have anything close to starts like this. But he's a good starting pitcher because he has a phenomenal strength and he knows enough to stick with it, and sometimes he comes up with a gem. The J.J. Putz trade is underrated.
Off we go!
- One of the interesting things about Vargas' outstanding game tonight is that he wasn't necessarily doing a great job of getting ahead of the hitters early. Only 12 of 29 counts went to 0-1, which is a little below average. When he got ahead, he took advantage, and when he didn't, by and large he was able to battle back, either by getting into a better count or inducing weak contact. One of the advantages of having such a dynamite changeup is that fastball counts don't mean the hitters see a bunch of fastballs.
Of all of Vargas' good at bats tonight, my favorite was his last. With two outs in the seventh, Vargas fell behind Abreu with a pair of fastballs. He came back with a couple fastballs over the plate to even the count, and then dropped this curveball out of nowhere that looked like it caught the low-away corner, but that Dale Scott ruled a ball. Undeterred, Vargas changed course and proceeded to blow Abreu away with an 89mph high fastball. You never expect Vargas to go with the high heat as a putaway pitch, so when he does it, and when it works, it's a sight to behold. It's almost like he isn't Jason Vargas.
- For a little while, we've been praying that Jamey Wright would keep up his bewildering wizardry at least until Shawn Kelley can come back and stabilize things a little bit. Lately, we've seen some cracks form in Wright's taco shell armor, but by and large he's still been able to get the job done, and the best way to characterize his outing tonight is that he escaped. In the top of the eighth, Wright allowed two walks, a single, and a line drive, and still he didn't allow a run because the line drive was caught and with the bases loaded he froze Hank Conger with a 3-2 fastball on the inside edge.
Tonight was exactly what we want from Wright right now. We know that Jamey Wright isn't a reliable late-inning reliever. He's never been a reliable late-inning reliever before, and now he's 36 years old. All we want is for him to post the ERA of a reliable late-inning reliever until an actual reliable late-inning reliever joins the bullpen. Tonight, despite two walks, a hit, and a line drive, Jamey Wright's ERA was 0.00. As long as few of them score, Jamey Wright can put runners on base until the cows come home. We're not looking for him to be good. We're just looking for him to be lucky. It all counts the same, and we're not unrealistic.
- The nightmare is over for Brandon League. Last night, he snapped his streak of losing in consecutive appearances. Tonight, he snapped his streak of blown saves, as he successfully protected a three-run lead against an 83-year-old Bobby Abreu, a slap-hitting shortstop, and a 150-pound bench player I've never heard of. He walked the slap-hitting shortstop but got a double play from gramps, and responded by flashing this big silly grin you'd usually only expect him to flash when he comes across pudding.
It wasn't the best game League's ever thrown. He missed with four of five fastballs to Aybar, after all. But he got Amarista to ground out on an 0-1 slider and then got Abreu to ground out on an 0-2 fastball, which are both things we might not have expected to be able to say last week, and more importantly, he finished the job. It was only one inning, but it was an inning of distance between the slump and the present. Psychologically, that's big for him, and it's big for us.
- How confident was Mike Scioscia that his team would only need to score one run of support for Jered Weaver? With a runner on second and nobody out in the top of the first, he had Bobby Abreu drop down a sacrifice bunt. It was his first sac bunt since August 2006, when he had Jason Giambi batting behind him instead of Maicer Izturis. Abreu has now dropped down three sac bunts since April 1999.
- I don't think I've made any secret of the fact that I'm a big fan of Peter Bourjos. While I hate most Angels on principle, I make an exception for Bourjos, just because no matter what he's doing he's always moving around like the protagonist in Crank. But for all of his skill, Peter Bourjos has a problem: after tonight, he has 17 Major League walks, and 89 Major League strikeouts. His contact rate is actually down from where it was a year ago. Bourjos has struggled to produce at the plate, and it's because pitchers have been able to find these holes and just eat him up.
Mark Trumbo has a similar problem, as he's got all the power in the world to go with nine Major League walks and 46 Major League strikeouts. Given Bourjos, Trumbo, and the charitable experiment that was Brandon Wood, one wonders just what's going on with the coaching staff in Salt Lake.
Bourjos, Trumbo and Jeff Mathis have a combined BB/K ratio of 21/111 this year. The Angels lead the league in strikeouts. I can't imagine why.
- In the sixth, Adam Kennedy hit a flare to right-center. Bourjos sprinted to his left and then pulled up short, settling to field it on a bounce. This quick explanation is light on the descriptive imagery so you probably can't picture the play in your eyelids, but more important than the details of the play is that fact that a ball was hit to center field and Peter Bourjos didn't catch it. Peter Bourjos is so fast that Amazon.com offers two-day shipping, one-day shipping, and Peter Bourjos shipping, which costs a fortune but gets you your book within thirty seconds of pressing Submit.
- Jack Cust today: two flare singles up the middle and one fly out to the track that got everyone excited. As Matthew observed on Twitter, Jack Cust has kind of turned into what the Mariners wanted Chone Figgins to be.
- Also in the sixth, Carlos Peguero worked a 2-2 count against Weaver and then watched a close low changeup float by for ball three. I don't play a lot of baseball video games anymore and my strike zone judgment is terrible, so when I actually read a pitch out of the pitcher's hand and take it the whole way for a ball, I feel more satisfied than I would with a hit. I felt that way about Carlos Peguero when he took Weaver's change. "I'm so proud of you!" Peguero fouled out on the next pitch.
- With his double off a Weaver meatball in the bottom of the third, Justin Smoak has now delivered at least one extra-base hit in 16 of his 36 games.
Dan Haren and Doug Fister tomorrow in a 12:40 matinee. If today's lopsided matchup worked out in the Mariners' favor, tomorrow's more lopsided matchup should work out even more in the Mariners' favor.