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Michael Pineda Mortal, Still Amazing In Mariners Loss

<em>Man, I'm awesome</em>
Man, I'm awesome

The Mariners lost to the Rangers Wednesday night. They lost to a Rangers team playing without Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz, and they lost with one of the American League's better starters on the mound. They lost at home. They lost because their starter gave up a few big hits while their hitters were unable to find any of their own, and because of the loss, they dropped a game in the standings to the Rangers, and a game in the standings to the A's, and possibly a game in the standings to the Angels, depending on how that shakes out. At this writing, they're still going strong in Boston.

That sucks. There's no getting around it. It sucks to lose ground when you're close enough to worry about losing ground, and it sucks to lose ground after what looked like a pretty winnable game going in. This one loss brings back so many of those old familiar feelings. No, the Mariners aren't going to contend, because they can't score runs. Look, they just struck out 12 times against C.J. Wilson! What hope does this team have, really?

But I gotta be honest with you - as disappointed as I am that the M's couldn't pull it out, I'm having a hard time feeling blue. Because I just got finished watching Michael Pineda, and Michael Pineda seems to impress me more and more every game.

Maybe it's weird that I'm saying that after Pineda had his first non-"quality start" of his career. He gave up four runs in seven innings. He finally allowed his first home run, and then he allowed his second, too, because he didn't want the first one to be lonely. Michael Pineda has probably been more pleased with himself in the past.

But despite the runs, that was a fabulous outing. Pineda threw 77(!) of his 97 pitches for strikes. He had good location, he got ahead of everybody, and he missed bats. He didn't walk a hitter. He struck out nine. Sure, the Rangers knocked him a few times for some big hits, but those were going to come eventually, and what Pineda showed is that, even when he gives up some big hits, he'll be able to limit the damage. The occasional double and the occasional solo home run aren't the worst things in the world.

Michael Pineda remains a work in progress, in that he isn't yet maximizing his skillset, but that's just it - he isn't yet maximizing his skillset, and he can still come up with starts like last week's, or starts like tonight's. Starts in which, for long stretches, he looks unhittable. Through six starts, now, Pineda's gone 38.1 innings, with 14 runs, and 12 walks, and 39 strikeouts. That's a rookie's line, and that's a potential Cy Young winner's line. Think about that.

The Mariners lost, and that sucks in the small picture. But 2011 is still a big picture season first and a small picture season second, and given that, it's hard to be too upset right now. I'm not going to go to bed reflecting on missed opportunities to score runs and win the game. I'm going to go to bed dreaming of Felix Hernandez and Michael Pineda pitching the Mariners into the playoffs at some point down the road.

Or I'll just go to bed dreaming of being the first person to break the story of Mt. Hood erupting, like I usually do. But if I go to bed thinking about baseball, it'll be the Felix and Pineda thing.

After last night's win, I was already coming into Wednesday feeling confident. And when I found out earlier that Nelson Cruz wouldn't be in the Rangers' lineup due to quad tightness, I wouldn't say I got cocky, but I definitely smiled a wider smile. So beating the Rangers without Hamilton and Cruz isn't exactly beating the Rangers. So what? A win is a win, and their being without Hamilton and Cruz makes the act of winning easier. Plus, injuries are just a part of those players' skillsets anyway. Every team has its weaknesses, and the Mariners were in position to take advantage of one of a rival.

But then I was reminded that, according to the law of baseball, the things that you expect to happen in an individual game never happen, which is why Francisco Liriano just threw a no-hitter, and Rob Johnson just hit a home run. So when I got in my car and turned on the radio, naturally, the first update I heard was that the game was going to the bottom of the first, with the top of the Rangers' depleted lineup - the mostly right-handed top of the Rangers' lineup - having pushed two across against the phenom.

The Mariners immediately started chipping away, as we've rather absurdly come to expect of them. Miguel Olivo cut the deficit in half with a sac fly, and later evened things up with his second sac fly in three innings. Miguel Olivo was literally among the last Mariners from whom I thought we'd see effective situational hitting, but here we are, and Olivo's tied for the league lead in sac flies. I know, I can't believe it either.

Then the run scoring stopped for a little while. Pineda had settled into a groove, and while Wilson hadn't yet gotten into one of his own, he did get Brendan Ryan to line into a double play, which is the worst kind of double play. So this was a 2-2 ballgame going into the top of the fifth.

It was then that Pineda would pay dearly for a mistake, and, if nothing else, at least his first-ever home run allowed wasn't a cheap one. A first-pitch fastball to Mitch Moreland caught way too much of the plate, and Moreland blasted it several rows deep in center field. Pineda would recover, but still, the Mariners were behind 3-2, and after a little offensive ineptitude the Rangers doubled their lead in the seventh when Pineda provided his first dingdonger with a companion. Olivo wanted Pineda to throw an 0-2 fastball outside to Chris Davis, but Pineda instead threw an 0-2 fastball down the pipe, and Chris Davis blasted it. Chris Davis can hit that pitch. That might be the only pitch that Chris Davis can hit.

Down 4-2, we've grown accustomed to seeing the spunky Mariners battle back and make these kinds of games interesting, but "spunky" is a word you use to describe teams that don't hit for much power, and the Mariners can't battle back every single time. Rather than allow the Mariners to battle, Wilson instead opted to retire the final 14 of them that he faced, and for good measure the Rangers had added a fifth run when Olivo couldn't handle a terrible pitch by Chris Ray with a runner on third. Ray and Tom Wilhelmsen got some work in tonight. Dan Cortes remained on the bench. It's possible that the Mariners have tried to get Cortes in a game, but that he has grown roots.

So the Mariners lost 5-2. It's a big loss in the series after the M's appeared to have the pitching advantage, and now there's more pressure on Jason Vargas to keep the M's from losing the set tomorrow. While Pineda was mostly outstanding, this was an uninspiring offensive effort that made the game easy on Wilson to finish. It'd be great if the M's could get more than two or three guys hitting at the same time, just because right now they're not featuring the most productive attack.

But at the end of the day, Michael Pineda. Michael Pineda! Things could be worse.

A small selection of bullet holes:

  • Pineda, of course, wasn't perfect. For one thing, he again operated as a two-pitch pitcher, as 93 of his 97 pitches were fastballs or sliders. And for another, one can't help but notice that his first two home runs allowed came against lefties. Lefties have accounted for seven of the ten extra-base hits Pineda has allowed in the early going, and today we saw Moreland and Davis take advantage of missed fastball location in a big way. Pineda's still going to want that changeup to get better eventually.

    But still, I want to show you a little table. This table is updated to include Pineda's numbers from tonight. (F-Strike% = first pitch strike%)
    Stat Pitcher A Pitcher B
    Strike% 71% 73%
    Contact% 76% 83%
    F-Strike% 72% 70%
    In Column A, we have Michael Pineda. Pineda's shown as a guy who attacks the strike zone, gets ahead, and misses bats. In Column B, we have Cliff Lee as a Seattle Mariner.

    Obviously, I'm not trying to say that Michael Pineda is as good as Cliff Lee - Lee's command is just about perfect - but the table shows the similarities, and the two even operate with a similarly fast pace on the mound. They're more alike than they seem.

    So many pitching prospects with good stuff come to the Majors and have to learn how to throw strikes. If anything, Michael Pineda might want to learn how and when to throw balls. He is that consistently in the strike zone.

  • Mitch Moreland spent a lot of time in the corner outfield in the minors, and he's spent a fair amount of time in the corner outfield with the Rangers, but watching him tonight, I'm left with the impression that he should be an emergency outfielder, and nothing more. He was moving around very slowly on some bloops that fell in front of him, and he basically played right field like a first baseman. He has all the speed of a tree in the woods, and half the acceleration.

  • Freed from their bullpen prison, Ray and Wilhelmsen combined to throw 15 strikes and 18 balls. On the one hand, they're probably rusty since it's been so long since they've seen live action, but on the other hand, back you go. And hush now, you may speak when addressed.

  • After a win, I can look at this lineup and think, okay, there's just enough there, with Franklin Gutierrez and Dustin Ackley on the way. After a loss, I can look at this lineup and see all the misery. Figgins looks terrible. Bradley looks terrible. Saunders, Wilson and Ryan look terrible, and it's not like Olivo or Cust are hitting the crap out of the ball. It's probably time for more Luis Rodriguez and Ryan Langerhans. As limited as they are, I can't imagine they could possibly hurt.

  • Chris Davis is often referred to as a guy who couldn't hit a breaking ball to save his life. I can't even fathom a circumstance where Davis would be facing that situation. And besides, hitting a breaking ball isn't a test of determination, anyway, so it's not like you'd expect the added pressure to give him a boost, the way it would if he had to, say, run 20 miles instead. As a matter of fact, you'd expect the added pressure to be a detriment, since Davis would presumably be too terrified to concentrate on the task at hand. Perhaps a better expression would be that Chris Davis couldn't hit a breaking ball if nothing depended on it. 

Jason Vargas and Colby Lewis tomorrow. I don't know if Nelson Cruz is going to be in the lineup, but after tonight, I don't even know what to hope for. Maybe Nelson Cruz playing shortstop.