The 2010 season, obviously, was a complete nightmare from start to finish. The Mariners came in with such high expectations and bottomed out almost immediately, pulling practically everyone but Felix Hernandez down with them. It was one of the darkest chapters in my personal fanhood, and given that sports only exist to give us a happy diversion from the horrors of everyday life, it made me wonder what I was doing.
But, at least for me, one of the underrated contributors to the frustration of it all was the San Diego Padres. The Padres' model wasn't all that different from the Mariners' model going in, but where the Mariners fell on their face, the Padres made it work. Last year's Padres won 90 games, and though a late-summer collapse ultimately kept them out of the playoffs, the Padres had the kind of season the Mariners were supposed to have.
The reason I bring this up now is that there are signs that, a year later, the 2011 Mariners have a chance to be the 2010 Padres. Obviously, we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves. The Mariners are still two games under .500, and have only been playing good baseball for a week and a half. But the potential is there for this team to win a bunch of low-scoring games and catch everyone by surprise, and playing the part of Adrian Gonzalez is none other than Justin Smoak.
Last year's Padres got a .914 OPS out of first base. Their highest from any other position was .719. Theirs was a lineup with only one and occasionally two real threats, but it worked because the team was so good at run prevention. Now look at the M's. Smoak is looking like an absolute monster in the middle of the lineup. There's very little in the way of support, especially once you get past Ichiro and possibly Jack Cust, but then in theory the defense should be fairly strong, and the starting rotation is deep and talented. It's not the most fearsome of models, but it can work, because it has worked, quite recently.
It's asking a lot of Justin Smoak for him to keep hitting like a superstar, but he's been absolutely tremendous to date, and if he continues to hit, who knows? If the Mariners were to hang in the race, nobody would really know how they're doing it, but nobody really understood how the Padres did what they did last season, and they nearly took themselves into the playoffs. The Padres scored five or fewer runs in 118 of 162 games, but it's possible to be low-scoring and successful. You just have to make sure the opponent is lower-scoring. The Padres had the ability, and the Mariners might have the ability.
Sometimes contending teams are conventional, and sometimes contending teams are weird. If the M's contend, they'll be weird, but the right kind of weird can win a lot of baseball games.
As pleased as I was with Michael Pineda's performance last night, there's no getting around the fact that the loss was kind of deflating. And after seeing the Angels clobber the Red Sox earlier today, I knew that, even with a win, the M's would remain three back of first place. So my level of excitement coming in wasn't where it was yesterday. The Rangers were going to throw out another fairly weak lineup, but so were the M's, too, and Jason Vargas doesn't tickle the brain the way that Pineda does.
But I tuned in still fairly optimistic that the M's could pull out the series win, and after eight and a half innings, they were able to do just that. Now, to be perfectly honest with you, for the first eight innings this one was pretty dull. Smoak was terrific, of course, but it wasn't until Brandon League came in that there was any electricity in the air. Still, while dull is the worst when you're on the losing end, there's nothing wrong with a dull win. A dull win is a comfortable win, and we don't always need to be wringing blood from our hands from anxiety.
Overall, the Mariners' hitters were pretty bad against Colby Lewis. They struck out 11 times, they drew only one walk, and the incidences of solid contact were few and far between. Brendan Ryan's double was just a hot-shot groundball past Adrian Beltre that Beltre usually picks clean. But they did a little damage, and it wound up being enough damage. The biggest shot was Smoak's home run leading off the bottom of the second, when he pulled a ball well out to right. Luis Rodriguez later yanked an RBI ground-rule double in the third, and Ichiro drove in a run in the seventh with a single he flipped to left field. Though it didn't result in a run, it's also worth noting that Smoak blasted a double off the fence in center field to lead off the fourth.
As for the Rangers' effort against Vargas, I think it's safe to say it looked familiar, because it was what the Mariners have done so often against second- and third-tier starters over the past few years. Vargas did not miss many bats and the Rangers were making plenty of contact, but they weren't making plenty of good contact, with the result being that Vargas had already thrown five scoreless innings by the time he recorded his first swinging strike. They finally got on the board in the eighth after a long RBI double, but the initial baserunner had only gotten on via a bunt that Vargas couldn't field cleanly.
Jamey Wright worked his way out of a little jam after Vargas was removed in the eighth, and a few minutes later it was time for Brandon League. I wrote the other day on the Brock & Salk blog about how League has been throwing a lot of splitters in the early going this season, but hasn't had the swinging strike results to match. Some of those results came tonight. I will admit that I have a terrible memory, but I think tonight might've been the best that League has looked in a Mariner uniform. He got ahead of Chris Davis with a split, went to two strikes with a heater, and then got him to whiff on a split down and in. He got ahead of David Murphy with a split, then got him to ground out weakly on an outside heater. And finally, he got to two strikes on Yorvit Torrealba with a split, tried a couple putaway pitches, and whiffed him on a low split out of the zone.
For League, the ninth inning featured two strikeouts and a groundout. Perhaps more significantly, it featured seven fastballs and seven splitters. The Rangers swung at four of those splitters. All four swings missed. Brandon League has been a perfect closer early on in the season, but I think tonight might've been the first time he really felt dominant, and really felt in control. He didn't give the Rangers' hitters a chance, and I haven't felt about a closer the way I felt tonight since good old J.J. Putz. Whether League can carry this kind of performance over remains to be seen, but it's great to know the reliever we thought we were getting from Toronto is still in there somewhere, rattling around.
That makes two out of three. Before that, it was two out of three. Before that, it was three out of three. The Mariners' roster is littered with problems and question marks, but you feel better about the problems after a win than after a loss, and besides, teams can win with problems provided they have enough strengths to balance them out. I'm not sure if the Mariners have enough strengths, but if they don't, they're at least pretty close.
Now for a very limited selection of bullet holes, since I've already kind of discussed a few of my small number of notes:
- In the top of the first inning, Elvis Andrus hit a groundball back up the middle past Jason Vargas that Vargas tried to knock down with his bare hand. As soon as I saw him try to do that, I automatically imagined the ensuing announcer conversation in my head. I don't even know if the announcers said anything about it, but if they didn't, it's probably because they figured everyone was already thinking it anyway. As a pitcher, you should never never never try to snare a fast-moving baseball with your bare hand. And yet they all do it anyway. Every single one of them. It's like when a hockey puck ends up in the air and a bunch of players try to knock it down with their sticks. You're not supposed to do that, stupid. Yet everybody does it, because it's instinctive, and have you ever tried to repress your instincts? The only way to train a pitcher not to pull the barehand maneuver is to hit a few thousand hot shots right by him in practice, and nobody's ever going to do that. So pitchers will keep trying, and we'll keep hearing the same conversation.
- As long as we're talking about instincts, consider Adrian Beltre in the bottom of the first. With Ichiro standing on second and two down, Miguel Olivo hit a scorcher to Beltre that ate him up. The ball popped out of his glove and Beltre had to scramble to recover it, but he then had the good sense to turn and tag Ichiro rather than try to force a throw across the infield. It was just one of those examples of how Adrian Beltre isn't only gifted with athleticism and quick reflexes - he's also always aware of the situation. I will never understand how Beltre can look like such a genius in the field, and then so often look so clueless at the plate. It's like he spent the first ten years of his playing days as all-time third baseman.
- Several of the Mariners went and gave a talk at a nearby school about staying off drugs and living a healthy life and all that. Said one very young student about what he learned:
I should actually respect my parents.
Child: /reflects on what parents have told him
Child: /reflects on what teachers have told him
Child: /reflects on what kid's TV shows have told him
Child: /reflects on what David Pauley told him
- As noted earlier, Brendan Ryan's double was actually a sharp grounder to third that got through into the outfield. Brendan Ryan isn't only sitting on four total doubles and zero home runs; he's sitting on four total doubles, with two of them staying on the ground. The stats say that he's hit nine dingdongers in his big league career but I'm not sure I believe them.
- While we're talking about Ryan, he let go of his bat again today on another swinging strikeout. That's at least four times that he's done that this year, and I haven't seen anybody else on the team do it once. Ryan may be struggling, but at least we know he isn't gripping the bat too tight.
M's and White Sox, starting tomorrow. The White Sox have the worst record in baseball. If Francisco Liriano can keep them no-hit, I'm pretty sure Felix can throw the 81-pitch true perfect game that we all know is technically possible.