From a very early point, even before the 2012 season began, we were reminded to remain realistic. Not pessimistic -- there is an important difference -- but I don't think anyone's forgotten Jack Zduriencik saying "let's not kid ourselves" to a room full of media members. This was never the Mariners' target year for contention. This was to be a crucial year on the path toward contention, but 2012 was to be a means and not an end.
Of course, what 2012 went on to show us was that it doesn't really matter what you think of your team before the start of the season because sometimes the Orioles make the playoffs and sometimes the Angels don't. Baseball is just full of surprises, like a really old jug of milk, and this year saw the Orioles and the Athletics qualify for the tournament after starting out as projected cellar-dwellers. Presumably, they urged people to be realistic at the outset. Words are words and then actions are actions, and you never know when a season might turn into a glorious miracle.
But we didn't get ahead of ourselves. Everybody always entertains the idea of contention at the get-go, because you might as well, but we knew what to expect and what to hope for. In a season like this, we all wanted the Mariners to win, but failing that, we all wanted to see the young Mariners show signs of development. That was the point. We wanted to see the potential building blocks become certain, reliable building blocks, so that 2013 could be better than 2012, and so that 2014 could be better than 2013.
On April 11, the Mariners were playing the Rangers in Texas, and the Mariners were 3-3. The season was just shifting from feeling novel to feeling routine, and it was new enough that we could still pretend like the Mariners had a prayer of sticking around. After every win we could say "all these wins count and the Mariners couldn't have done more than they did." Playing the Rangers was a good test. We knew the Rangers would probably win the division; these games provided an opportunity to see how the Mariners stacked up. After the first two games of the series, the Mariners were 0-2, but they were both winnable games, and this third one was just another shot. It'd be a test for the Mariners as a team, and a test for the Mariners as individual players.
Texas took an early 1-0 lead and it held that way into the top of the fourth. That's when Justin Smoak led off with a double against Colby Lewis. Smoak ripped a low changeup on a line into right, and that was encouraging for us, since, again, we were just in it for the encouraging signs. Remember, this was April, and this was the seventh game of the year. Smoak hadn't let us down again yet. Hopes were high and line-drive doubles are good. Said Mike Blowers upon viewing the instant replay:
Again, he's just trying to quiet his lower half and use his hands a little bit more. And it's starting to come around for him.
Mike Blowers, on Justin Smoak, on April 11, 2012. "It's starting to come around for him." From April 12 through the rest of the month, Smoak batted .176 with two extra-base hits. It's funny how things sound and look in hindsight. Anyhow, after Smoak was Kyle Seager. Remember early-season Kyle Seager? Early-season Kyle Seager made contact with everything and hit everything on a line. You could've used his bat for laser tag. Coming in, we didn't know what to expect from Seager, but early indications were positive and we were happy to see positives.
The first pitch Seager saw from Lewis was a high fastball that Seager fouled straight back. Blowers chimed in again:
Well worst-case scenario, if Seager makes an out, [Wedge] wants him to make the out pulling the ball to the right side to at least move the runner up with nobody out.
After that, Lewis missed high and away with a fastball, then Seager fouled off an inside slider over the plate. Then he fouled off a curve, then he took a low changeup for a ball. The count was 2-and-2 when Lewis tried another high fastball, much like the first pitch of the at-bat.
Seager was right on it and generated the same result. To mix things up, Lewis followed with a low curve, of which Seager barely got a piece.
Seager's timing, though, was perfect. Lewis wasn't catching him off balance. The next pitch -- the eighth pitch -- was an elevated slider.
Seager was a little bit ahead, but he still got enough of the baseball and nearly hit it fair. To this point Seager had seen all of Lewis' four pitches, and Yorvit Torrealba came out for a little strategy talk.
What they must have agreed on was an inside slider, but Seager didn't bite and instead he ran the count full.
Torrealba and Lewis might have figured that Seager was going to swing at anything in order to protect the plate in a two-strike count, but Seager did a good job to lay off that pitch, which he probably would've missed entirely. Up next was the tenth pitch, and it was a curveball away.
Seager's swing was fine, and his timing was fine. He just missed the center of the baseball and fouled it off yet again. The at-bat was going to advance to an eleventh pitch, and Lewis and Torrealba had already been through everything. It wasn't going to be possible to give Seager a new look after so many deliveries.
You always love a long at-bat more for a hitter than you do for a pitcher. For a pitcher, what it means is he's having trouble putting a hitter away. For a hitter, what it means is he's right on the pitcher and he's locked in, just waiting for the pitcher to make a mistake to drive to the outfield. I don't know if the numbers actually bear it out, but confidence builds when you see a hitter extend a plate appearance like Seager did. You feel like the hitter isn't going to be fooled, and if he won't be fooled, that means he'll probably have to get himself out with contact. You like when the pitcher has to work hard, because he's laboring more than the hitter is.
Basically, one assumes the pitcher is always in control. A long plate appearance seems to shift the balance, where the hitter's just waiting for the pitcher to give him something he wants. It was encouraging to watch a young and inexperienced Kyle Seager work this sort of plate appearance against Colby Lewis and one line drive would probably mean a tie game. This was one of those positive signs we wanted to see more of.
The 11th pitch of the at-bat was a fastball that Gameday puts on the border of the strike zone. Here was Seager's chance to cash in. Here was Seager's chance to make all his hard work pay off.
Seager made a lazy out that he didn't pull to the right side, and Smoak stayed put on second. That's where he would remain through the rest of the inning, as the Mariners were held scoreless. When they finally scored in the top of the eighth, it was their first run since the top of the second on April 9.