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Mariners Make Rangers Pay For Slightly Inferior Baseball

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you literally cannot get the bat out of Alex Liddi's hands
you literally cannot get the bat out of Alex Liddi's hands

A lot of times, people will say that one baseball team is sending a message to another baseball team when what they mean to say is that one baseball team is outplaying another baseball team. There are ways that messages can be sent - brush-backs and beanballs, aggressive baserunning, shouting messages - but usually, this isn't what's happening. The other day, Jon Morosi tweeted that the Indians were sending a message to the Tigers. What the Indians were actually doing was scoring some runs against the Tigers.

But today, I think it's fair to say the Seattle Mariners sent a message to the Texas Rangers, and to all observers. That message: "hello, we are a baseball team." All the talk has been about the Rangers' good start, and the Angels' bad start. There are two other teams in the AL West, two other teams who are currently between the Rangers and the Angels in the standings. Neither is a legitimate threat to the Rangers unless you set a low lower bound for "legitimate", but there is more to this division than half of this division. Look at the A's, they're all right! Look at the Mariners, they're also all right! Three teams in this division are all right, and the Rangers are not, in a good way, for them.

Let us now divorce ourselves from talk of message-sending. When the Mariners met the Rangers for four games in Texas early on, the Rangers won three of them. That was about the outcome people probably expected. But the Mariners lost one of those games by one run, they lost another of those games by two runs, and while their third loss was by six, the M's were at one point ahead 5-2. In the standings, it was a lopsided series, but on the field, it was a competitive series, which we took to be somewhat encouraging given how well the Rangers were playing.

Now the Mariners and Rangers have met three more times, in Seattle, and the Mariners lost once, by two runs. The first game was not very competitive, and the Mariners won with ease. The second game was close. The third game was close, but it only became close in the eighth.

The Mariners are 3-4 against the Rangers in seven games. They've scored 24 runs, and allowed 27 runs. I had the idea to talk about this before the Rangers scored three late runs off Tom Wilhelmsen, and before that happened the Mariners' run differential against the Rangers was even. It's not even anymore, but consider that the Rangers have a run differential of +3 against the Mariners in seven games, and +76 against everyone else in 38 games. I don't know how much it actually means, but the Rangers look to be the best team in baseball, and the Mariners have managed to hang with them. In head-to-head play, I mean. The Mariners are still six and a half games back. Those other games also matter.

But a year ago, the Mariners went 4-15 against the Rangers, and were outscored by 42. The year before that, the Mariners went 7-12 against the Rangers, and were outscored by 50. This competitive play has been a breath of fresh air, even if, say, last night it felt like a breath of familiar air. If you believe that the best need to be able to play with the best, then all right, it looks like the Mariners might be one of the best! If you're content with poor arguments then with sports you sure can argue anything.

We talked yesterday about how the game had two moments of exceptional importance. Casper Wells lined out to the track with two outs and the bases loaded, and Hector Noesi hung a curveball to Elvis Andrus. Had Wells gotten a little luckier, or had Noesi thrown one slightly better pitch, the game might've been entirely different. There's a chance it would've been a lot like this game. In this game, the Mariners also allowed the Rangers to score three runs. But in this game, when a Mariner batted with the bases loaded and hit the ball hard, the ball found a railing instead of a glove. This game didn't feel over when Alex Liddi pulled his grand slam, but it felt more comfortable than most games against the Rangers ever feel. There are parallels between these two games, with one major difference. There are lots of differences, so many differences, but one big one, within this construct.

Thanks to Liddi, and thanks to Kevin Millwood, and thanks to Brandon League, the Mariners have now won five of six - three against a bad team, and two against a great team. A great team that's struggling a little bit, but all of the players are the same. I do wonder when people are going to learn about sample sizes and over-interpreting hot starts. What changed between the 2011 Rangers and the 2012 Rangers was C.J. Wilson turning into Yu Darvish. That's the biggest thing. The Rangers now also have a far better bullpen than they did to begin last year, but they addressed that bullpen. Anyhow, on April 25, the Rangers were 15-4, and +55. Since then they've gone 12-14 and +24. They've still been quite good and we can't just ignore the start, but it turns out they're not an unbeatable super-team. They're a very good team that will probably finish with roughly as many wins as they did a year ago. Maybe they'll win 100, because they're good enough to win 100, but last year they won 96. People need to do a better job of staying calm and remaining reasonable, rather than vaulting themselves naked into a heap of conclusions. Vault yourself naked into a heap of anything and you'll usually come away embarrassed.

The Mariners get the Angels next. The Angels are below the Mariners in the standings, but we aren't so far into the season that we can dismiss entirely the pre-season projections. I think a lot of us are still waiting for the Angels to catch fire, and so I think a lot of us are probably thinking this series could be a rough one. But we thought the same thing about the two Mariners/Rangers series, and those have worked out. And the Angels aren't the Rangers. Have you noticed that? The Angels have been so much worse than the Rangers! Haha! Albert Pujols has turned it on lately but he's signed for a decade. And while we're here, Prince Fielder is hardly off to the start the Tigers were hoping for. I wonder what we're learning about free agents and gigantic free-agent contracts. Some of us are learning nothing, because we already know. Others are learning nothing, because they refuse to know. Boy did this paragraph ever get preachy. For whatever it's worth I do naturally have a very big head. "You're developing quite the big head," they say. "I couldn't do anything about it!" I reply.

What follows are bullet holes about a Mariners game against the Rangers that was started by Kevin Millwood. A while ago, you would've thought these would be bullet holes you wouldn't want to read. But look who's surprising? The Mariners, and Kevin Millwood. Kevin Millwood loves to catch people by surprise. One time his family had to file a missing person report because Millwood was hiding behind a hedge for three days, waiting for his wife to water the lawn. When she finally watered the lawn, oh, you should have seen her face! Kevin Millwood really got her!

  • When the Mariners signed Kevin Millwood, we figured he was a place-holder who would disappear when it looked like one of the younger starters was ready. I don't think we've strayed from that viewpoint, and Millwood almost certainly is a place-holder, but he's chosen a good time to elevate his game. In Jackson, Cerberus has run into trouble with control or with command or with both of them. With Tacoma, just yesterday Erasmo Ramirez allowed 11 runs and couldn't get out of the fourth. Granted, a lot of that was bad defense, but a lot of that was his own bad defense. Basically, none of the prospects has been urgently pounding on the door, pleading to be let in because it's cold out and there are wolves. And Kevin Millwood has allowed one run over his last three starts, spanning 22 innings.

    The first of those starts came against the Yankees, in Yankee Stadium. The second of those starts came in Coors Field. The most recent of those starts was today, against the Rangers. Millwood at one point had an ugly ERA, but now he's down to a 3.72 ERA with nearly twice as many strikeouts as walks, and the urgency some people felt to get rid of him has markedly dissipated.

    In Colorado, Millwood succeeded by throwing strikes, avoiding barrels, and keeping the ball down. Today Millwood didn't throw quite so many strikes, but he was charged with just a single line drive, and 14 of 20 balls in play were grounders. Before the game, Millwood was asked about the difference between pitching in Safeco and pitching elsewhere, and he said in Safeco it's easy to get away from pitching down because the dimensions can make you over-confident. You can draw a line between that and Millwood's results if you like.

    Earlier, we weren't sure if Millwood would last much longer in the rotation. Now his numbers have settled, and the Mariners might be able to get actual value in a trade. Proven veteran, good against good teams, well-traveled, heady, and so on. I don't like to focus on a player's trade value because I feel like that kind of misses the point of the whole experience, but we also can't ignore a player's trade value, and Millwood's is climbing. A year ago, neither the Red Sox nor the Yankees thought he had much left in the tank. He proved them wrong with the Rockies, and he's still succeeding now.

  • In the top of the third, Millwood had to pitch around trouble created by left fielder Alex Liddi. If that looks weird, it's because Alex Liddi isn't a left fielder, and in the third inning he looked like it. Yorvit Torrealba led off with a fly ball to deep left, and after Liddi appeared to settle under it, he flat-out missed it, and Torrealba advanced to second. The sun was out and Liddi didn't have on his glasses, so maybe that's the excuse, or maybe Liddi has a vision problem where objects seem to be several feet away from where they actually are. That would also help to explain the strikeouts. I am choosing one bad game to pick on Alex Liddi, I realize that, but I didn't know where else to take this paragraph. And Alex Liddi should get his eyes checked anyway, because you can never be too safe with your body. You only get one, and there's no such thing as trade-ins.

  • Have people arrived at a consensus on Kyle Seager's third-base defense? What I keep hearing over and over is that Seager is most comfortable at second, and that eventually he's going to go to second and Dustin Ackley's going to have to go somewhere else unless Seager is traded. I wonder how many of those opinions are old opinions, and how many are based on newer information. Visually, Seager has looked just fine at third base. The small-sample defensive numbers are hardly incriminating. And every so often, Seager will turn in a play like the one he made on Michael Young in the top of the fourth. A representative screenshot:


    Young tapped a weak grounder that just barely remained fair. Seager back-handed it, turned, and made a strong and accurate throw to first base while his body was going the other direction. Seager will never make this play look as smooth as Adrian Beltre does because Seager is a white man from North Carolina, but if Kyle Seager is a below-average defender, I'd love to see the evidence. I've had no problems.

  • In the bottom of the second, the Mariners worked three consecutive walks off Scott Feldman. Kyle Seager walked on six pitches, taking two pitches just above the zone. Jesus Montero walked on seven pitches, taking a fastball just high, a fastball just outside, and a low-away breaking ball. Justin Smoak walked on five pitches, and while the fifth was probably a strike, it wasn't in a very hittable spot so Smoak did well to take it. The Mariners got just one run out of all that, but be reassured that they don't look like they did against Mike Adams when they aren't facing Mike Adams.

  • In the fourth, Justin Smoak hit a fly ball that looked like it was gone off the bat. Nelson Cruz settled under it for an easy, non-threatening out. The longest Justin Smoak has hit a home run this year is 407 feet. The next-longest is 381 feet, and then 364 feet. Justin Smoak has his own team commercial which sells him as this big strong guy, but he's hardly looked like a power-hitting power hitter.

  • In the fifth, Mike Carp lifted a blooper into shallow left, and it dropped just beyond the outstretched glove of a fully-extended Elvis Andrus. The ball then bounced up and hit Andrus in the face.

    Ball: That's for letting me hit the grass!
    Ball: I thought we had an understanding!
    Andrus: I tried, I tried as hard as I could
    Ball: We've always had an understanding!
    Andrus: I'm so sorry baseball

    Elvis Andrus is an amazing defensive shortstop because he's convinced the baseball is a fragile living thing, like an egg with feelings.

  • Scott Feldman intentionally walked Dustin Ackley to load the bases with one out in the bottom of the fifth. That's when Alex Liddi stepped in, and Liddi jumped on the first pitch he saw, which was an inside fastball at the belt. He yanked it down the line and just over the scoreboard for a dinger that would make Jose Lopez nod in approval. I did not expect Alex Liddi to give a curtain call, because I did not expect a matinee Mariners crowd to request a curtain call, but it turns out Safeco actually draws enough fans who're paying attention. Liddi also received a loud ovation when he came up to bat the next time, which, I guess fans in Seattle are so starved for dingers that they will not forget who gave them a grand slam.

    I'd be interested in the results generated by first pitches after intentional walks. I wonder if throwing four straight slow, wild balls in any way messes with a pitcher's rhythm. It's not like Feldman threw a terrible first-pitch fastball, but it did get throttled for a grand slam. Something for somebody else to look at. I'm an idea man.

    During a replay of the grand slam, Dave Sims said something along the lines of "no doubt about it." I don't know why, there was plenty of doubt about it. There was doubt about whether it would stay fair, and there was doubt about whether it would clear the fence. This was one of the least no-doubter home runs that has been hit.

  • In relief, Shawn Kelley struck out a guy and walked a guy. When he was removed, the crowd made no noise. He just walked off the mound to silence. I think that was appropriate.

  • In his career, Koji Uehara has 99 strikeouts and ten walks against right-handed batters. Since 2010, he has 76 strikeouts and two walks against right-handed batters. The right-handed Alex Liddi faced Uehara in the bottom of the seventh and walked on ten pitches. That's one of those amazing things that'll get nary a mention ever again, outside of this paragraph.

  • We've been in desperate need of Brandon League turning in a dominant save, and today he turned in a dominant save. Nelson Cruz led off the top of the ninth with a fly out to the track in right-center, but he went the other way with a fastball boring in on his hands. It wasn't a bad pitch. Then Yorvit Torrealba struck out on five pitches, swinging through a splitter, and Mike Napoli struck out on three pitches, swinging through two splitters.

    League started all three batters with first-pitch strikes. They were all borderline strikes, which League hasn't always been given. He's much more effective when he can get ahead and get hitters thinking about the splitter, and the two he threw to Napoli were unusual because they were in the zone instead of being buried in the dirt. A less predictable Brandon League is a welcome Brandon League, and his effort today should make people feel more comfortable about his next effort in a save situation.

It's Jason Vargas and Dan Haren tomorrow night. Which means another two or three hours of thinking about how Dan Haren looks weird in short sleeves. Some people just look weird in short sleeves.