I had it all figured out, see. You were expecting me to come hot and heavy with the Will Smith jokes. I made a Will Smith joke in the game thread post. That could've been taken as an indication that there would be more on the way. But I was going to throw you a curveball. I was going to make other Will Smith jokes. By which I mean I was going to identify another historically relevant Will Smith and riff on whatever the hell that guy did instead.
It was going to be glorious, for about three percent of you, but then I went over to Wikipedia and typed in "Will Smith". This is what I wound up with. Turns out that William Smith has been a pretty common name over the course of recorded human history. I was overwhelmed by the selection and opted against the intended approach, going with this approach that you're reading right now instead. It's a way worse approach, but at least this way I get some mental credit for the idea even without any of the execution.
Something I didn't realize is that now the Mariners and the Royals basically have the same record. The Mariners have the significantly better run differential. I had it in my head that the Royals were playing decent baseball, and the AL Central is something of a blind spot, much like the NL East. And the NL Central. I pretty much rarely pay attention to this sport. Maybe the Royals have better or more exciting young talent than the Mariners do, I don't know, but the on-field products in 2012 haven't been dissimilar.
So think about that. Think about how the Mariners aren't really worse than the Royals, and then think about how today's matchup was Felix Hernandez against Will Smith. Felix has been riding the roll of a lifetime of late, and it correlated with a mechanical adjustment that allowed us to feel like this was meaningful and to some degree sustainable. I don't know if there's a pitcher in the world I would've rather sent to the mound today. Maybe, but the list would be shorter than Hector Noesi's attention span. Will Smith is a player named Will Smith.
In my head you don't really need to know anything more than that. You do, of course, because Will Smith's name doesn't tell you anything about his pitches or his pitch speed or his command of those pitches, but in my head Will Smith's name tells you that the details aren't important because the player just isn't very good. It's not a successful baseball player name. It's too boring, too impossible to imagine on a Hall of Fame plaque. "Will"? And then "Smith"? It's an alias that an eight-year-old thinks up on the fly after he runs away from home. Will Smith doesn't get on prospect lists. Will Smith doesn't get drafted in one of the early rounds people pay attention to. Will Smith climbs the ladder at a gradual pace and plays only a tangential role in people's long-lasting baseball memories.
Felix Hernandez is outstanding, one of the rare pitchers in baseball you might say takes pleasure in toying with the hitters. Will Smith is a guy the Royals have had stashed in triple-A while giving a dozen starts to a very offensively terrible Jonathan Sanchez. This was among the bigger pitching mismatches you could reasonably imagine, and that's more or less how the baseball game played out. Felix was good and the Royals scored one run. Smith was not as good and the Mariners scored six runs. It was already 3-0 Seattle after an inning and a half. The Royals might've been counting on the oppressive heat to shift things more equal, but as it happens all of the players in the game were equivalently human. Munenori Kawasaki seems like something other than that, but he stayed on the bench until the on-field action was finished.
It was hot. So hot, and getting increasingly more hot instead of cooler, as things went last night. Whenever a sporting event takes place in somewhat extreme conditions, people start talking about the individual players' backgrounds, and whether they might help them deal with the weather. Today it was hot, sure, and being outside and active in that kind of heat is always unpleasant, but Felix is out of Valencia, Venezuela. Surely Felix is less bothered than most having to play in heat, humidity, or heat and humidity. Where some players might feel sluggish, Felix might even perform better than ever!
I don't know if there's any truth to this line of thinking. Players tend to be a long way removed from their backgrounds. I can't imagine many players like extreme heat or extreme cold. I'm sure some players are better with certain conditions than others. I don't think the correlation is that strong with individual backgrounds. I'd love to know what makes one person flourish in heat and another person wilt in it, but the answer is probably very complicated.
In any case, Felix was successful. And he was successful in a somewhat unusual way, for him. It's very difficult to look at a pitcher's performance and deduce what he was trying to do, but Felix gave off the impression that he was trying to be as efficient as possible. That he was, in so many words, pitching to contact, or at least not pitching for deep counts. Consider the evidence.
Felix finished with three strikeouts. He finished with just five swinging strikes, after ripping off a number of unhittable starts in a row. He needed just 89 pitches to get through eight innings, and he needed just 65 to get through the first seven. The majority of balls in play he allowed were grounders. He threw the overwhelming majority of his pitches in the strike zone, and 73 percent of them wound up as strikes. Felix's season rate is 64 percent. Even over his streak, he was at 67 percent. To throw 73 percent strikes is to throw strikes like vintage Cliff Lee.
I've spent zero percent of my life within Felix Hernandez's head, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn his game plan for today was quick outs. Quick outs to get him out of the heat, to get his teammates out of the heat, and maybe most importantly, to get John Jaso out of the heat. Jaso was certainly appreciative in the postgame interview. Of course, Jaso also remarked that the Royals were making a surprising amount of contact on good pitches, so it's hard to say, but then almost all of Felix's pitches are good. They all move crazy-like. Even the ones that don't move have movement other than what's expected.
Maybe it's giving Felix too much credit to assume this was all intentional. Maybe he was trying to miss bats and wasn't. Maybe we should be worried! But Felix has earned our assumptions. Considering the conditions, Felix threw a fantastic ballgame, and I'm not going to worry that he struck out just three Royals in triple-digit weather after last Saturday he struck out a dozen Texas Rangers. He actually struck out far fewer Texas Rangers, but he struck out a few of them multiple times.
The run-scoring hit by Chris Getz, incidentally, was a very good first-pitch fastball that can't be considered a mistake. Later, when Felix was in trouble in the eighth with the bases loaded and one out, he made quick work of Alcides Escobar by striking him out on four pitches, and then he got ahead of Billy Butler and made him pound the ball into the ground with a curve at the kneecaps. There's no question that Felix could've finished with a complete game. There was also no point in letting him do it. Those bullets should be saved for when they're more necessary.
Offensively, the bulk of the damage was done by Jesus Montero. Montero's now put together a five-game hitting streak that corresponds nicely with a five-game streak of facing left-handed starters. Montero's OPS against lefties is .978; his OPS against righties is much much worse. Righties throw sliders to righties while lefties usually don't. It's worth noting that Montero faced righty Louis Coleman in the top of the seventh and nearly took him out of the yard. Montero ripped a liner off the very top of the fence down the left-field line. It was one of those doubles that comes so close to being a home run that you end up kind of disappointed by it. So it's good to see that Montero pounded a pitch thrown by a righty. On the other hand, it was a 3-and-1 fastball thrown inside, well off the plate. This is gonna set Montero back.
Montero led off the second inning with a dinger to straightaway center. Like most dingers to straightaway center, it didn't look like it was gone off the bat, but it definitely looked like it was well-hit, and Jarrod Dyson kept on retreating and retreating. Dyson continued to retreat until he ran out of room rather abruptly, and the ball sailed over his head. Montero hadn't homered for what felt like a very long time, so even if this was hit off a flat centered slider from lefty Will Smith, it counts just the same, and again, it's about confidence. No, it doesn't tell us much that the Mariners can hit Jonathan Sanchez, Ryan Verdugo, and Will Smith. But anything that can allow them to feel good about themselves is preferable to the opposite. What you want is for this success to show up in later success against better opponents. Major League opponents.
There will be Major League opponents over the weekend! In the form of the Tampa Bay Rays, with James Shields, Alex Cobb, and Matt Moore. Talented pitchers? Pitcher-friendly ballpark? We've talked a lot about the Road Mariners but this'll be an actual good, meaningful test for the offense. Watch as the Mariners hit well or poorly or somewhere in between. Watch as the Mariners participate in baseball, basically.