I'm feeling pretty scatterbrained this morning, so I'm just going to divide this into three parts.
First, as has been touched on elsewhere, the schedule makers did the Mariners no favors over the first two months of the 2013 season. Seattle was the last team in the league to get a day off, and by the end of April, they'll have played 29 times already. After another game on May 1st, the schedule over-corrects itself, and the M's will have four of the next twelve days off. For a team playing through several injuries while working with a perilously constructed bench and bullpen, a few more off days in April would have been beneficial.
Moreover, the Mariners haven't just been playing a lot of games: they've faced a grueling set of opponents. After the upcoming series with Texas, Seattle will have opposed a 2012 playoff team in 14 of their first 20 contests and have played three of their other games against the White Sox, a team that finished eight games over .500 last year. That stretch will have included 11 games against Texas and Detroit, possibly the two best clubs in the circuit. The schedule softens up after that stretch -- it couldn't really get any harder -- just in time for a couple of extended road trips. The M's will play in Seattle just nine times during May, and at one point that month, they'll fly from Pittsburgh to Seattle and then back east to New York in the span of about four days. In the coming weeks, expect to hear Dave and Mike talk about this. Do not expect them to sound happy about it.
Second, and more relevantly to this weekend, I've got a bad feeling about this series. The M's have not played well in Texas lately, and the pitching match-ups don't favor the M's. Yes, the Rangers will throw Nick Tepesch and Justin Grimm, but they'll also get to face Joe Saunders, Brandon Maurer, and Aaron Harang. More pertinently, they won't have to face Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. There could be some late-90's style baseball in Arlington this weekend and I'll take Texas in a slugfest every time.
I'm particularly worried about Maurer's outing. The rookie turned in his best start of the season against the Rangers last Sunday, but I'm concerned that he's become too reliant on his fastball and slider; he threw only a handful of change ups and just two curve balls in his last outing. It's a repertoire that leaves him vulnerable against lefties, predictable against anyone, and it will get him crushed if he maintains it for too long. I'm expecting the Rangers, who presumably learned something from last weekend's encounter, to stack the lineup with lefties, sit on the fastball, and instruct their righties to watch for low and away sliders when behind in the count. It'll be up to Maurer to make a counter-adjustment.
Finally, let's talk about tonight's game specifically. The match-up, a battle pitting Saunders against Yu Darvish, isn't a friendly one for a Seattle club that has just faced three quality starters in succession. Over 32 career starts, Darvish sports a SO/9 ratio over 10 and a 3.80/3.12/3.41 pitcher-slash (ERA, FIP, xFIP), good for nearly 6 fWAR. Yes he walks people, and yes he's susceptible to the occasional stinker when his control deserts him, but on the whole, he's one of the best pitchers in the American League and he's arguably the most dominant hurler in the sport when he's at the top of his game.
For all of their offensive ineptitude, the M's have actually handled Darvish pretty well so far. They've won three of their five match-ups against the Japanese starter, and of the nine teams to face Darvish on multiple occasions, nobody has scored or walked more often per game than the M's. Or, put in numerical form:
Darvish against the Mariners: 29 innings, 6.21 ERA, 5.27 BB/9
Darvish against everyone else: 182 innings, 3.41 ERA, 3.80 BB/9
At a glance, that's encouraging. The M's have been patient with a sometimes wild pitcher and they've been rewarded with a fair amount of runs.
Unfortunately, there's nothing all that predictive about those numbers. Darvish is prone to bouts of wildness, and on multiple occasions, he's fortuitously lost all feel for the strike zone against the Mariners. There's nothing about the M's specifically that makes it difficult for him to throw strikes, and as such, it's a pattern that you shouldn't expect to continue.
Essentially, the chronically and oft-detrimentally aggressive Mariners have thrived against one of the game's best pitchers largely because of their walk rate. That and fortunate sequencing. It could continue, I suppose, but I'd bet against it. Regression kicks hard and usually aims for the balls. We've been surprised before (yesterday!) but I think Darvish is ready to give the M's a dose of what everybody else has had to take.
Television: ROOT Sports
Location: Rangers Ballpark in Arlington