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56-52: Let the race begin

It's a two month sprint with high stakes to the winners. The Mariners' first stride was quick and true in a 6-5 win over the Indians.

Jason Miller

I woke up today to the buzzing of my phone telling me that Jon Lester had joined the A's in exchange for Yoenis Cespedes, as iconic and enjoyable a player as the A's have had since the Moneyball heyday. It was jarring. I wasn't awake and a player that, however irrationally, I felt the Mariners had a passing chance of acquiring had ended up with a divisional rival and worse, the biggest fireworks of the trade deadline happening while I slept.

It turns out that the buzzing of my phone was merely the marathon's starting horn. Not since high school, when I actually played baseball, do I remember a day being so wholly consumed by the sport. Sure I worked. I think I saw my family at one point. There was some talk of bourbon. In fact, ooooooh, bourbon.

Hold on.

Ok I'm back.

Between finding out about the Lester/Cespedes trade and Fernando Rodney pivoting 180 degrees on his right foot, notching, drawing and releasing into the forever bleak Cleveland sky 12 hours, 37 minutes transpired. During that time we found out that no, our dreams of a David Price type acquisition trade weren't coming true. But we did rediscover Trader Jack, the wily old coot we'd first fallen in love with once upon a Gutierrez.

The Mariner made themselves better for the rest of 2014, all of 2015 and sacrificed nothing of their present and no meaningful part of their future to do so. As happy as I am to have two actual major league outfielders joining the team in Baltimore I'm much more excited to know that Jack can still do this. We've heard, thought and talked so much about whether the parts of the front office we first fell in love with back in '09 even existed anymore. So many Fisters have gone, so many Morses acquired in that time. Today we found out there's a bit of Good Process Jack still there. If he's going to be here past this year (he's going to be here past this year) that's hugely encouraging, for 2014 and beyond.

After all of that, seemingly seconds later, Zach McCallister threw a pitch in anger at Dustin Ackley. It was a strike, and the rush was on.

It's a sprint now you see? The Mariners were buyers. The season is 2/3 over and they are trying to make the playoffs. This is what happens now. Every game between now and when the dream dies has to be watched. Games aren't something you have on while you work, or have dinner, or catch up on the dishes. Games are a nightly feast and they are ready to be consumed, and to consume you right back.

When Dustin Ackley scorched a home run to give the team a 3-1 lead I whooped at my office. When Jason Kipnis answered with a home run of his own I swore, loudly and freely. Everything is what it's been all year, but refined, distilled and concentrated into 54 games of more meaning than we've had since 2007. When the Indians ground balled their way to a lead in the 7th that feeling of despair felt deeper, like a cold black thing had reached out and touched me. When MIke Zunino Thor'd one off his hands into the Left Field bleachers the joy was real. No silent nod of approval, no "here's a hopeful sign for next year". It was great and it was great because it won the game for the Mariners today. And that mattered. A lot.

When Rodney finally ended it I jumped up, slapped my hands together, high fived my son and collapsed on my couch, exhausted. Exhaustion is underrated as a state of being. Exhaustion is the payment, the reward of emptying oneself into an experience.

Today we've experienced something we haven't in a long time. The Mariners bought, they bought smart, and they entered the race. It could be seven more years til we do this again. I'll be almost 40. My back is going to hurt and I will be balding. Every game's a damn treasure.

  • Did you know that Chris Young, who spent the 1st half of the season succeeding with a Horacio Ramirez-style skillset had a 32/8 K/BB in July? For comparison Felix, who is literally Pedro Martinez reborn this year, had a 41/9 ratio. Tonight Young was much more of his beginning of the year self. He struck out 1, walked 2 and seemingly just kept the water below his nostrils all night. The command was bad, the stuff was fringe and the results were just enough. If the Mariners do actually make the playoffs I feel like there's very little chance Young starts a game. But outside of the obvious stars there are few that will have helped them get there more than this gigantic, soft throwing old man from Houston.
  • We need to talk about Brandon Maurer. Brandon Maurer is a bad MLB starter. We've known this most of last year and all of this year. Brandon Maurer was sent down to Tacoma and turned into a reliever and the results are incredible. Everything at the MLB level is small sample size. We have 16 innings this year to go off. But in that time Maurer has struck out 20, walked 4, allowed 1 run and done it in a way I haven't seen a Mariner reliever do since initial call up Mark Lowe. The stuff is absurd. Witness this to Mike Aviles in the 8th: Screen_shot_2014-07-31_at_9.37.12_pm
    Yes that is a 93 MPH slider/cutter/death bringer for the 4th pitch. 93 MPH breaking pitch! Brandon Maurer's stuff right now is elite. The results are elite. The only question is whether he can sustain. All year Scott has cited Maurer as a pitcher better suited to the bullpen. I will tip my cap because Brandon Maurer has the stuff of a top 5 relief pitcher in baseball.

  • In the top of the 8th, with the Mariners trailing 5-4 Mike Zunino faced Bryan Shaw. Zunino watched two pitches outside before Shaw tried to backdoor a cutter. It was actually a pretty good pitch, higher than I'm sure he wanted but just on the inside corner. Zunino did not catch it anywhere near the barrel, hitting it perhaps halfway between the label and the sweet spot. Put another way if the ball gets somewhere between 1/2-1" further in on him Zunino's bat explodes in a shower of ashen toothpicks. But Mike Zunino is strong.

    Coming into tonight's game Mike Zunino had an ISO of .219. In this decade (2010 on) the Mariners have had one player exceed that raw power. It was Raul Ibanez last year. Extending the sample size back a full 10 years the only Mariners to exceed Zunino's ISO are Ibanez twice (poor defending corner outfielder), Richie Sexson twice (poor defending first basement) and Russell Branyan (1B/DH). It's really, really important to understand how great Zunino's power potential is when you combine it with his plus defense at a premium position. Yes he has no idea what the strike zone is. Yes he strikes out way too much. But he's going to end up with ~2.5 fWAR with a sub .270 OBP at the age of 23. 

    The greatest offensive season any Mariner catcher ever had was 2006 Kenji Johjima. He slugged .453 and had a wRC+ of 105 while being worth 2.7 fWAR. Kenji Johjima was 30 and never came close to repeating those numbers again. Mike Zunino stands an excellent chance of improving and he's within spitting distance right now of being as valuable as that. He's young, he's cheap, he frames pitches like a god and he's strong as all hell. If you focus on what Mike Zunino doesn't do you're missing the point.

  • The Mariners land in Baltimore riiiiiiiight about now. They are going to get a few hours of rest, barely knowing where they are or what day it is. They spent 108 games surviving as a horrible flawed team. They wake up tomorrow with 54 games as a far, far less flawed teams and have James Paxton scheduled to start on Saturday.