Perhaps if Daniel Robertson had not hit that grounder just in the right spot. It was an 0-1 fastball on the inner half that Robertson topped into the hole in short. The ball left J.A. Happ's hand at 92.5 miles per hour. If it were 92.7 perhaps Robertson hits it to Brad Miller at short. If it's 92.3 it could be a ground ball to the medium sized sinkhole that is Kyle Seager's glove. Instead it found its spot.
Without that maybe Happ doesn't miss 8 inches up to Kole Calhoun in the very next at-bat. Calhoun had the quietest 125 wRC+ I can remember last year. He is short but he is not small; sort of a svelte Matt Stairs. But Happ did miss and Calhoun jumped on it, hit it 408 feet into right-center field and it was 2-0.
There is perhaps no fanbase in baseball less willing to tip the cap to another pitcher and rightfully so; this organization has a long and proud history of making Captain Americas of Steve Rodgers'. But Garrett Richards' pure stuff is some of the best any starting pitcher possesses in the American League. For four innings the Mariners were completely over-matched, a Nelson Cruz double their only prize.
In the 5th after a Kyle Seager line drive and a Richards wild pitch Mark Trumbo worked a full count. Would you like to see a struggling veteran press at the plate? How about a batter deciding to swing before the pitch is thrown? Too bad, look:
There's a chance if Trumbo doesn't swing/gets hit by the ball that the defense is ever so slightly different for Brad Miller. Then his line drive rightfully finds a hole rather than David Freese's glove for an unjust, inning ending double play.
A few millimeters. That's the difference in contact between a ground ball and a home run. In the 6th Robinson Cano came to the plate with the tying run on 3rd and 1 out. Richards' first pitch was a 96 MPH fastball, middle in and a bit up. Cano hit it hard but as has been the case this year the leather fed the worms. The ball skittered into Johnny Giavotella's glove and an easy double play ended the threat.
What if last night Erik Aybar doesn't come up lame running out a sac bunt? What if it's him playing shortstop today rather than journeyman Taylor Featherston? Prior to the top of the 7th Featherston, who threw wildly all game, let loose with a warmup toss that Albert Pujols' Dad-vert couldn't reach. The ball, amazingly, did not strike Franklin Gutierrez. Instead it hit Robinson Cano, square in the head.
The key updates:
Cano hopes to play tomorrow. The knot on his head is barely noticeable.— Bob Dutton (@TNT_Mariners) June 28, 2015
More Cano" "Hopefully, I can play tomorrow. I feel good right now. I can walk, and I’ve been able to remember everything."— Bob Dutton (@TNT_Mariners) June 28, 2015
Cano is very unlucky and very, very lucky.
Consider if the Mariners, who have the worst batting average in baseball with RISP at .207 (my god), had just done that tonight? What if they squibbed one more hit for a mundanely atrocious 2-10 rather than the sub-Zunino 1-10 of reality? I am beyond any sort of analytical reason for this team's catastrophic performance with runners on base. My hypothesis involves limited skill levels combined with a serious team wide psychological issue but these things cannot be tested and/or proven from the comfort of my laptop. Whatever it is it is the thing that has defined their 1st half, and ruined much of it.
When you can't hit with RISP you can only shrug and wonder what if when a below average defender like David Freese does this to you.
I'm left to wonder what if Lloyd McClendon had not waited so long to remove Happ from the game. Happ bounced back well from the 1st inning home run but came into the 7th inning at 84 pitches with Mike Trout and Albert Pujols due up. After a Trout double and Pujols IBB Happ then walked David Freese on 4 straight pitches to load the bases.
I don't know if I would have pulled Happ prior to the Freese at bat but I definitely would have done so afterwards. At this point the damage was done unless Happ could induce strikeouts and if there's one thing the Angels never ending supply of Despicable Me Minions is good at it's making contact. Two groundballs and weak pop ups later, the Angels had a 4-1 lead. A notch in the "bad" ledger for Lloyd.
Then final, climactic what-if: Mike Zunino who homered for the first time in a month earlier in the game, got a weak, spinning breaking pitch from Huston Street with 2 on and 2 away. The hips opened, the hands launched at the ball and boom, solid contact in the air to left. Zunino knew right away:
Zunino said, "I knew I hooked it."
The ball landed foul. Two pitches later Zunino again made solid contact, this time to Featherston at short. He gathered and almost threw the ball away, because he apparently has no idea how to throw a baseball. Game over.
The Mariners lost, 4-2. Like so many games this year there is a mountain of positive. J.A. Happ once again went deep into the game. Mike Zunino homered and:
On the bright side...For the first time in his big league career Zunino goes 3 straight games without a strikeout.— Shannon Drayer (@shannondrayer) June 28, 2015
Nelson Cruz blasted a quality Garrett Richards fastball off the wall. The Mariners are really good at the relay from right field to third base. Mark Lowe threw another scoreless inning.
There was a lot of good but this game is rarely a binary experience. The good teams prove their quality incrementally over long periods of time. The bad ones do the same. The Mariners, despite all the good, are ever so slowly carving failure from the season's shores. The tide needs to change.