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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

April 6, 2010 at 11:24 AM

Random thoughts on Mariners opener

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–The Casey Kotchman saga is classic. First, Don Wakamatsu decides on Sunday that he’s going to slide Kotchman out of the No. 3 spot in the batting order and move him down to sixth to take pressure off him. Franklin Gutierrez will be the No. 3 hitter. He calls Kotchman into his office to inform him, and Kotchman fights to keep the No. 3 job, saying he welcomes the pressure. And then he goes out on Opening Night and delivers four RBIs, coming through at the most pressurized moment in the game — tie score, ninth inning, two aboard, two out — with a game-winning, two-run single.

Who knows how this experiment will turn out? But for one night, it had a storybook ending.

–For all the endless talk about how the Mariners are built around their defense — and they are — they very nearly blew this game on a defensive miscue. I’m talking, of course, about, Jack Wilson booting a tailor-made double play ball in the eighth, leaving runners on first and second, no out, in a tie game. But Brandon League out of the jam, and Wilson was off the hook.

–Otherwise, though, the defense was sparkling, that play notwithstanding.The Mariners turned four double plays, two of them started by Jose Lopez, who looked comfortable at third base. And Wilson is going to do fine at shortstop.

Chone Figgins showed what a difference-maker he can be, even on a night in which he was hitless. The relentless pressure he put on the opposition led directly to two runs, and indirectly to another when third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff rushed his throw on Figgins’ grounder in the ninth. That should have been an easy third out of the inning, but Kouzmanoff pulled the first baseman off the bag, Figgins was safe, and Kotchman followed with his big hit.

–Even though he was thrown out at third trying to steal, the aggressiveness shown by Ichiro bodes well. One rap on him has always been that he doesn’t steal enough; Perhaps he’s going to run with more abandon this year. Yes, I know the old saying about not making the first or last out at third base (I never thought it was good to make the second out, either). But I like the mindset, and I thought he was safe. With Ichiro and Figgins always a threat to run, they’re going to cause a lot of tension in opponents, and force a lot of mistakes.

–It was notable and encouraging that the Mariners made Ben Sheets throw a lot of pitches — 94 in five innings. Milton Bradley went hitless, but he walked twice, and looked at 30 pitches in five plate appearances, making the A’s pitchers work more than any other Mariner hitter. The first four in the order, in fact, all did a pretty good job in that regard: Ichiro saw 21 pitches in five at-bats, Figgins 22, and Kotchman 20, all in five plate appearances. The rest of the lineup had four plate appearances each: Ken Griffey saw 14 pitches, Lopez 13, Franklin Gutierrez 15, Rob Johnson 20, and WIlson 9.

Selectivity has not been a particular strength of the Mariners, but maybe that will improve with the new additions to the lineup.

–That said, they had just six hits. The Mariners are going to have to win a lot of games like they did this one — forcing the action, solid defense and good pitching.

–Speaking of the pitching, Felix was dominant for five innings. I thought he had no-hit stuff, and indeed the only hit was a high chopper to start the game by Rajai Davis. In fact, no one had hit the ball of the infield at that point. Hernandez faltered with his control after that (and had a tight strike zone from the umpire) and maybe tired a bit, but I didn’t see anything to lead me to think he’s not going to be as dominant as ever this season.

Still, this was a “W” he could have had. I know wins are an overrated stat, and that Cy Young voters showed more sophistication last year, but if he wants to win the Cy this year, it would help to rack up victories when he has a chance. With a 3-0 lead after five, this was one that got away.

–Say what you will about Milton Bradley, but he plays hard and really seems to care about winning. He’s an adventure, though. At one point late in the game, he seemed to be distracted by something that was being said from the stands, glaring over after a catch, and then there was the broken bat after a strikeout in the ninth (That’s not his first broken bat after a strikeout, apparently). The key, of course, is channeling all that fire in a positive direction.

–I’ve long been an advocate of instant replay. The non-catch in center field by Rajai Davis on Kotchman’s liner, yet ruled an out, right before Griffey’s double, is an example of why it’s needed. That mistaken call could have been corrected in 30 seconds.

–Johnson had a very productive game at the plate — two walks and a homer. It stands to reason that his offense suffered last year from all his ailments, which necessitated two hip injuries, wrist surgery, and laser eye surgery in the offseason. Johnson’s never going to be Johnny Bench, but there’s reason for the M’s to hope that the Johnson-Adam Moore combo gives them more offense from behind the plate than they got last year.

–Could FSN please come back from commercials before a pitch or two has been thrown in the next inning?

(Photo by Getty Images)

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