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April 27, 2007 at 9:26 AM

Thoughts on the mound

This is the type of weekend the Mariners once again have to jump all over to buy themselves more time to right their ship. The Kansas City Royals are in town and I don’t have to tell anyone what that means. No, they won’t mail three victories in to the Mariners, but, well, let’s be honest. The Royals don’t win too many games on their own. That is, barring a standout pitching performance, the other team usually has to mess up big. A six-game winning streak, right after a six-game losing streak, would go a long way towards convincing folks the Mariners really can contend for more than a .500 record.
Yeah, it’s early, but the trip next week, to Boston, New York and Detroit, will be a take-no-prisoners kind of event. It could get ugly fast. Better to pad the record now, while the Mariners have the chance.
For that to happen, the guys on the mound will have to keep producing, because this offense sure isn’t.
I saw some interesting things on this road trip where the starters are concerned: especially starters Jeff Weaver and Miguel Batista. Now, plenty are willing to write those two off as lost causes, but they both showed signs of being on to something in their recent outings.
First, let’s look at Weaver.
He lost again against the Angels last Sunday, but did jump ahead 0-2 in the count on the majority of hitters he faced. So, what’s the difference between Weaver losing that game to an Angels squad that has trouble hitting and Jarrod Washburn pitching a three-hit shutout against an Oakland A’s squad that has trouble hitting?
We’ve mentioned before that Washburn did a better job of moving his pitches around. Some were high and on the outside corner. Others were low and on the inside corner. That keeps hitters off-balance. It limits their ability to set up. Prevented them from fouling off three or four pitches in a row. It isn’t necessarily the hits a pitcher gives up that gets him in trouble. When a pitcher fails to get “quick resolution” outs, it drives up his pitch count. So, while Weaver may have won some battles against the Angels early, he was going to lose the war, with a pitch count at 68 after only three innings. He would have had trouble going the minimum five to qualify for a victory (not that he was winning) and he clearly doesn’t want that. The Mariners talked of making adjustments to what he was doing. From what I saw, he had no real adjustments to make in getting the first two strikes. It’s finding that all-important third strike. Putting hitters away or getting them to “mis-hit” the ball. That means keeping them off balance.
I wonder if all that trouble he had early in spring training has conditioned him not to throw any pitches up high. Yes, when you make a habit of it, it can lead to walks. Or home runs. But you can’t throw every single pitch down low either. Especially when they aren’t breaking 90 mph. Any hitter at this level is looking for patterns like that.
Then, there’s Batista, who I have seen dominate hitters before. Three years ago, when he last started in the AL, I watched him throw a complete-game victory. No joke, he did it. A guy whose pitch count often tops 70 by the fourth inning went the full nine. How did he do it? Check out that 94 mph fastball he was throwing yesterday. Batista used to get that up to 96 mph. Not that 94 stinks or anything. He used it to retire nine in a row at one point. Will he get nine Yankees or Red Sox hitters in a row out? Probably not. But the point is, it’s a good weapon in Batista’s arsenal. Trouble is, he didn’t use it as often the first three innings against the A’s. He was instead relying more on his cutter.
Why is that? Well, just like the case with Weaver, who I suspect was influenced by past negative experiences in keeping all of his pitches down low, I think Batista may be relying on recent positive memories in going with a cutter-heavy approach. It was only last season with the Arizona Diamondbacks, that Batista first began employing the cutter to the extent he now uses it. That Arizona experience saved Batista’s career. He went from being an unwanted AL starter and closer to being a much-appreciated starter with the D-Backs. The credit? His cutter got all of it.
But is this now a case where Batista is going cutter-crazy? Forgetting about a serious weapon in his arsenal — perhaps because of negative memories from a time when he relied on that four-seam pitch too much? Who knows? All I know is, the Mariners want to see more of the Batista they got in the latter part of yesterday’s game than the former.
If Weaver and Batista can both figure out the present, instead of allowing memories of the past to overly influence what they do right now, things could get very interesting for this rotation. If they both try to change and it still doesn’t work, the team will be no worse off than it is right now. But the season isn’t over. Not just yet. Only one more week until Felix Hernandez returns. The goal until then? Tread some water, baby. A 3-3 road trip is the place to start.

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