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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

May 16, 2007 at 8:48 AM

First place in sight

Always fun to begin the day waking up at 8 a.m. after a night game so you can spend 60 seconds filling in some excess air time on First Take (what they now call ESPN’s Cold Pizza). But their producers can be real pushy and someone needs to do it, so there you go. The final question studio host Dana Jacobson asked me this morning was whether the return of Felix Hernandez would help carry the Mariners to a division title. Let me tell you, the question didn’t seem as ridiculous as it would have a few weeks ago.
I can now say, with complete confidence, that the Mariners do have the best offense in the AL West. Yes, they still hack away at pitches, though there have been signs of a better approach. They are never going to “Moneyball” their way to a bunch of walks each game. But the one thing they can do, when a pitcher is less-than-stellar and an opponent disinterested, is hit. They did it last night to Kelvim Escobar of the Angels, who, yes, to answer a question — more a taunt — from the comments thread, still is one of the AL’s top pitchers. Heading into this game, Escobar had allowed just three earned runs his last three combined outings, going 7, 7 2/3 and 9 complete innings respectively. So, yes, he is very good, as was a 2.21 ERA that was fourth best in the entire league.
And the Mariners took him apart. So, yes, the Mariners can be very good at the plate when a pitcher is off. In this case, Escobar never appeared to recover from that three-run first inning in which none of the runs should have scored. If first baseman Casey Kotchman doesn’t try to outrun Ichiro to the bag, Escobar could very well escape the inning unscathed. He almost did in any case until the biggest hit of the night, a Jose Guillen single with two out that opened the scoring and set the stage for two more runs. Guillen is now 6-for-16 (.375) with two doubles, three RBI and a .500 slugging percentage against his former team this season.
So, it appears that, once again, pitching will decide a division where the hitting is as bad as it is in the NL. Anyone not think Vlad Guerrero will be back in the Angels lineup tonight? You’d better believe he will be. And if I was Los Angeles manager Mike Scioscia, the door to the visitors clubhouse would be sealed shut and the riot act quickly unrolled for some loud reading after the mail-it-in performance offered in the opener. That Angels squad did not look like a first-place team. It had better wake up soon or it will be a third-place squad 48 hours from now. The Mariners have an offense that can make up for some of the mound disparity between them and the Angels and A’s. Forget the Rangers, a walking disaster about to implode. This is now a three-team division. How long the Mariners stay up near the top will depend on the mound improvements they show in coming months.
To answer Jacobson’s question, the addition of Hernandez should help greatly as long as Jarrod Washburn continues to be the 2007 new-and-improved model. If Cha Seung Baek provides moderate improvement over what Jeff Weaver showed and Horacio Ramirez can at least pitch competitively, the Mariners could hang around this thing all year. Let’s face it, the Angels and A’s, as good as their pitching is, don’t have the offense to win on nights when they allow four runs or more. That’s a problem. Unless the Angels trade for an impact bat, they are going to have trouble running away with this thing as any team with arguably the best starting rotation and bullpen in the league should be able to do in a no-hit division.
But, as they say, this is why they play the games. With John Lackey and Bartolo Colon still taking the mound for Los Angeles, the Angels can very well win this series. But that’s why this is fun. Let’s see how Seattle measures up now that the Angels have been given every reason not to take them lightly.
Don’t know whether any of you saw this morning’s USA Today story on Ichiro. My favorite part was where he goes: “Once I turn 40, I can become a pitcher. I’m kind of serious about it. But I’ll have to learn to throw a knuckleball. Right now, I could be a ‘normal’ pitcher,” who can top out at 95 mph with a fastball.
The story rehashes a lot of what we already know, that Ichiro wants to see the M’s start winning before he commits to anything. After last night’s game, I asked him whether he thought the team was forced to learn how to win once Felix Hernandez went down. His answer?
“You think, based on you comment, that we have been winning since Felix left,” he told me. “But in my evaluation, we have not been.”
For the record, the Mariners were a .500 team after losing to the Twins the night Hernandez went down. Since then, they had gone a game over .500 before Hernandez made his return last night.
Got a phone call this morning from an avid fan who also happens to be the father of Mariners pitcher Sean White. He wanted to remind me that while White was born in Pullman, he never actually lived there and is — and will always be — a native of Mercer Island. The way White pitched last night, tossing 4 1/3 hitless innings for his first career win, I can well understand why all Mercer Island residents would want to claim bragging rights this morning. My apologies to them and congratulations to Sean, once again.



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