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May 31, 2007 at 1:55 AM

Swallowing the bitter pill

How tough was that loss last night? Very, just from looking at the standings alone. I’m not going to go into it all again for you. Suffice to say, the Mariners are now 5 1/2 games back and the Angels just survived sending out the worst pitchers in their rotation and took two of three. Their worst pitchers and an injured one, that is. The only pitcher the M’s beat this series.
Never mind that the M’s lost a slugfest to a team not exactly known for its run support.
Tonight’s game was another winnable one and the M’s could not get it done. More to the point, Felix Hernandez could not get it done. Do we blame him? No way. Felix is 21 years old, folks. He might look like a grown man and sports hero but he is a child. I was at his place in Venezuela this winter, where he was living with his parents. He’s a kid. And you cannot make “kids” the ace of your starting rotation and hope to win without several component parts to pick him up. Don’t get me wrong. I liked what I saw from Hernandez tonight on a long-term scale. On the short term, he left too many pitches up and got rocked for three home runs. But in the long term, developmentally-wise, he made it through six innings.
“Usually, when you give up four runs in the first inning, you’ve got 95 pitches after four innings,” manager Mike Hargrove said. “He had 95 pitches after six innings.”
No, Felix Hernandez is not yet an “ace” despite what you may read in some newspaper accounts — including one under my name this morning with the word edited into the copy. We in the biz use the word “ace” to save space at times. But Hernandez is no ace. He’s a 21-year-old who won 12 games last season. He’s a No. 1 starter for the M’s this year. An “ace” does not allow three home runs and seven runs against in the biggest outing of the season for his team. Johan Santana doesn’t do it. Roy Halladay doesn’t do it. Roger Clemens doesn’t do it. This isn’t a dig at Hernandez. He’s 21. I can barely remember what I was doing at age 21. Trying to put this team on his shoulders is wrong. He’s probably going to be an ace someday. Just not right now. An “ace” proves himself over several years, as Josh Beckett is trying to do for the Boston Red Sox. Several people will call him an ace, but he is not. And he single-handedly won a World Series for the Florida Marlins in 2003. A true “ace” in my book, wins at least 15 games over several years and keeps an ERA in the low 3.00s. And wins the big games. And offers consistency, where if he loses, it’s a huge shock. It’s still not a shock when Hernandez loses. But that’s OK. He’s 21. The Mariners had to go out and get him a supporting cast this past winter. While Jarrod Washburn has stepped up his game big-time, that cast is still lacking. This team is still relying too heavily on Hernandez. Maybe he’ll deliver that “ace” quality in another year, or two, or three. But he isn’t doing it now, despite how good he looked the first two games of the season. Five or six innings a night is not what “aces” offer.
That said, I was impressed by the M’s last night. They battled the Angels all game long. This truly was a showdown of the division’s top two teams and the Mariners did not disappoint. I am now convinced that the Mariners are a legitimate .500 team. They are better than the team that bluffed its way to 78 wins last season with a strong finish when it didn’t matter. This team is capable of playing .500 ball all year long. Imagine how it could do had the starting rotation actually been improved? But it isn’t. At best, it’s a saw-off with last year. The difference is in the offense, which is much more steady 1-through-9. Jose Guillen was a fabulous pick-up for a low cost. Unfortunately, offense does not win division titles.
These Mariners have the foundation of a very good team. They are solid up-the-middle, Yuniesky Betancourt’s recent follies aside, and they have the makings of a good bullpen if a reliable set-up man is found once Brandon Morrow goes back to being a starter. But they need someone who can take them to the next level. They need to add another starter who can take the heat off Hernandez. Washburn alone isn’t going to do it. If the Mariners want to contend in the AL West arms race, they will have to bring in a pitcher of a higher quality than what they have the past couple of off-seasons. Daisuke Matsuzaka was that type of pitcher. He’s in Boston now. I don’t know what pitching is going to be out there next winter — to answer a question that’s really getting irritating in the comments thread– but the Mariners will have to jump on what they can. If they don’t, they risk being outmanned again by the Angels and A’s.
In other words, if there’s a Matsuzaka out there this year, you bid on him.
And that’s it. Hargrove is right when he says this was a good road trip. Any time a team plays above .500 on the road, it’s a good sign. Trouble is, the M’s lost ground to the Angels. So, while it may have been good, it didn’t matter much as far as this season is concerned.
Hey, the season is not over yet. The M’s showed the Angels here that they are a force that may have to be reckoned with both this and next year. I just don’t think the M’s have the arms to compete for the playoffs beyond June or July of this season. They sent their best to the hill last night and he gave up three homers and seven runs. And the Angels won this series without having to use their two best starters.
The good news? Yes, there is some. These Mariners are a good team. If Vladimir Guerrero gets hurt, perhaps colliding with John Lackey doing wind sprints, the M’s could make things very interesting in the division. But what I saw last night is a team that, while no longer a last-place doormat, is still some shrewd moves away from playing into October.



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