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

August 28, 2007 at 9:37 AM

Time to show up

I’m not sure what it is about the Mariners that makes them go “plop!” when the Los Angeles Angels play them. No, they sure didn’t impress the LA Times and Bill Plaschke, as you can read above. Part of it, I’m sure, has been John Lackey. Good pitching has a way of making good teams look bad. And when you don’t score a run on somebody all year, that means he’s pitching you pretty darned good. Is it time to panic? Not yet. But so far, the Angels, as this Orange County register columnist points out, have won most of the bigger games between these teams this year. From an AL West perspective, you all have my permission to panic should Ervin (Road Kill) Santana manage to topple Seattle “ace” Jeff Weaver tonight.
Getting swept here would leave the M’s five games behind heading off on what Jose Guillen calls a “do or die” road trip to Cleveland, Toronto, New York and Detroit. Well, I’ll give him that it would be do-or-die from a wild-card perspective, but the division will be all-but-sewn up if the M’s don’t take one of the next two. I don’t really like these night-game, day-game deals for struggling teams. They have a way of quickly amplifying short-term struggles into long-term ones.
For instance, if the M’s play like they did last night, they could be riding a five-game losing streak roughly 30 hours from now. They could be reeling before totally figuring out what hit them. For me, tonight’s game is the biggest of the series. The pitching matchup favors Seattle and the Mariners need to end this mini losing streak before it becomes something serious.
They need a strong outing from Weaver. In Miguel Batista’s last two starts, the team has been knocked off-balance early by a pitcher struggling to keep his team in the game. Since June 14 in Chicago, Weaver has thrown three complete games and two shutouts. He’s allowed three runs or less in 10 of 13 starts and gone seven or more innings in six of those outings. That’s approaching what a team needs from a top-flight starter.
Weaver is the only M’s starter showing himself capable of going seven or more innings in his “quality starts” on a consistent basis. He is the “ace” (note the quotation marks, please) at this point. Yes, tonight’s game will be huge. This is not a night the M’s can afford to toss away or shrug off.
Santana, by the way, is 1-9 with an 8.06 ERA on the road. He at one point was singlehandedly keeping the M’s in the division race by losing games just when it seemed the Angels were about to run away and hide. Yes, the Mariners might not be feeling any pressure. I guess that’s a good thing. But lose this game and they probably ought to ratchet the pressure meter up a little.
Jose Lopez should be feeling the pressure right now. I have a soft spot for Lopez because of what happened to his brother and that isn’t going to change. I have a ton of respect for what he is doing and the conditions he is playing under. But he has committed too many mental blunders of late and they will hurt any team trying to contend. No one is running him out of town. I agree with the reader who said that Lopez plays stellar defense. He does. Which is why it’s all the more shocking to see him mentally mess up as he did on that tag play.
Richie Sexson said a few weeks ago that this team makes physical mistakes, as does any other, but that the mental ones won’t happen often. With Lopez, they seem to be happening often, so that’s why he’s getting criticized. Every week, a new issue keeps cropping up. That can’t happen. Last night, his non-out on a routine tag play cost Seattle a big run that turned a 3-0 game into a 4-0 affair. You could hear the vault door being slammed shut on the M’s after that run crossed the plate. Can’t happen.
Do you bench Lopez? I don’t think so, though maybe you do play Willie Bloomquist a little more at second to send a message. Lopez’s bat isn’t exactly lighting up the scoreboard, though I don’t think he’s dragging the team down with it. He’s slumping, but when he hits, he’s a true asset at the bottom of the order. It’s the old question of whether you let him play through it or not. At this point, I wouldn’t be shocked if he was replaced tonight. But I also wouldn’t be shocked if he played. Who better to try to bust a slump against than Santana pitching on the road?
This is almost September baseball now. The time to send messages and build for the future is getting to be done. It’s going to be an all-out sprint to the finish and to start changing things up now risks hurting the team over the next five weeks more than it might help it.
The M’s team I saw up until Saturday looked poised to take the Angels apart this week. I really wanted to see the outcome of this series because I truly believed in Minnesota that the M’s were about to storm into first place. And then, the bats went into one of their usual streaky slumps and the pitching wasn’t quite good enough to overcome it. But it was more than that. The team, as a whole, looked flat the final two games in Texas and again last night. Too many people who follow the club have mave the same observations to me since last night.
So, no, I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest there was some type of letdown between Saturday and now. The players hate it when you suggest that, because they pride themselves on being ready for every game. And sometimes, you are ready to play and a poor start by a pitcher takes you out of it early.
But while the players can perhaps argue the merits of their readiness last night, it gets tougher to do it over a stretch covering the last three days. Ready or not, the M’s have not looked like the same team. I don’t think it’s productive to belabor that point unless seeking to make a constructive observation which I now will. I touched on this yesterday, but I think it’s time for John McLaren or somebody on the coaching staff, if they haven’t already, to drive home the point of the M’s needing to finish road trips off the way they begin them. Not simply mention it in passing. But seriously drive the point home.
Because physical exhaustion or not, the M’s have hurt themselves all year by finishing trips off poorly. Let’s look at the numbers:
The M’s are generally considered to have started winning consistently since a late-May road trip to Tampa Bay and Kansas City that saw the team capture five or six in those cities and sweep their first three-game series of the year against the Royals. But the Mariners also finished off that trip by dropping two of three to the Angels, getting beat the final two nights. Starting with that trip and up to the most recent one ending in Texas, the M’s are 4-8 over the final two games of road trips. Even more troubling is that the Mariners were 22-14 in all of their other road games prior to those final two on each trip. That’s a big swing, from .611 baseball to .333 baseball.
Is it a crisis point? Not yet. It’s a relatively small sample size, but since it does cover most of the season, it won’t get much bigger. And it could be the most telling statistic for this team if it misses the playoffs by a game or two. Imagine where these M’s would be without those two six-game losing streaks and the one seven-gamer?
Is it strange to be bringing this up now, with the team playing at home? No. Because the Mariners will be on the road within 48 hours. It will be their biggest trip of the year and a test of both physical and mental endurance. And the team will very likely not be in a position to let down towards the end and give back games to “settle” for a .500 mark if it starts off strongly. It will have to play solid baseball all the way through. That didn’t happen in Texas on the last stop and the results are now there to see.
First thinngs first. The Mariners will have to win tonight and keep this three-game streak from becoming four. After that, it will be time to focus on preventing more such streaks from happening. Face it, Seattle is going to lose a bunch of games before the season ends. But it will help itself tremendously by winning the contests that are there to be taken. If not, the M’s could come up short when all of the wins by contenders are tallied up.



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