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

May 13, 2008 at 9:59 AM

Coming undone

For those of you who missed it last night, here’s our latest Mariners road trip video, chronicling the journey from Seattle to Arlington, Texas:

On to some thoughts about the baseball team…
Forget about catching the Angels, who came back to win last night and snap a four-game losing streak. Don’t worry too much about the Oakland A’s, now 8 1/2 games up on Seattle after this latest Mariners loss, a 13-12 stinker to the Texas Rangers last night. Yeah, it would have been a feel-good win had Brandon Morrow managed to keep striking out everybody in sight. But the reality is, the M’s were outscored 12-3 between the bottom of the first until the top of the ninth. A win in this game would have been a gift from the Baseball Gods.
But forget the Rangers, A’s and Angels. The biggest foe this Mariners team is fighting right now comes from within its own clubhouse. And for all the calls I’ve seen for the ouster of manager John McLaren in recent weeks, some well-reasoned, others bordering on the ridiculous, these coming days will be a true test of his leadership abilities. McLaren alluded to it slightly in yesterday’s pre-game session with reporters, about how “little things” in the clubhouse had to be dealt with before becoming bigger. The manager suggested at the time that his staff had moved to quell any small brush fires and that the team was more together now. I’m not so sure that’s the case.
Yes, there have been some team meetings. This team, if nothing else, is excellent at holding meetings. But that alone won’t do it. You get the sense walking through that clubhouse that it is more of a collection of individual groups than one team streaking towards a common goal. Every clubhouse has its cliques, but for the M’s, this is always going to be a particular challenge strictly because of the natural language barriers that exist. You glance around the clubhouse on any given day, you’ll see the young relief pitchers off in one corner, the two middle infielders in another, sometimes holding court with Carlos Silva and Felix Hernandez, other times with Miguel Cairo. Miguel Batista will be off by himself. Jarrod Washburn and Erik Bedard, sometimes, in another corner. Ichiro off doing his own thing, which will usually involve intense pre-game stretching. Kenji Johjima off by himself. Cha Seung Baek off by himself. Adrian Beltre doing his own thing, though he’ll also socialize with the middle infielders. Richie Sexson holding court with Willie Bloomquist and sometimes Jamie Burke.
There will be interminglers between the groups. J.J. Putz spends plenty of time with the young relievers, trying to help them feel as comfortable as he can. Putz is one guy who can roam freely around the clubhouse interacting with all the groups I just mentioned. Silva is another, who, despite Spanish being his first language, seems comfortable interracting with everyone. Raul Ibanez can do it as well. But this clubhouse will always have its challenges. And now, with 12 losses in the last 15 games, those challenges look more serious than ever.

It’s not about everybody getting together and baking cookies on Sunday. All teams have their internal divisions. But the Mariners, as uniquely as they’ve been constructed, with more interpreters hanging around the clubhouse than players immediately after some losses, have some natural divisions already built-in. The addition of others during the course of a season can therefore become more problematic than usual.
This whole thing brewing with catcher Johjima is just the latest test. The Mariners are moving quickly to downplay any suggestions of a rift between the catcher and the starting staff. Jarrod Washburn said last night that he’s had trouble getting on the same page with catchers before — Bengie Molina in Anaheim being one — that it’s nothing new and that adjustments constantly have to be made.
That may be so in his particular case. If it’s only a matter of week-to-week adjustments between Johjima and Washburn, then it can be remedied and is not that big a deal. But then the Mariners have to move swiftly to address the situation and get everyone on the same page before a deeper rift forms. Erik Bedard and Johjima looked hopelessly out of sync last night. It was the first time the pair had teamed up in a while after three successive outings with a Bedard-Burke battery.
McLaren said yesterday that the decision to bring in catching coordinator Roger Hansen, starting today, to get his pitchers and catchers in sync, was made before anyone even asked Washburn about his relations with the catcher.
Johjima can’t school Bedard on how to hold a 5-0 lead. He can’t stand on the mound for six or seven innings in Washburn’s place. Or fill in on nights when good Felix Hernandez becomes bad Felix Hernandez. But there have been numerous critiques about Johjima’s catching style since he arrived here. The Mariners have worked extensively with him to alter that style. His ability to throw runners out improved last year, with some help from pitchers who began slide stepping more and getting him the ball quicker.
Johjima’s framing of pitches has also been an issue on a team where walks have been dispensed like candy the past few years. The M’s walked 13 batters last night to only one for the Rangers. While the wind did indeed wreak havoc with some pitches, it works the same way — as some of you mentioned — for both teams.
There have been murmurs of discontent in the clubhouse, since I arrived here in Sept. 2006 anyway, about how Johjima sets up behind the plate and the target he offers pitchers. The M’s have taken steps to correct that issue as well.
How much should this impact pitchers on the mound? It will, to a degree. Not to the point where they should be blowing 5-0 leads like vintage Horacio Ramirez. But it obviously will have some type of impact if pitchers are less than comfortable with the guy they are throwing to.
How serious an issue is this? I think very. The way this clubhouse is structured, with several guys more or less an island unto themselves, the possibility of brush fires erupting into a full-out chemical blaze is omnipresent. Johjima isn’t surrounded by a half-dozen pals at the card table in the pre-game hours. He and Ichiro don’t even intermingle all that much.
He is an easy target for discontent. An easy scapegoat for a season heading down the tubes. And while a lot of the disenchantment towards his catching style may be valid, it’s not even the truth of it that matters. It’s the perception. The image created going forward. His ability to instill confidence in the pitchers he catches. According to the M’s, he’s going to be here a long time. Seattle just signed a three-year, $24 million contract extension with a catcher in his early 30s who owns an on-base-plus slugging percentage of .562. There continue to be whispers in the organization that the extension decision was made by the Japanese ownsership and was not the idea of a front office that had used a No. 1 draft pick on catcher Jeff Clement a few years ago. The M’s, as always, don’t like to talk much in public about the reasoning behind such personnel decisions. They keep their explanations at surface level in press conferences and hope everyone moves along. Whatever. Again, it won’t be the truth of it that matters in the clubhouse. It’s the perception.
When Johjima was hitting in 2006 and 2007 — like he did with last night’s game-tying bomb in the ninth — a lot of his defensive style could be grudgingly overlooked by a team winning more and more games. But with his offensive numbers now among the worst in the major leagues, on a team headed nowhere fast, eveything else he does behind the plate will fall under intense scrutiny. That’s human nature. Frankly, at his age and with the money he just received, he should expect nothing less.
But McLaren and his staff have their work cut out for them with this and other situations. This clubhouse, already not among the most together in the majors, is primed and ready for one of these brush fires to blow up into something huge. At this stage, the firehoses should be pointed in Johjima’s direction. Next week, it could be something new.
Winning cures a lot of these problems. But the Mariners aren’t winning. And if McLaren wants to continue having a shot at winning with these players down the road, he’d better make sure the flames of the Johjima situation don’t start licking their way towards him.



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