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

May 16, 2008 at 9:17 AM

Playing together

What a terrible past week for the Mariners, huh? I mean, heck, it’s already May 16. If you look back at the standings from a week ago, you’ll see that those freefalling Mariners managed to blunder their way into…gaining a half-game on the division leaders.
What was that, you say?
You betcha. The M’s were eight games out a week ago. This morning, they are 7 1/2 back, despite how poorly they’ve played. It was about a week ago that I told some of you to go perch yourselves on the cliff, but have yet to give the order to jump. I did write that if the M’s were going to lose to the White Sox and Rangers, which they clearly did, then you’re all on your own and could make a choice to bail. I’m sure there was some spalshing this past week. But for those of you still atop the cliff, weird as this game can be, the M’s are actually better off today than they were a week ago.
For that, you can thank the Los Angeles Angels and Oakland A’s. The Angels went 2-5 during that stretch while the A’s were 1-5. Seattle went 2-4, so there you have it. Picked up a game on second-place Oakland and a half-game on the Angels. What does it all mean? Nothing for the M’s if they can’t get their act together. That it took them depleting their entire bench and bullpen just to score four runs and finally win a game in Texas isn’t inspring much confidence on this end. But let’s face it. If the M’s get it together and do what they should do to the San Diego Padres, all of a sudden, the gap closes to possibly a half-dozen games. From there, they hit the road to Detroit and New York, not a pushover trip, but the fact is both teams are last in their respective divisions. Might as well catch them now. In other words, this M’s team has been granted a stay of execution. Either that, or it has more lives than Morris the Cat driving backwards on the freeway at 100 mph.
This team should be about a dozen or more games behind. It isn’t yet. The rest is up to the Mariners. I wrote a story yesterday about whether the team has a problem with clubhouse leadership and chemistry, based on there being so many different personalities from all corners of the world, speaking different native languages. The players and GM Bill Bavasi don’t think it’s an issue. They say the clubhouse is together and that this is a team that sticks by one another. Well, it’s time to prove it. Frankly, they may be right, but I hadn’t really seen this group play like a team until that final game in Texas.

In that game, you had everybody doing a little of something to squeeze out one more run that the opponent did. Whether it was that catch by Wladimir Balentien, the two extra-base hits by Jeff Clement, the double-play turned by Miguel Cairo, the hustle up the line by Jose Lopez in the seventh, the two innings turned in during a non-save opportunity by J.J. Putz, the solid start by Carlos Silva, or the unusual finish by Jarrod Washburn, this was a rare game where everybody on the team was picking each other up.
That usually doesn’t happen with this group. Not all at the same time. Usually, it’s the offense hanging the pitchers out to dry, or the pitchers digging such an early hole that even the 1927 Yankees couldn’t climb out of. Not this time. This time, with a sweep looming, the Mariners finally played like a team.
It’s about time. But was it a one-time deal?
The truth is, as I wrote yesterday, if these guys really have been playing together, like a team, then the Mariners are in serious trouble. Because that “team” or “group” or whatever hasn’t put up much on the scoreboard to justify keeping it around. If a 16-26 record is the best this team, with a stacked rotation, pretty good bullpen and average — definitely not spectacular — hitters can do, then they might as well blow the whole thing up this minute. And please, if the team insists on saying that this defense is above average and one of the top-three in the league, somebody prove it. The statistics other than the outdated concept of fielding percentage and errors — things like zone rating — tell us the Mariners are a bad defensive club. If they really are a good defensive club, they should start playing like one.
I suspect that the truth is, this is a slightly below average defensive team that can mitigate damage by excelling in other areas and staying focused on the game. And by playing together, where everybody picks up mistakes made by teammates. Too often, I’ve seen this team make an error and then the pitcher go out and yield a bunch of hits that hurt the team, if not the earned run average. To be honest, no one pitcher has been immune from this syndrome. It’s time for this team to get it together.
It’s time for Felix Hernandez and Erik Bedard to get it together this weekend. Both have near identical ERA+ totals of 116 and 113 respectively. Bedard’s came down because of one terrible start, his last one, while Hernandez’s has been slipping gradually because of three consecutive shaky outings. Both are still quite respectable. But respectable won’t cut it any more. This team needs wins. Lots of them. Right now. It needs this duo to be dazzling. Forget six-inning “quality starts”. You can get those from pitchers signing one-year deals depending on the quality of the opponent. This M’s team needs eight-inning quality starts. It needs complete games. It needs these two to display some Cy Young Award form. And it needs the team to play like a team behind them.
When I wrote what I did about Hernandez after the brawl and after his stall tactics post-game on Tuesday night, it wasn’t to wage a campaign against him. He is not a bad kid overall. Not a guy who should be flogged in public for weeks on end. And I won’t do that. Not after today. He is not a bad pitcher, as one or two of you suggested. Frankly, he is part of this team’s future. Without him, that future looks bleak.
I just saw some attitude creeping in that had been around since spring training and it bothered me, given how poorly this team has played. I’ve seen guys on other clubs given a severe talking to in the clubhouse, or called out in public by their teammates for similar stuff. My thoughts were, if this team’s youngest member thinks it’s OK to be like this, what does that say about the team as a whole? For me, it says this is a team in trouble. Of course there are guys who deserve to be called out more than Hernandez. Guys who have produced far less. We’ve been doing that roll call on the blog and in the paper all season long. It’s a lot easier for me to do it with those guys and not have to take flak from reactionary folks, too, trust me. I’m not going to repeat the names here for the thousandth time. But to keep arguing that Hernandez is producing more, as some of you have, is missing the broader point. I know what Hernandez has done. I’m out there most nights watching. In the clubhouse most mornings after to take any heat directed my way. I’ve seen what this team is doing both on and off the field. This isn’t about individual performance. This is about acting like and playing like you are part of a team.
Running out there in a brawl and forcing the opposing team’s reliever to hold you back so you don’t get hurt is not sticking up for your team. Richie Sexson already stuck up for his team — and hitters everywhere — by charging the mound. Hernandez can stand up for his team by shoving the ball down the opposition’s throat. That’s the only standing up his team will ever permit him to do, anyway. So, why pretend you’re going to go another route?
Anyhow, enough. I’ve said what I’ve said, countless times to reinforce a point. And that’s the last time. Clean slate from here, which is, I suspect, the route this team wants to go. Hernandez is not a bad guy. This team needs him to be Felix Hernandez — the dream, the concept, whatever — right this minute. This team was built on pitching and that pitching — all five guys in the rotation — has not done enough the last two weeks during this freefall. That pitching is the only way this team can win the way it’s been built.
I’d like to think that the story I wrote yesterday was a good read, but ultimately untrue in theory. I’d like to believe these Mariners truly are a team that can play together regardless of their linguistic and cultural differences. This game is a global one and the M’s are taking advantage of international scouting more than just about any other club. I believe the best teams are the ones that stock themselves with the best players from all over the world.
So, it’s time for the Mariners to play like a team. Like the team we saw on Wednesday in Texas. As Washburn said after notching his save, the only thing that matters is that the team got a win. That’s the attitude that everyone in that clubhouse has to have going forward. And it has to be genuine. Because the Angels and A’s won’t keep helping these guys down off the gallows very much longer.



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