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August 7, 2008 at 10:46 PM

Ibanez HR wins it

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Raul Ibanez rounds third and heads for home after a walkoff solo homer to lead off the ninth against Rays reliever Dan Wheeler. J.J. Putz gets the 2-1 win after pitching out of a jam in the top of the inning with runners at the corners and only one out.
Seattle tied the game in the bottom of the eighth on a Yuniesky Betancourt sacrifice fly that scored Wladimir Balentien and ended Andy Sonnanstine’s night.
Eight brilliant innings from Felix Hernandez, who gets a no-decision. When I say brilliant, it’s not because he had his best stuff. He clearly didn’t. But he was smart enough to figure that out and still try to get by hitters on brains instead of brawn.
The key? A sinker that confounded the Rays time and time again.
“The difference that I see in Felix now is, tonight, he clearly didn’t have his best stuff and he’s still into the eighth inning,” Ibanez said. “He didn’t try to strike everybody out. He was pitching-to-contact, for sure.
“So, a legitimate ace.”
Ibanez threw that last line in there. So, I went back and asked him what he considers an ace to be. Remember, this is one of the most overused terms in the baseball lexicon. Every pitcher with an ERA in the low 3.00’s who can throw a complete game here and there is dubbed an “ace” at one time or another.
But there’s a difference between a guy who can be counted on to throw eight innings of one-run ball and a No. 1 starter who might do it once in a while. Remember, it’s been nearly seven weeks since Hernandez went more than six innings. But Ibanez explained that he feels an ace is “a guy that your team and the other team knows that they really have their work cut out for them that day.
“And as an opposing club, you come in and know you may have to alter your game plan in a big way.”
Putz said this of Hernandez: “Felix didn’t have his best stuff by any means. That shows you what kind of pitcher he is. To be able to go out there without having his best stuff and dominate for eight innings…I think it shows you his maturity. That he’s growing as a pitcher.”
Putz is growing, too. At least, growing back to where he was before all of his injuries this season. He gassed up the fastball when he had to tonight. And his splitter dropped out on Dioner Navarro when it had to in that ninth inning.
“The big thing is getting your arm strength back,” he told me. “The secondary pitches are the ones that suffer when you don’t have your arm strength back. When you have that arm strength, you have that confidence in your secondary pitches.”
A big hit tonight by Balentien. Another by Bryan LaHair that moved Balentien into position to score the tying run on that Betancourt sacrifice fly. The Mariners had failed in two prior attempts to score off Andy Sonnanstine with a runner on second and none out, so obviously, all three players figured big in that tying rally.
Amd Ibanez? What more can you say? He’s the Player of the Week. And it’s only Thursday.

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