SEATTLE 57-99 (.365) —
Washington 58-98 (.372) 1.0
The Mariners are taking this one right down to the finish, gaining a half-game on the idle Washington Nationals last night in the race for the No. 1 overall draft pick next June — expected to be San Diego State pitcher Stephen Strasburg. I won’t be at the park the next couple of nights. I am finishing off a five-part series on the state of the Mariners that is set to launch tomorrow morning. Over the past week, there have been many questions asked of me by some of you that I’ve deliberately put off because they’re covered in the series. I hope you enjoy it.
Having watched last night’s game, I have to say that I was pleased by what I saw out of Ryan Rowland-Smith yet again. He cut down on the walks allowed and as a result, was able to go seven quality innings yet again. Not easy for any pitcher to consistently deliver between 6 1/3 and 7 innings of quality. Not five-runs worth of seven innings, but three or fewer. And Rowland-Smith has done that. His biggest obstacle to overcome is a lot like what Brandon Morrow faced on Sunday in Oakland. Morrow would get two outs, then lose concentration and allow his pitch count to be run up.
Rowland-Smith has been plagued by those types of issues since his recall from Class AAA. I talked to him about it over the weekend in Oakland and he told me it’s something he’s really got to be aware of. He walks a few too many hitters out of nowhere and then, all of a sudden, he’s out of the game after six-plus innings instead of seven. Last night, he didn’t do that. Towards the end, especially in the decisive, nine-pitch Reggie Willits at-bat, he couldn’t finish the hitter off. Willits fouled off three two-strike pitches. That’s a little different from losing concentration. Rowland-Smith was making pitches and throwing strikes. And Willits eventually beat him with that single.
But if you’re a pitcher, you have to stick with what works and not give in to the hitter. Even if Willits keeps spoiling pitches, he’s not exactly raking them. Better to keep trying to make him miss than to give him what he’s looking for and watch it get drilled. But Rowland-Smith walking only the one hitter gave him some leeway to endure a nine-pitch at-bat. The run scored on the Raul Ibanez error but Rowland-Smith eventually escaped the inning cleanly.
Rowland-Smith notched a few more strikeouts — six — than he has of late as well. These Angels chase pitches more than any other team and thus are prone to strikeouts. But really, since he began as a starter, his strikeouts-to-walks ratio had been far lower than his usual 2-to-1, so it was nice to see him get some balance back into that and also record plenty of groundouts.
If this is what a more focused Rowland-Smith looks like, the M’s will take it. He’ll never be the prettiest stats guy or dominate teams with his strikeout ability. But the teams he’s faced since August have not all been slouches. Many have put their better lineups out there and he’s shown the ability to endure deep into games without giving up the farm. Much of that is due to mental makeup and the ability to battle out of situations he puts himself into. And he doesn’t allow himself to get rattled when he does give up a lone run — like on last night’s Vlad Guerrero homer. Or an early double or triple that he knows will likely lead to a run. He just focuses on the next hitter and doing what needs to be done. Not on trying to make a perfect pitch. This is the kind of thing you don’t see in stats sheets. The ability to head-off potentially damaging, huge innings by making the right pitches to the right hitters.
Rowland-Smith wasn’t always doing that before heading to Class AAA. But he is now. It’s why he’s limited opponents to two runs or fewer of late, even while scattering a bunch of hits or walking a couple of batters too many. He does make the right pitches at the right time to limit damage. That’s something that can be taught to a degree. But you either have mental toughness as a pitcher or you don’t. You have that makeup, or you’re soft, easily distracted and allow one setback to snowball. And pitchers who don’t have it might get by on sheer talent for a while, but they usually won’t make it in the big leagues. A guy like Rowland-Smith, not exactly Randy Johnson from the left side, can’t rely on ability alone.
The Mariners feel he has that makeup. They are still stunned at how much he’s demonstrated it at this early stage.
And once he tightens up on some of those walks, and puts away hitters a little more quickly later on in games, he should make a very intriguing rotation option for next season.