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April 11, 2009 at 6:23 PM

Enjoy the ride

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Just got up from the clubhouse, where a whole lot of folks were breathing easier after that stirring comeback and 8-5 victory by the Mariners today.
Kenji Johjima, seen in the photo above after his big hit, obviously knows he messed up on that pop-fly in foul territory that he dropped in the fifth inning. It enabled Jason Giambi to notch an infield hit and prolonged the inning enough for Jack Cust to step up and hit a two-run homer. Don Wakamatsu admitted afterwards that the blast caused his team to sag just a bit.
And why not? That kind of setback sent this team spinning into oblivion too many times last year. When the M’s would make a single mistake and it would cost them on the scoreboard and in the loss column. Not this time. The Mariners regained their composure, worked some pitch counts and loaded the bases with none out in the eighth. Jose Lopez tied the game with a double off side-arming closer Brad Ziegler and Johjima then delivered a go-ahead two-run single to take himself off the earlier hook.
“I wanted to get the team back into the game because, by dropping that ball, we gave up a two-run bomb that was costing our team the game at the moment,” Johjima told me, through an interpreter. “So, I wanted to do my best to help the team in that at-bat.”
And that he did. He admitted afterwards that the wind and sun had little to do with his dropping that foul pop-up. After all, the ball did hit his mitt.
“There was no excuse,” Johjima said. “I didn’t work on the pop-ups during spring training. I worked on a lot of balls in the dirt. But I’m going to have to work on that. And I’ve talked with the skipper about that as well.”
Wakamatsu was pleased that Johjima was able to erase his mistake.
“The wind can be awfully turbulent,” he said of the difficulties catching the pop-up. “I think, every little thing where you can help the club, I think when he came up and got that big knock it made him feel pretty special.”
As for the team: “It’s one of those games where you’re proud of these guys because they don’t give up. Especially when a guy like Felix gave up that two-run home run to Jack (Cust). I think it let a little air out of the dugout. They kind of got down for a second and then they came right back.”
That ninth inning add-on run was a perfect example of the little things this team has done well in compiling a 4-2 record to-date. Endy Chavez led off with a single, advanced to second on a bunt by Franklin Gutierrez, then scored when Mike Sweeney ripped a pitch from righthander Sean Gallagher into center field. Wakamatsu had debated pinch-hitting for Sweeney with a righty on the mound, but opted to let him hit.
“Letting Mike face a righty, those are things we’ve talked about,” he said. “Letting the team play early and getting everybody an opportunity. And that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Mark Lowe made folks nervous when he yielded a leadoff single in the eighth and then a walk to Travis Buck that put two on, with nobody out in a 7-5 game. But Lowe got the grounder he needed after that from Mark Ellis and watched the Jose Lopez-Yuniesky Betancourt double-play combo turn a 4-6-3 twin-killing.
Lopez had spoken on Friday about the improved feel he and Betancourt have for one another when turning double-plays, something they work on 10 to 15 times daily on each of the 4-6-3 and 6-4-3 combinations. Lowe appreciated it.
“Then, you’ve just got a guy on third and you’re just focused on one more guy and you can get out of it,” said Lowe, who did just that. “It’s nice walking off the field knowing you did it.”
Lowe said the team’s improved defense has been a confidence-booster for pitchers.
“All over the field,” he said. “That’s why walks are so hard to deal with. Because you look around and you go ‘I can’t believe I just walked a guy. Look at the defense I have.’
“But they’re going to happen. That’s all part of it. And those guys are going to make plays. They’re going to make errors every now and then, but nine times out of 10, even more than that, they’re going to get the job done.”
Unlike last season, Lowe says his fellow pitchers also believe they can give up some runs without it resulting in an automatic loss.
“They don’t stop,” he said of the hitters. “We got that feeling down there (in the bullpen) just watching it. We were down two in the eighth and we had confidence they were going to come around. I mean, they were hitting balls hard all day. Right at guys. We were saying ‘This is unbelievable’. But eventually, they’re going to start falling in and they did.”
Wladimir Balentien told me his wrist didn’t hurt as bad as it looked the first time he snapped it back in that first inning. It was only later, when he tried to hit, that he couldn’t swing without pain. The sprain is said to be mild and he’ll be re-evaluated in the morning.
His injury meant Lopez, who wasn’t even supposed to play, got a chance to hit in that eighth inning after a series of defensive replacements and shifts. Lopez told me the feeling on this team is “beautiful” right now.
“Everybody’s talking about ‘team’ right now,” he said. “We’re running a lot, especially first to third. Moving the runner. We do little things to win the game. Play baseball right. Move the runner, bunting, like today in the ninth inning.
“We’ve got a beautiful group right now. In spring training, everybody was happy, everybody’s together right now. Everybody’s a teammate. We go to the dugout before the game and say ‘Let’s get a win, boys! Let’s get a win! Let’s play hard, let’s play right.’ Even if we get a win or a loss, let’s play the game right.”
I caught up with Ryan Rowland-Smith, who told me his 3 1/3 inning stint on Friday night was mostly because he got impatient and forgot to pace himself after some early setbacks. On that wild throw he made to first base in the first inning, which resulted in an unearned run: “I had way more time than what I thought. I just didn’t set my feet and throw the ball. You work on that all of spring training: set your feet and throw the ball. I just didn’t do it.”
Overall, he felt that: “I just didn’t give myself a chance. When you’re 2-0, 3-0 all the time, you’re not giving yourself a chance. The Oakland A’s didn’t knock me out of the game in the fourth inning, I knocked myself out of the game in the fourth inning.”
But he did take some positives out of the performance. Like the fact that he made some big pitches when he had to in order to prevent a bunch of runs from scoring despite all the baserunners he allowed.
“And also, we won the game in the end,” he said. “That makes it easier.”
I spoke to Felix Hernandez one-on-one afterwards. He told me his ankle was hurting at times, and threw him off early on. On one particular fielding attempt, he had to twist the other way to try to snare a Giambi comebacker and that really hurt.
But Hernandez was impressed with how his team kept coming back. He told me that, after that three-run second inning by Oakland, he focused on keeping the score close because he knew the M’s could catch-up.
“I just tried to keep the team in the game,” said Hernandez, who did manage eight strikeouts. “And we came back and won the game. Now, we’ve got a pretty good team. It’s different, yeah, they’re good, they can hit and we can score some runs.”
The Cust homer, he said, came on a good pitch — a fastball inside, that Cust simply belted.
Even after that, though, he felt his team could come back again. This wasn’t always the case last year, as we’ve mentioned. As I was about to leave, he leaned over and said in a half-whisper, eyes looking around the clubhouse as he spoke:
“I think we’re going to be better this year than everybody thinks.”



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