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

April 17, 2009 at 8:57 AM

Still a great start

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Be sure to tune in to Geoff Baker Live! coming up this morning at 11:30 a.m. We can talk all about this fine start by the Mariners and what they’ll have to do to keep it going.
Not the greatest of mornings here in Seattle and not the best of nights 12 hours ago either. You can read all about it right here in Larry Stone’s game report from last night.
But what did you think? That the M’s were never going to lose another game? Sure, it would have been great to see them sweep both the Angels and Athletics in the first two weeks of the season. But then, we’d all have to worry that the world was coming to an end. So, at least now we can still feel the ground under our feet and know that most of us will be waking up tomorrow.
So, we’ve finally reached that 10-game mark we’ve talked about. I like to measure a season in 10-game increments. There will be roughly 16 of those this season — sort of like games in an NFL team’s calendar. Makes it easier to gauge a team rather than going on a nightly roller-coaster ride. So, the M’s just won their NFL opener. And they just beat, say, the equivalent of the Arizona Cardinals.
In the baseball world, the M’s are 7-3 and who would have turned that down at the end of spring training? Absolutely nobody. Heading in, I heard a lot of people mumbling that the M’s could very well play their home opener at 2-5 given all those road games to start. Instead, they are the talk of the town. A town that desperately needs a winner.
Here’s what I like so far:
This team has yet to lose a series. Do that all year and you win the entire thing. We’re talking World Series, trip to the White House, all that.
The M’s are showing a killer instinct. No, they didn’t seal the deal against the Angels, but they nearly did. And they did do it against the A’s. Not perfect in this area yet, but they are three months ahead of where they were last season when they recorded their first series sweep of three games or more. What we saw last night was the Angels doing what the Angels do best. The M’s pushed them to the brink and the Angels responded. That’s why they keep winning AL West titles. What, you thought this division would be a cakewalk? It won’t be. The Angels are still the Angels. But the M’s took advantage of them when they were down. They came a strike or two away from probably sweeping.
Seattle has dropped more bunts down the first 10 games than it probably did the last two years combined. Yeah, I’m stretching it a bit, but not by much. It’s like somebody kidnapped the Angels and gave them Mariners uniforms. And not just on the bunting front. These Mariners are running teams ragged. I can’t believe what I’m watching on most nights. This is exactly what John McLaren envisioned for these Mariners a year ago. Remember that crazy decision to keep Charlton Jimerson at the end of spring training? The M’s did want a speed attack. The difference is, McLaren and his staff could not get the Mariners to embrace their vision and change the team’s ways. Don Wakamatsu and his staff have done exactly that. If the season ended today, Wakamatsu would be the runaway choice for manager of the year and deservedly so. But the season isn’t ending today. We’ll see if this keeps up.
The starting pitching and defense has been unbelievable. When your emergency fifth starter, Chris Jakubauskas, in the photo above, shuts down the Angels for five innings, then nearly has the bullpen get him through a sixth scoreless frame, life is beautiful. This rotation, now that the team can catch some balls behind it, is exactly what was envisioned a year ago. A healthy Erik Bedard, the team’s best pitcher so far. has given the team the equivalent of two aces at the front end. Carlos Silva and Jarrod Washburn are delivering quality innings in the No. 3 and No. 4 spots as well. Washburn likely would have had another seven-inning quality start the other night if not for the flu. Silva insists he’s commanding his sinker better than he did last season. The results were there for him in the home opener. Frankly. just 10 games in, this is looking like the best rotation in baseball. Show me another club where the fourth starter is putting up results like Washburn has. He’s picked up where he left off from May through July of last season before being slowed by assorted aches and pains. Will this keep up? It should, in theory, as long as improved sinkers thrown by Washburn and Silva don’t desert them and opposing batsmen keep mishitting the ball. Bedard and Hernandez keep striking hitters out, so you know their stuff has been overpowering at times. As long as they stay healthy, they could carry this team a long way. The Tigers should prove an interesting offensive challenge for them this weekend. A lot of strong bats in that lineup.
The defense has been as advertised. Adrian Beltre made several Gold Glove-caliber plays at third base last night and all series long against the Angels. There have been a handful of balls sneaking past the middle infield, as most of us expected. But the double-play combination of Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt is sharper than it was last season. It’s already in midseason form, which is important. It’s already saved the team from a number of runs against. The catching situation is now in Rob Johnson’s hands. He could play his way into increased status with this team while Kenji Johjima is sidelined by that hamstring pull. And the outfield defense has been as advertised. I mean, it’s news when a ball isn’t caught. What else to say?
Biggest surprise player so far? Endy Chavez, and not just for his batting average and OBP. His defense has been great, but he’s also demonstrated remarkable skill at handling his bat. That bunt he dropped down for an infield single last night was classic. It’s such a weapon for this team. I expect his numbers to come down and for him to be pushed further back in the order at some point. But for now, he’s given the team no reason to. I think he’s surprised a lot of folks by just how much of a potential weapon he can be on offense as well as with his glove.
So, what areas need improvement?
We spoke the other day about bullpen command and it led directly to the loss last night. Roy Corcoran issued that huge walk in the sixth to load the bases, and then the eventual game-winning hit was delivered. That hit came on a badly placed 0-2 pitch, so that’s a command issue as well. Too many walks so far. Not enough quality pitches being made. And last night, unlike previous outings, the bullpen saw a bunch of balls-in-play start to drop in and find infield holes for run-scoring hits. Command can be an early-season problem, and the M’s will have to hope their current crop of relievers can start finding the strike zone and getting hitters to miss.
For all the good things this offense has done right in the small-ball game, it’s been necessary because the big ball has been missing. Last night’s game could have been put away when Wladimir Balentien struck out on a 3-2 pitch with the bases loaded in what was still a 1-0 game with the M’s leading. The pitch looked like a ball to me after it broke off the outside corner. Balentien swung and missed. Now, I’m not about to jump all over a guy coming off an injury because of one AB. It’s just that the Mariners, as a whole, have not come through with the big hits early on that could spare them from some of those nail-biting ninth innings. We expected this, though. As we told you all spring, this team lacks big bat power and might have to scratch and claw all year for runs. The M’s are already 11th in American League slugging percentage and 10th in home runs. No surprises there, but it’s not a recipe for a playoff team. Those numbers have to get a little closer to the middle of the pack.
The M’s are eighth in runs scored of 14 teams — close to the middle — and that’s largely the result of the small-ball attack. Get the power numbers up a bit, and you all of a sudden have yourself a top-five offense that could be part of a playoff contender.
The Mariners still aren’t drawing any walks, which is what we expected. They are 12th in on-base percentage and tied for last place in walks. Some things aren’t going to change overnight. The M’s do appear to be doing more with hittable pitches early in counts. They are also dropping down plenty of early bunts and attempting to move runners over more aggressively, which doesn’t lend itself to drawing walks.
On an individual basis, if this was the end of the season, you’d take the .933 on-base-plus-slugging percentage from Ken Griffey Jr. in the DH spot and the .845 from Russell Branyan in the first-base job. You’d actually leap for joy if they could do that over 500 ABs. It’s difficult to gauge individual production this early in the season. You see a lot of skewed numbers.
Griffey’s approach seems strong as he’s taken his walks. Branyan is getting a ton of playing time against lefties as the team tries to see how much of a platoon he’ll require. He’s 2 for 10 with a homer off southpaws so far. It’s a tiny sample size. Let’s see where he’s at 10 games from now.
Jose Lopez is in an early-season batting slump. The team expects to receive some power from him so that’s where some of the deficiency has been. Franklin Gutierrez started to slow down when used too much at the No. 2 spot and needs to pick it up just a bit at the plate. Adrian Beltre has also yet to deliver the power expected from him.
Yuniesky Betancourt is hitting and doing some of the little things better at the plate. At least he’s trying to do them better, which is a step forward for him.
I don’t want to break down the offense too much this early, though.
As I said, this team has done a lot of things well on the pitching and defense side. The bullpen needs to sharpen its command.
On offense, the team needs more power from some of the areas it expected to get it from and then, maybe, it won’t have to scuffle for runs every night.
But honestly, this was about as good a 10-game start as the team could have imagined.
With Hernandez and Bedard opening this next 10-game stretch and finishing it off as well, another 7-3 mark is not out of the question. But for that to happen, some of those other areas need to be worked on.
Photo Credit: Jim Bates/Seattle Times

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