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April 23, 2009 at 9:31 AM

This is what an ace is for

We’ll have an edition of Geoff Baker Live! coming up at 11:30 a.m. this morning, where you can all gripe about what happened last night.
Last night was not a happy one for the Mariners. But they still have a chance to win this series with the Tampa Bay Rays, sending Felix Hernandez to the mound today. If there was ever a day a team needed its “staff ace” to be out there in April, this is it. The M’s have lost some momentum since taking the first two games of that series with the Los Angeles Angels last week. They have a big series in Anaheim this weekend. Today’s game, a mid-afternoon start, is an important one in that it will determine whether the M’s finish this homestand on a winning note.
Taking two series of three and going 5-4 will seem much more palatable for this squad than dropping two of three and finishing 4-5. Especially coming off that winning road trip to start the year.
And Hernandez has to allow the M’s time to get that done. Chris Jakubauskas is an emergency fifth starter and looked the part last night. Hernandez is the team’s No. 1 starter and cannot afford to be mediocre today. His offense is really struggling to get going so far and a flurry of early runs, like what the Tigers managed off him last week and the Oakland A’s did in the prior start, could be too much for this team to overcome.
The M’s need to get the middle of their batting order going, meaning Ken Griffey Jr. and Adrian Beltre, or else make some changes starting this weekend. The injury to Russell Branyan has hurt this team, both power-wise and in the middle of the order, so it’s not a matter of sitting anyone. But you can’t keep running guys out there in the heart of the order if they aren’t hitting. That injury to Mike Sweeney further complicates matters. If this team was healthy, we might have seen some lineup switches already.
But as we’ve mentioned too many times since this winter, this team has few power options. If you move Griffey out of the No. 3 spot, who do you replace him with? Jose Lopez might be the answer, but he’d been scuffling as well until some big hits the past two nights. Lopez would be my pick for a promotion to the middle of the order. Aside from him, though, pickings are slim. That’s why, with the injuries to Branyan and now Sweeney, the coaching staff’s hands have been largely tied.
It’s also why I expect to see Beltre remain in the heart of the order. You can only move so many guys around at once when you have little power to choose from. Beltre has gotten off to slow starts before. You keep expecting him to catch fire any day now. As for Griffey, he’s 39. There were questions about him to start the year. You can keep on hoping he’s going to take off any day, as well, but there are fewer reasons to believe that will happen quickly — like this weekend — than there are with Beltre.
So, he’s the guy I’d move further down, for now, until his bat gets going. If it doesn’t get going eventually, this team is in trouble. It doesn’t have enough power at non-traditional spots in the lineup to compensate for a lack of DH production.
And while all that is being worked out, Hernandez has to give his team a chance to win today. No excuses. He’s the No. 1 guy and that’s what No. 1 guys do. We’re talking seven innings, three runs or fewer — preferably with not all of those runs coming in the first two innings today. This offense needs a chance to breathe without being in a 3-0 hole right from the start.
Yes, it’s still very early. Too early to give up on guys like Griffey, Beltre, Ichiro, Franklin Gutierrez, Yuniesky Betancourt and anyone else not exactly lighting things up at the moment. But the fact remains, the Angels are a mess right now. They might not be a mess in a month. This is the time of the year when the M’s, if they’re going to make this first-place thing a season-long endeavor, have to take advantage of some weak divisional competition. They have to pounce now, then try to hold on. This isn’t the season on the line today. I’d never say that about any one game this early on. But these next few weeks could be a little more important to the big picture of things than they typically are. A win today would help shift some of that early momentum back towards the Mariners.
Photo Credit: UPI



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