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August 19, 2009 at 8:24 AM

Seattle Mariners going down swinging

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There were a couple of interesting developments I didn’t get a chance to delve into last night. Both of them involved strikeouts by Mariners and, let’s face it, the M’s had a lot of those in that loss to the Detroit Tigers.
The strikeouts I’m refering to involved Jose Lopez in the ninth inning to end the game and Ichiro in the fourth to perhaps help finish off the night of Tigers starter Rick Porcello much sooner than it would have.
Neither at-bat produced the result the M’s wanted. But it was the process used in arriving at the result that might give the Mariners reason for some optimism.

Neither Lopez, nor Ichiro, is known for taking many pitches in an at-bat. They are at 3.51 and 3.75 respectively per plate appearance in that regard, among the lowest of Mariners regulars. And yet, Lopez made Tigers hurler Fernando Rodney throw a dozen offerings before finally going down swinging. Ichiro made Porcello throw 10 pitches. In fact, Porcello had thrown only 69 pitches through his first five innings, meaning Ichiro alone was responsible for one seventh — nearly an inning’s worth — in a single at-bat.
We haven’t seen these kinds of at-bats nearly enough from Mariners hitters over the past several seasons. When we do see them, it’s usually by members of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, teams known to run up the pitch counts of opposing starters and force them from games earlier than usual.
And the Yanks and Red Sox didn’t just start doing this. It’s been going on for much of the past decade, with rosters entirely different from the ones they are fielding now.
This is what championship teams do. They make opponents work for every strike and every out. And it’s the result of a culture built within an organization, one that places expectations on players year-to-year, roster-to-roster. Hitters are expected to battle like that, and they know it the moment they put on their red sox or pinstripes.
It’s what Ian Snell, who takes the mound tonight, was saying after the Yankees had whacked him around his last time out. There are no easy outs in that lineup. They made him work for every out he got.
And now, through a process of trial and error — much of it error — the Mariners are attempting to build the same winning culture. It won’t be easy. You can’t transform a team of free-swingers into count-working, marathon batsmen overnight. It’s a process, one that might take several years to complete.
But we’ve seen the transition start to occur this year.
The Mariners, as a team, have taken more pitches and used up more of them in their plate appearances since around the mid-season mark.
They have slowly shed the players who did not buy into this concept — hello Mr. Betancourt — while adding others, like Ryan Langerhans, who do.
And now, look at the types of players who have been called up from the minors, or will be in coming seasons.
Michael Saunders had an excellent on-base percentage in Class AAA. So does Mike Carp right now. Dustin Ackley, the newly-signed No. 2 overall pick, was an on-base machine at the University of North Carolina.
The changes in approach are coming at the minor league level.
And we’ve seen some of it at the major league level. Too late, obviously, to salvage a playoff berth this season. This offense still struggles far too often to get on-base and score runs.
But if Lopez and Ichiro, guys not known for drawing walks or dragging out at-bats, can extend pitchers beyond their normal workload, it’s a start.
And a sign that some guys are buying in, even holdovers from the Bill Bavasi era.
You don’t have to be a pitch-taker or walk-drawer to make pitchers work. Both Lopez and Ichiro extended their at-bats by “spoling” a number of two-strike pitches with foul balls. That’s another thing the Yankees and Red Sox have done well for years.
It’s all part of the process. One the Mariners will have to get better at if they hope to win down the road. And one they seem to be trying to get better at, if last night is any indication.



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