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August 23, 2009 at 3:21 PM

Mariners stumble home after offense dries up in final two games here

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Josh “Hack” Wilson couldn’t provide any more offensive heroics today, going down looking at a called third strike in the ninth to cap a 6-1 loss to the Cleveland Indians. Ken Griffey Jr. hit a home run to tie the game in the fourth, but Felix Hernandez couldn’t hold things from there and that was the ballgame.
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The post-game questions surrounded whether Hernandez lost his composure after that Jose Lopez error. Couldn’t blame him if he did. The way this offense was manhandled by Fausto Carmona today, striking out eight times against a pitcher who normally walks guys left and right, Hernandez had to have thought the game was done once that third run scored in the sixth inning.
Still, Hernandez said all the right things. Tipped his cap to the Indians for hitting pitches he felt were good ones. Catcher Rob Johnson agreed the pitches were not very hittable, especially that double by Matt LaPorta in the sixth that really broke things open.
“They made some really good swings on some good pitches,” Johnson said. “If you go back and look at some of the pitches they hit, they were pretty good pitches down in the zone. I don’t know if they were sitting on pitches or whatever, but we made some good pitches.
“The ball that (LaPorta) hit off the wall for a double, that was probably a ball, down and away.”

Hernandez also couldn’t believe that LaPorta hit the double on a curveball that down and away. Hernandez’s two-seam fastball had been working well earlier in the game but deserted him in that sixth when he needed a double-play grounder.
Instead, he started mixing in a variety of pitches.
“I threw everything,” he said. “But that’s all, I made good pitches and they hit the ball good.”
Hernandez dismissed the idea he had somehow lost focus after the Lopez error.
“I didn’t think anything about the error,” he said. “It’s part of the game. You’ve just got to make your pitch. Make your pitch and get a double-play. But then (Travis) Hafner hit a line drive base hit and I couldn’t execute my two-seamer.”
Hernandez insists he isn’t preoccupied by the Cy Young Award race. He merely wants to finish off his strong season in good form. And he’s done that, throwing “quality starts” of at least six innings, three earned runs or fewer allowed, in 16 of his last 17 starts. But he’s got just one win to show for his last five outings and that could cost him in the Cy Young race.
As I mentioned yesterday, no starting pitcher has won an AL Cy Young Award since 1960 without finishing top-two in either ERA or wins. Hernandez saw his ERA lowered to 2.73 from 2.66 today, but is still second in the AL behind Zack Greinke’s 2.44.
We’ll see a bunch of Hernandez’s Cy Young competitors going in the next few days. Josh Beckett and C.C. Sabathia go at it tonight in Boston , while Justin Verlander, Greinke and Roy Halladay will throw over the next 48 hours after that.
Another stat to consider: no AL pitcher since 1984 has failed to win a Cy Young when leading the league in wins and ERA. The last to come up short was Mike Boddicker of the Orioles, beaten out that year by Tigers closer Willie Hernandez.
Hernandez still has an outside shot at leading both categories. He’s only two wins behind Beckett and Sabathia for the league lead and would be one back if Mark Lowe hadn’t blown a 3-1 lead in the eighth last week.
But we’re now less than six weeks before the season ends and all of those missed chances could come back to haunt Hernandez. His best shot now appears to be leading the league in ERA, or at least finishing second. Then, he’ll have to keep his win total relatively high up the leaderboard and hope he stays close in innings pitched — he’s now second in the AL, 1/3 of an inning behind Sabathia, but the latter, as I said, goes tonight. Halladay is also only 1/3 of an inning behind Hernandez and will surely pass him his next time out, as will likely Verlander and Greinke. It’s a tight race and getting tighter.
“I think there are a lot of emotions going on with his year right now,” Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said. “When you have a letdown like that, it takes a little bit to be able to get refocused in that situation. It’s hard to say whether that had an effect on him or not, but you just don’t see Felix giving up three hits in a row, or three hits and a sac fly.”
I asked Wakamatsu what he meant by “emotions” with Hernandez.
“He’s done a lot for this ballclub and every time he goes out there, it seems he has to carry the burden of either stopping a losing streak or he’s got to be that guy,” he said. “But, that’s what an ace does. That’s what a guy contending for a Cy Young has to be able to do and that’s a lot of pressure on a 23-year-old.”
Wakamatsu said the Lopez play was clearly the game’s turning point.
“I think this was one of those games where you start out and you don’t know how it’s going to end up until the error happens,” he said. “You get that error, Felix has gone 5 1/3, he’s given up two runs at that point…you get one out in the sixth inning, you get that out, you’ve got two and it might be a typical Felix outing where he goes seven or eight innings, gives up two runs and you’re pretty happy about it.
“Instead, the error happens and I think he lost a little bit of focus at that point. He ended up giving up three hits and a sacrifice fly in a row there on pitches that were up in the zone. And then all of a sudden it looks like we played bad baseball. You just never know. It happened last night on the error in left field, but those are just critical things we can’t afford to do.”
The situational hitting, once again, was terrible. Russell Branyan struck out his first two times up, including with Johnson at third and only one out in the third inning. Johnson led off the fifth inning with a double, but Ichiro failed to move him over and the inning stalled from there as well.
“All those contribute to whether you win or lose ballgames and you’ve got to be able to do that,” Wakamatsu said.
Ichiro apparently had his calf tighten up on him and was replaced late in the game in right field. The calf problem is said to have been lingering a while, so we’ll see if he’s back in the lineup tomorrow — or perhaps used as a DH.
Ryan Langerhans told me he feels a little stiffness and some cramping in his shoulder after that first inning collision with the wall. Otherwise, he was fine and finished the game.
That throw he made while lying on the ground after his first-inning collision with the wall on the Grady Sizemore triple was something else. Langerhans confessed that he hasn’t had to make a throw like that very often.
“I was a bit stunned after the ball popped out of my glove and I hit the wall,” he said. “But I could see the foul line next to me, so I knew where the ball had to go. I just kind of heaved it with all I could.”
There you have it. A forgettable 2-4 result to a trip that started off well. But some blown leads by the bullpen and the feast-or-famine offense, hitting home runs and little else all trip, combined to put the Mariners just two games over .500.
They will have to get better at all facets of their game if they want to finish with a winning record. It’s going to be tough.
Had he not, the speedy Sizemore may have had an inside the park homer.



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