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April 12, 2011 at 7:43 AM

Luis Rodriguez makes Mariners look good after keeping him out of spring training

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Just a reminder that my Talkin’ Baseball segment on KJR AM 950 will be coming up at 8:20 a.m. PT on the Mitch in the Morning show. If you missed Geoff Baker Live! last night, a viewer asked me whether Jack Cust was “done” . I also talked about a conversation I had with Blue Jays second baseman Aaron Hill, who’d been chatting in BP with Jack Wilson about his transition to second base. A viewer asked about where free agents fit in this rebuilding plan. And another viewer asked why the M’s seem so intent on making players — like Wilson — switch positions. Finally, a viewer suggested I was down on Ichiro for suggesting he wouldn’t make a good No. 3 hitter right now.
Now, on to this morning’s post…
Let’s face it. Ever since it became clear the Mariners were keeping Luis Rodriguez, at the time batting just .188 in spring training, as a backup infielder to start the season, folks, including me, have been wondering what the heck was going on. Did we miss something during the seven weeks in Peoria? Because there was little, outside of a whole lot of playing time given to Rodriguez, that suggested he had won the job over others.
Well, after last night, we now know a little more about what the Mariners see in him. Besides the fact that he’s a switch hitter who can play multiple positions. We knew all that. Plenty of backup infielders play multiple positions. And yes, there are some who can switch-hit as well.

But in last night’s ninth inning, with the Mariners needing a big hit to deliver an improbable comeback against a generous group of Toronto Blue Jays pitchers, Rodriguez delivered one of the best at-bats we’ve seen in a long time. In short, Rodriguez showed us the kind of approach that made hitting coach Chris Chambliss become a huge backer of his in Class AAA Charlotte in the White Sox organization last year. No proof, but I’m thinking that support went a long way towards getting a sub-.200 hitter on the team out of spring training.
Rodriguez was only in the game because Chone Figgins went down with an early hand injury. The Mariners had been down 7-0 in the seventh inning, but because the Toronto bullpen could not throw strikes, were within a run with two on and two out in the ninth. Rodriguez took a borderline strike call on the first pitch of the game’s final at-bat, putting him behind the eight-ball right away and ensuring nothing that came next would be easy.
In fact, what came next is a metaphor for how this team will have to battle in order to ensure that it can win a few games between the streaks of losses in seems destined for.

Rodriguez fouled the second pitch off, going down 0-2. By that point, even the most optimistic of Mariners fans among the 2,000 or so diehards still at the park, had to be thinking the game was going to end on the very next pitch. And not in Seattle’s favor.
But it did not.
Instead, Rodriguez showed what it is to battle. The kind of battle a major league journeyman and minor league frequenter knows how to wage just to survive.
Rodriguez fouled off the next pitch, keeping the game alive. He then took a ball on a wasted pitch by Shawn Camp. But it wasn’t a real waste, since the pitch was so poor that Ichiro was able to easily take second on a steal and position himself as the winning run.
Still, the count was only 1-2 and Rodriguez had no margin for error. He fouled off the next three pitches to keep his improbable at-bat going. Then, he took a ball to even the count at 2-2.
A frustrated-looking Camp tried again and Rodriguez wound up drilling a ball down the right field line. It was an obvious foul coming off the bat, but not by a whole lot.
Call it a preview of what was to come. Camp tried again and Rodriguez connected with a line drive to right that wasn’t going to be caught by any of the shallow-playing Blue Jays as the M’s scampered around the bases for a stunning win.
In the end, it was a 10-pitch at-bat. We’ve seen those before, but rarely with the game on the line like that and almost never with the hitter down 0-2. Certainly not from a hitter who failed to hit his weight in spring training and made the team with all the advance notice of a stealth bomber.
And the Mariners can take a few notes on that.
For new manager Eric Wedge, whose team is off to a terrible start this season and would be 2-8 and riding an eight-game losing streak if Toronto pitchers had simply thrown some eighth-inning strikes, it was a victory of sorts.
Not because teams are going to overcome 7-0 deficits in the eighth inning more than once every 1,000 games.
But because his repeated urging of the M’s not to “give away” at-bats in blowout games appeared to strike home in this one. Wedge implored his players to fight in every at-bat once down 11-0 last Friday in their home opener.
And last night, down 7-0 in the seventh and especially at 7-1 down in the eighth, any outs made by Toronto pitchers were indeed earned.
The Jays had refused to throw strikes all night long, nibbling from the outset when starter Jesse Litsch insisted on playing with fire, even up 3-0 and then 5-0 on Felix Hernandez and the home side. Nibble, nibble, nibble, all game long. And all game long, the M’s kept stranding runners. Until they finally stopped.
In the eighth inning, the M’s made Toronto pitchers throw 39 pitches just to get one out. The inning finally ended five runs later with a double-play grounder on pitch No. 40. But what an inning that was for working the count.
You had three consecutive walks with the bases loaded to force home three runs off Octavio Dotel and Mark Rzepcyzinski (call him Mr. Alphabet). Then, after Camp relieved Mr. Alphabet, you had Justin Smoak battling at 2-2 against Camp, taking the count full and then ripping a two-run single that made it a game again.
That kind of baseball is what Smoak is all about. He knows how to take a pitch, work counts in his favor and then do something with the ball. At least, that’s what he did in the minors. Now, we see some carry-over.
Bottom line?
The Mariners made the Blue Jays throw 214 pitches — only 110 of them for strikes — in a regulation nine-inning game. Do that most nights and you’ll win. Not when you fall behind 7-0, mind you, but sometimes, in this game, you’ll catch a break. The M’s caught one in this game in that their opponent never got serious on the mound. But sometimes, you have to make your own luck as well.
And the Mariners did so in this one by never giving up. And they carried that over by refusing to give up at-bats.
Then, when the only thing that mattered was a hit, Rodriguez showed everyone why he was on the team.
Now, if only this wasn’t a one-game mirage.
We’ll see. One thing’s for sure: this Toronto bullpen is in lousy shape for the remainder of this series.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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