For the first five innings or so today, the Mariners could not catch a break.
We’d told you all about Chone Figgins and his hard luck, entering today with a solid 22.2 percent line drive rate versus a horrendous .154 batting average on balls put in play. Well, that continued with a first inning scorcher towards third base that was snagged by Wilson Betemit, who threw to first for the out.
You knew about Miguel Olivo, who came in with an 0-for-24 slump, then, in the fifth, had his ripped liner caught in left field by Alex Gordon after the leadoff man had reached base.
Hard luck all around, with Milton Bradley and Jack Cust both squaring up on some fourth-inning drives that were hauled in by the outfielders.
Things looked bleak when the Royals took a fifth inning lead. But then finally, after 14 scoreless innings, the Mariners finally caught some breaks.
It began when Bradley grounded a ball first base side with two out and Ichiro on second. Normally, the M’s would have seen it roll foul. This time, though, the ball stayed just inside the first base bag and out of the reach of Billy Butler.
Bradley had a triple, the game was tied and Seattle’s luck was changing.
Olivo finally snapped his slump in the sixth, following up a Justin Smoak single with a single of his own. Ryan Langerhans then got a bunt down instead of popping it up and Brendan Ryan patienty waited for inconsistent reliever Blake Wood to throw something that looked like a strike. With the count 3-1, Ryan got his pitch and lined it to left.
Betemit tried to jump and make a catch, but, as luck would have it, this time the ball was out of his reach. Ryan said the key for the Mariners all day long was to ignore the poor results they were getting and stick with a process that allowed them to hit a ball hard.
“I just happened to be the guy who didn’t hit the ball right at somebody,” Ryan quipped.
Ryan admitted that his team, which got reamed out by manager Eric Wedge yesterday, has gone through some rough times.
“I think I can safely speak for everybody, I hope I can, that we’re not having fun right now,” Ryan said. “I’m not having any fun. This is not how I wanted to start out the season, personally and as a team. So, I’m trying to get going. It may sound funny. But if we all maybe think a little more selfishly about what we’re trying to accomplish and execute, maybe we can get things rolling.”
In other words, players should worry about improving their own games. Not trying to take on the additional burden of trying to ease the pain of the entire group single-handedly.
“But at the same time,” Ryan added, “you still need some love.”
What Ryan is saying is the team needs some breaks. Some balls to drop in. Some calls to go their way. Some gambles not to blow up in their face.
We saw that happen for the M’s in the end.
They got just enough timely hits. We also saw manager Wedge make an interesting decision to have Michael Pineda walk righty-hitting Butler to get to a lefty, Kila Ka’aihue.
Pineda told me after the game, laughing, that he was surprised. It was the first time he’d ever walked a righty to get to a lefty.
That put two on with two out in a one-run game.
But it was the right call. Butler has terrorized pitchers this season and is one of the more dangerous bats in the game. He’d already hit into some hard outs against Pineda.
Ka’aihue is supposed to be a top young power hitter, with all the requisite minor league stats to support it, but he’s floundered so far and looked awful in the middle of the order this series. Pineda had already struck him out by using some tough sliders that Ka’aihue couldn’t get around on inside.
In the sixth-inning AB, Pineda planned to throw him a first-pitch fastball inside, then come back with a slider. He didn’t have to, since Ka’aihue was jammed by the inside fastball and grounded out easily to Justin Smoak to end the inning.
“Today I was throwing pretty good sliders against him and he had trouble,” Pineda said. “So, this time, I wanted to throw a fastball inside and then a slider. I threw a fastball in and he grounded out on the first pitch.”
Wedge told me the move was “just a direct credit to Butler. That’s just a credit to how we feel Butler’s swinging the bat right now.”
Sometimes, in this game, even armed with all the percentages and stats that tell you what should happen, you have to go with instinct and what you see is happening out there as a manager. The percentages tell you Pineda struggles versus lefties and that having him face a righty would be the best move.
But not, neccessarily, if that righty’s been connecting on Pineda this particular day. Not if that righty has been mashing pitchers of all stripes since the season began. And not if you have a weak link like Ka’aihue, who may be as great as his hype and minor league numbers one day soon, but right now is a mid-order liability. That’s how sports operate. You see a weak cornerback, you throw on him. A weak goalie? You shoot on him. A struggling hitter, who has already whiffed once against your pitcher? You don’t pass up a shot at him to pitch to one of the more dangerous hitters in baseball at the moment.
You take a chance that Ka’aihue won’t use that particular moment to get his swing going against Pineda. You keep picking on his weakness, which Pineda did by jamming him inside.
So, Wedge made the right call.
And I think counterpart Ned Yost made a terrible one in the half inning that followed when, after Pineda issued a four-pitch walk to the fastest man in baseball, Jarrod Dyson, he ordered Chris Getz to bunt on the very next pitch. With Dyson on and a right hander on the mound, you at least need to make Pineda throw a strike before bunting. Or take a pitch or two to give Dyson a chance to steal.
But nope. The Royals sacrificed an out on the very next pitch, which helped tremendously in getting Pineda off the hook.
So, the M’s caught a break there. Advantage to Wedge in managing the sixth inning.
And they caught a break in the eighth when the first base ump blew that call at the bag. Getz should have been safe at first, which would have put runners at the corners with one out and Gordon up.
Instead, there was a runner on third and two out and Jamey Wright got out of it on a Gordon grounder. With one out, that grounder scores the run from third.
Instead, the inning ended and the one run proved huge when Brandon League gave up a marker in the ninth to narrow the score.
Interesting how breaks can change an outcome.
The M’s caught a few today. They needed them. For all that went right, they still scored only three runs and needed League to strand the tying run in the ninth. This Seattle team has to work for every victory it gets. It simply can’t let up. Today, it did not.
Crisis averted for at least another 24 hours.