For many who watched tonight’s game, it might appear as if the Mariners punted this one before Justin Verlander even took the mound. Quite a logical conclusion, given that there was no Jack Cust in the lineup versus one of the tougher righties in the game. No Justin Smoak either.
But there is a lot more going on behind the scenes than just this one game in 162.
And what happens now could have a huge impact on whether the Mariners go someplace in 2011. Or in 2012 for that matter.
It’s about a new manager laying out the expectations for his team. For those who this might have slipped by, it was one year ago this week that Don Wakamatsu attempted to move Chone Figgins down to the No. 9 spot in the order. Figgins promptly voiced his displeasure to the media.
These days, a slumping Figgins is not only in the No. 9 spot, he’s sitting out games. More than one at a time, too.
Cust is sitting out games as well and he’s not even slumping in the typical sense. Well, yeah, he’s hit only two home runs all year and needs to belt a few more if he’s to be the DH. But his on-base-plus-slugging percentage has been up over .800 the past six weeks. No matter. He’s ridden the pine two consecutive days.
These events are significant.
In coming days, I would not be surprised at all to see Ichiro sit. Tonight wasn’t the time, clearly, since Ichiro’s at-bats last night were some of the best he’s taken in weeks. That trend did not carry over to tonight, however, and Ichiro is now 3-for-his-last-36. If he starts tomorrow, you can assume he got a Verlander mulligan. But if he pulls another two-strikeout, two groundout-to-second job tomorrow night, I’d be very surprised to see him back in there Saturday.
Wedge has disturbed the old applecart a bit the past few nights. But it’s evident he doesn’t want to run it off a cliff. One or two things at a time. Still, I can’t see how Ichiro can continue to play every single game if he has another outing as poor as this one against somebody other than Verlander. It will make it tougher for Wedge to maintain this delicate balancing act if he does. Tougher to maintain the credibility needed from the other 24 guys who are all getting a rest — wanted and unwanted.
But make no mistake. This stuff may not show up in the stats. But it’s hugely important. Much more so than stacking a lineup against Verlander in a game the M’s would have lost even with Babe Ruth batting cleanup. Verlander just wasn’t going down tonight. That stuff happens in baseball. You live with it and carry on another day.
The more interesting stuff is what’s happening behind the scenes.
What we’re seeing is a team being schooled on what to expect as far as playing time goes. For years in Seattle, it’s been assumed that a player of a certain status will be pencilled into the lineup on just about any given night.
Status meaning a “regular” player. A veteran. Or even a non-veteran, but a player with a few years under his belt. We saw Jose Lopez run out into the clean-up spot so many times last year, folks thought he had secret photos of higher-ups stashed in his locker. Richie Sexson used to get his regular turn at the plate no matter how horribly he played. Adrian Beltre was known to struggle for weeks on end in the early going, but was always in there because…well, because he was Adrian Beltre.
Now, not so much.
First off, there are few Beltres on this team. But even if there was, there aren’t many players showing up to the park anymore who automatically expect to see their name posted on the lineup.
Even Miguel Olivo, who has been one of the best hitters and leaders on this team day in and day out, knows he’ll be sitting at some point. And if he can do it with what he’s produced since late April, just about anybody can sit.
Including the non-performers. Especially the non-performers.
And as I said, that hasn’t always been the case in Seattle.
Know what else hasn’t been the case here?
Winning ballgames. Games that matter. Games played when the team is still within sniffing distance of first place after May.
Anybody can pad a .500 record in September against sub-.500 lineups laden with minor league callups. Try doing it with a division title on the line. Not so easy. The one time in five years I’ve been here the M’s tried to do that, they crashed and burned in late August of 2007, dropping 15 of 17 until it was safe to start winning again. Until they no longer had a shot at doing something and thus, faced no pressure.
Seattle for years has been a nice, friendly little no-pressure baseball town.
And other than a brief spurt under Lou Piniella — a guy who knew what it took to win and wound up leaving when he didn’t get it — the Mariners have generally produced nice, friendly little no-pressure baseball town results.
And so, along comes Wedge trying to rekindle some of what he experienced with an Indians team that was a win away from a World Series trip in 2007. A team that didn’t drop 15 of 17 in late-August that year when it mattered.
Wedge is being paid to help rebuild, yes. But also to win.
And there are a whole set of expectations that have to be laid down before that can happen. One of those is: expectations for playing time.
It boils down to this: you produce, you play.
And sometimes, even if you do produce, you don’t always play. It’s not about the individual. Not about piling up fancy stats at year’s end. It’s about putting the team and the organization first. That’s what Wedge has said, in plain English, since the start of spring training.
And now, he’s following up on it.
Following up because a team that struggles to score even four runs per night cannot have players who expect to be thrown in there just because they bat left-handed and there’s a right-hander on the mound. This isn’t about stats. Stats are nice things to study and find long-term trends from, but can also be for losers if they’re all that’s looked at.
They aren’t. Not in the majors.
There’s much more important stuff going on with the M’s right now.
Tonight, for instance, the Mariners to a man were shown that even if it didn’t make statistical sense to throw Greg Halman out there against a right hander, he was going to play because he’s swinging the hot bat and brings the type of energy to the table this team needs if it’s going to win more than it loses.
And Halman came through.
Some of the lefties who normally would have expected to face Verlander did not do so. Justin Smoak should have gotten a rest the other night in Chicago but did not, likely and largely because there were enough other changes being made and you don’t want that applecart to topple over too quickly. But Smoak, despite his hit against the White Sox, has been over-swinging for some time and needed a long overdue rest. Tonight, when he likely would have been obliterated by Verlander had he gone out with the approach he’s shown in recent games, he rode the bench.
The lesson here? Expect the unexpected. Don’t anticipate playing time unless you’re up amongst the league leaders in something. None of these Mariners are. This franchise has not won anything worth remembering outside of Seattle since its inception. Therefore, there is nobody on this team that is big enough in the grand scheme of things to avoid what players on winning teams go through.
Wedge has done his part in trying to keep the expectation levels reasonable. He has tried to maintain certain platoons, allowing players to mentally gear up to play on specific nights. But that goodwill from the manager has to be returned. Yeah, the M’s are far more likely to win something this year with Cust hitting home runs and Ichiro and Figgins getting on base ahead of him. The object here should be to get those guys to produce, not run them out of town. But the producing has to start at some point. We’re almost 2 1/2 months into the season. It’s time for certain players to get this show on the road.
Or else? Well, we’re now seeing the “or else” part.
Jorge Posada has enough World Series rings for an entire hand. More than the entire Mariners roster put together. And when Posada wasn’t getting it done, he got dropped down in the lineup by his old catching mate, Joe Girardi. And when Posada griped and pouted, he was shown who runs that team.
That’s what winning teams do.
The Mariners are not a winning team. They are not a winning franchise anybody cares about in an historical context outside the Pacific Northwest.
And changing that is something Wedge and those who hired him want to do. They need to do it because the fans are telling them “enough” with all the empty seats that keep turning out for games.
It all starts with the expectation levels of players. Some have been willing to bust their faces open diving unwisely into first base to try to win games. Others have hesitated. It’s a learning process.
And it ain’t all about stats. The stats come when the process of winning and the expectation of winning and of putting the team before oneself is achieved. It’s the essence of sport. And really, it’s the same at any level starting in high school and moving on up. You can have talent, sure, but wasting that talent by not putting it to proper use can cost teams big. It’s the manager’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen. To squeeze every drop out of the talent he has and to push that talent to deliver more still.
Even in the pros. Especially in the pros.
This job ain’t easy, as evidenced by the five managers who came before Wedge since the 2007 season began.
And what happened today is so much more important than one win or loss against Verlander. There are 99 games to go. Create the expectation of earning playing time through performance, kill the sense of entitlement, and the Mariners may live to fight another day and make up this one Verlander game down the road.
Throw guys out there because they were born right-handed, or left-handed? You do that when your team — all 25 guys — knows what it takes to win. The Mariners are still learning. And until they’ve got the concept nailed, the stats take a backseat.
Hopefully, they’re quick learners. Judging by how quickly they’ve proven me and other pre-season pundits wrong, this group very well may be.