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That was walk-off loss No. 11 for the Mariners, who are trying, so far unsuccessfully, to keep from lapsing into another long losing spell. This is five straight losses. They have lost a staggering 20 of their last 23 on the road. As young as they are, and as rocky as their bullpen is right now, it’s easy to forecast more rough times ahead.
The two big issues today seem to be why Michael Pineda was taken out, and why Dan Cortes was left in.
I have absolutely no problems with removing Pineda after 94 pitches. Keeping him healthy has to be a top priority the rest of the way. That’s going to mean spacing out his starts, and limiting his pitch count in those starts. There is absolutely no reason to risk him in pursuit of a victory. The plan for Pineda should be to err on the side of caution, and that’s what we’re seeing happening. It’s a strategy that worked well with a young Felix Hernandez — one of the few areas where the Bavasi regime deserves unqualified praise.
Here’s what Eric Wedge said: “I was really impressed with the way Pineda threw the ball today. We made some mistakes behind him. He didn’t let it rattle him. He had to work a lot harder because of it. He easily could have been out of there with no runs and pitched another inning. But mid-90s (pitch count), that was enough for him today. Next year, we’ll send him out for the next inning. That’s just where we are and where he is.”
As an aside, the game plan today was for Pineda to really work on his changeup. He threw about 10 of them, when normally he might throw two or three. If Pineda can master his change, he could really take the next step next year into becoming a true No. 1 type pitcher. Here’s catcher Josh Bard: “I think he only shook it one time. I’m proud of him. He continues to develop. He continues to show no fear of coming inside on guys. He’s going to be a special pitcher.”
The Mariners feel that mastering the changeup will be a key step in Pineda’s development.
“We really feel when Fifi (Felix Hernandez) started to take off, that was the third pitch that really made him who he was,” Bard said. “I was proud of the fact he threw some changeups behind in the count.”
As for Cortes, first here’s what Wedge said when asked what went into his thinking in sending him back out for the ninth: “Yesterday had a lot to do with it. There were only a few options. Obviously, we were going to stay away from League until we get the lead on the road. You’re talking about either going with Ruffin or Lueke, or sending Cortes back out there. That’s where we were bullpen wise. Danny only had 24 pitches, and was still throwing the ball good.”
The reference to yesterday was the fact that starter Charlie Furbush lasted just three innings on Saturday, requiring Wedge to burn Tom Wilhelmsen for three innings. Jose Lueke had thrown 29 pitches in a very ineffective outing (2/3 of an inning, three hits, two walks, three runs) on Saturday, while Chance Ruffin had thrown 25 in a rocky, but scoreless, inning.
The two most veteran members of the Seattle bullpen, excluding Brandon League, had already been used in Sunday’s game, and had bombed, which is why they were in the mess they were in. Jamey Wright and Jeff Gray combined to give up two hits, four walks and four runs in a combined 1/3 of an inning in the seventh.
“Wright and Gray really struggled for us,” Wedge said. “They’re the veteran guys you want to go to in that situation when you have a lead.”
Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon had an easier decision to go to his closer, Kyle Farnsworth, in a tie game, because once it reaches the ninth inning at home in a tie, you’re never going to have a save situation. So Farnsworth worked the ninth, and ended up getting the victory.
It’s pretty standard practice for the visiting team to hold back its closer in a tie game, waiting for when you take the lead in the top of an inning. That’s when the closer comes in and goes for the save. It’s hard to argue with that strategy. Yes, you can say, “Well, you’re never going to get to a save situation if you don’t use your best pitcher.” And those who say that can point to what happened in the ninth, when Cortes threw one pitch and gave up a homer to Johnny Damon.
But if you go to League in the ninth, even if he gets out of the inning, to win the game you’re going to have to ask either Lueke or Ruffin to save the game at some point. (Yes, perhaps League could have gone two innings, but using a closer — even one who hasn’t pitched since Aug. 15 — for two innings brings up another set of issues. League has exceeded one inning just once this year — and in his second inning, he was rocked, giving up five hits and three runs in a 5-2, 10-inning loss to the White Sox on May 8. Even if he gets through two, and if it’s still tied after 10, you’re back to the previous scenario, anyway).
So the real question facing Wedge was, who do you want to out there at the end of the game to protect a lead, presuming you eventually get a lead — your closer, or a rookie? I’d go with League.
Then the next question becomes, who works the ninth? This is where I would second-guess Wedge. I think he had gone about as far as he could with Cortes, who was lucky to get out of the eighth unscathed. Only a highly fortunate bounce off the backstop on his would-be wild pitch to Damon kept Cortes from giving up the go-ahead run. Yes, Cortes appeared to have good stuff, but his last two batters in the eighth were a single and hit batter, followed by an air-mailed curveball that could easily have had a disastrous results, if it didn’t bounce right back to Bard, and if Cortes hadn’t made a great tag, and if the umpire hadn’t called Matt Joyce out on a play that could have gone either way. No need to tempt fate any more.
No way I’d want anything to do with Lueke in a tie game, so my choice for the ninth would have been Ruffin, who some have touted as a closer of the future.
Here’s the stark truth, though: Whomever came in for the Mariners in the ninth would have had a difficult time getting past Damon, Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist , Casey Kotchman and, if necessary, B.J. Upton et al. The Rays are a veteran team on a terrific roll right now. They’re just better than the Mariners — markedly, decisively better.