You hear a lot of talk about the mental toughness needed to play major league ball. About the ability to focus, bear down and come through in key situations. Not only physically, but mentally. You have to know the situation and do the right thing.
We saw plenty of that in different forms from the Mariners tonight in their improbable 4-3 comeback win over the Texas Rangers.
The biggest was Michael Saunders positioning himself to score the eventual winning run of the game on that single he willed into a double. Saunders read the positioning of Rangers center fielder Craig Gentry, who had come in as a late defensive replacement in the eighth. Gentry was shaded to left center and had to run a ways to get to the Saunders hit.
Saunders also knew that Gentry throws right handed, so he’d have to twist his body at a funny angle to make the throw.
All of that wound up working just enough.
“At that point the game was tied and I felt that, with one out, at that point if I could get to second base it could be big for us,” Saunders said. “So, I just took a chance on it.”
Then, he stole third base after getting his first look at Rangers closer Joe Nathan.
“This is really the first time I’ve gotten the chance to see Nathan and he was showing me high leg kicks,” Saunders said. “I knew if I could get a good read on him, getting to third base was important. Especially getting there with less than two outs.”
And then, after he did all that, John Jaso came through with the RBI single. Earlier, Jaso had gotten the whole comeback started with a leadoff triple in the eighth off fireballing Rangers reliever Alexi Ogando — who throws in the high 90s. He scored on Dustin Ackley’s single, snapping a 23-inning scoreless streak.
Not bad for a guy who hadn’t played this season and looked pretty rusty in his first couple of at-bats. Jaso had to go inside between his DH at-bats and try to calm himself down.
“I really had some adrenaline going and was pretty tense up there with the bat,” Jaso said. “I had to come in here and go in the (indoor) batting cage a little bit and make myself loosen up a little bit. It slowed the game down a little bit. Which was nice, having Ogando coming in there.”
In the ninth inning at-bat against Nathan, Jaso put his catcher’s hat on and started to think.
“He threw me a lot of curveballs,” Jaso said. “I knew what he was doing. Being a catcher and trying to think along the lines of him being a veteran guy, he doesn’t let his pride get in the way. He knows there are bases open there and me being a lefthanded hitter, he doesn’t have to throw me a strike. I think the ball he threw me wasn’t intentional. I’m sure he was trying to bury it and if it was in the dirt it would have been a pretty good pitch.
“I was just kind of lucky that he made a mistake and was lucky that I capitalized on it. I was glad I was ready.”
But it takes thinking to be ready. It takes focus.
Jesus Montero was down 0-2 in the count earlier in the inning with runners on second and third and none out. Had Montero struck out, or not avanced the runners, the entire complexion of the inning changes.
But he bore down and managed to hit a pretty deep sacrifice fly to right center. It was deep enough in fact, to not only get the run home, but advance pinch-runner Munenori Kawasaki to third.
A job well done.
“It’s something that kind of gets lost in the shuffle,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “But he’s down 0-2. We’re in a situation there where we’ve got to get something out of that at-bat. For him to drive the ball the other way with two strikes there…was as big as anything that inning.”
Wedge really liked the way Montero handled himself behind the plate, blocking a pitch, receiving the ball well and communicating with Kevin Millwood. After a rocky first inning, Millwood made some mechanical adjustments and fixed a problem that was causing him to deliver too many pitches high and off target.
Millwood called his own game in this one and Montero followed and did what the veteran wanted. At one point, Millwood nearly hurt himself trying to field a hard shot with his pitching hand — something he did many times while pitching here for the Rangers.
“Milly is Mily,” Rangers manager Ron Washington said. “He’s going to battle you. We’ve seen him take balls of his hand and stay in the ballgame, and he did it again tonight. He’s a tough character. When he had to, he did what he had to do. We could have put two or three extra more runs on the board, but he pitched around it. You’ve got to tip your hat.”
Most of the Mariners did, including Wedge, who repeated that Millwood is one of the best pitchers he’s ever seen at escaping trouble. He did it in the first inning, with a little help from some bad swings by David Murphy.
And he did it again in the fifth inning with Ian Kinsler on third base and one out, getting Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre to pop out to shallow center.
“It’s huge to come back and score four runs in the eighth and ninth,” Millwood said. “It’s huge, especially with the young club that we have. It give those guys a little bit of confidence and reassures them that it’s possible.”
But again, that comeback would not have been possible without a whole lot of mental toughness, focus and thinking in critical situations by some players much younger than Millwood. This was a good victory for the Mariners. A positive step in their development and their ability to think and react like winners.
We’ll see whether they can keep on doing it with consistency. And hopefully, without waiting seven-plus innings to get some runs across next time. But a good win nonetheless. It’s not always how you start. But it is always how you finish.