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May 21, 2013 at 6:00 AM

A few things to take away from this heartbreaking Mariners series

Justin Smoak hit two late home runs for the Mariners in Cleveland. Photo Credit: AP

Justin Smoak hit two late home runs for the Mariners in Cleveland. Photo Credit: AP

Justin Smoak may have said it best yesterday when he opined that any time a team loses three walk off games in four days, it’s not going to be a good thing. Tom Wilhelmsen had the other great observation of the day that his club seemed about ready to catch the first plane out of town.

I know there was plenty of teeth-gnashing, hair-pulling and all-around second, third and fourth-guessing taking place in the blogosphere after the game and that’s fine. It’s what sports fans do everywhere and the fans of Seattle are no different. We all need time to vent and there was certainly some vent-worthy baseball on display late. But a part of me wonders what we all would be saying had Wilhelmsen just caught the danged ball that Smoak flipped to him in the ninth inning.

Because a big part of me thinks — knows — that we’d be hearing a whole different storyline about resiliency and the team’s improved power and ability to come back and stay in games.

About how Hisashi Iwakuma grinded it out on a day his best stuff was missing. Or, how Smoak is starting to find his power stroke. So, if we’re going to play that game, then let’s at least do it properly. Because we can’t plan a season around Wilhelmsen catching or not catching a routine toss. Stuff happens. But once the anger dissipates, and the venting subsides, we all have to take a deep breath, use our heads and think and then try to come to some rational and objective analysis about what is actually going on.

And if we were going to conclude some things were looking OK had Wilhelmsen hung on to the ball, that doesn’t all change because he dropped it.

Look, I know that some things went wrong in Cleveland. I know that things have gone wrong in other points of this 20-25 season.

Want to argue that there is a bit too much mixing and matching going on in the bullpen at times? Hey, I’m with you. I’m getting tired of these three-hour, 20-minute games we’re seeing, even for routine, low-scoring affairs. The games this year have taken longer to play than any season I’ve covered in my 15 years of working a major league beat. And I do blame all the bullpen shuffling by manager Eric Wedge. But I also understand the difficulties Wedge faces in melding together a bullpen of largely inexperienced pitchers who are being thrust into new roles because of injury and the decision to dump Kameron Loe one week into the season.

That part is still being worked on and sure, Wedge has made some missteps along the way. But yesterday’s loss is on Wilhelmsen, not Wedge.

If Wilhelmsen catches the ball, there is no debate about whether Wedge should have used his closer in a second inning of work rather than Charlie Furbush. I heard groans the other night when Wedge went to Oliver Perez — a guy who had been striking out every batter he’d faced going on a week — ┬áin the ninth inning of a non-save situation. Those fans doing the griping have to understand that most managers won’t use their closer in a non-save situation on the road, while the majority will do it in the ninth inning with their closer at home with the game tied because there is no such thing as a save situation once a tie game reaches the ninth in your own ballpark. So, yeah, Wedge has his ways of doing things.

Fire him and another manager will have his own particular set of quirks and ways that you won’t like. What you want is a manager who believes in what he is doing and has the conviction to stand behind it even when it inevitably fails from time to time.

This whole business of blaming the manager, or the umpires, anytime something doesn’t go the Mariners way is getting a bit tiresome, and frankly, it’s a sign of immaturity in terms of the analysis being done locally. Wedge makes mistakes. So did Joe Torre. So does Joe Maddon. The Mariners aren’t going to change all that drastically as a team with a new manager. Get over that notion, please, for the sake of your own sanity. We’ve had years of this blogosphere griping for a new manager every five minutes, getting one every other year, then seeing the same losing baseball.

It’s.Not.The.Manager.

On to how this team is constructed, yeah, I’ve had problems with it going on several years in terms of the time it was taking to build a young core that still is not really showing any signs of being anyplace close to completed. Sure, there are some bright spots, but there is also underachievement and uncertainty going forward. For all the talk of a “Big Three” I’ve heard the past two years, I’d settle for a “Big One” right about now.

The young arms are still a ways away and it was obvious two or three years ago that this club would not seriously contend for anything until at least 2015 or even longer without bringing in some bats from outside the organization to help speed things along. The Mariners have finally done that and they look better on offense as a result. The fact that they just got swept in Cleveland doesn’t change that.

During my weekly Talkin’ Baseball segment on Sports Radio KJR, host Mitch Levy asked me about all of the recent strikeouts by the Mariners and suggested my “bar” for OBP was set rather low, given how poorly the Mariners had performed in that category the last few games. I told him you can’t use a sample size that small to gauge anything and offered up, just for kicks, that had he checked the stats from the beginning of the road trip, he’d find the club doing OK.

Well, as of yesterday, the offense had struck out 11 times or more in four of the first six games of the trip. Yet, it had produced a .260 batting average, .332 OBP and a .447 slugging mark for an OPS of .778 against two first place ball clubs. So, no, the strikeouts were not adversely impacting the offense. Teams can live with an OPS of .778 in any prolonged stretch.

Yes, the Mariners did go just 2-4 to start the trip off. But if they’d gone 4-2 and finished the trip 5-2, would you have greater faith in the offense? If so, why? What does Wilhelmsen catching a ball have to do with the offense? You either trust in the numbers and the process, or you don’t.

I hear a lot of talk about process around here, but I also see scores of fans jumping ship on it, even when it has started to play out.

This offensive process is working and has been for a full month now, building off a solid OBP, with some home run power mixed in. What the Mariners need are a few more timely hits, because you will gladly take the .330 OBP they’ve been running for four weeks now and you know this team can hit for home run power. To me, they appear very close to putting it all together on a more consistent basis.

Will changes need to be made? Sure, at some point. What Jesus Montero and Dustin Ackley have done is disappointing and I would not mind seeing one or both go to AAA at this point because it’s been long enough that we’ve seen them struggle like this. It doesn’t have to be permanent, but again, an offense can only withstand so many black holes.

And naturally, if the team wins only 72 games, or 75 or even 80, I will not be pleased with the product because frankly, I don’t see how this team could finish with such a low win total based on what the offense has been doing for a good while now, combined with pitching that I believe to be good enough for a .500 team or better once the back end of the rotation gets sorted out a bit.

The bottom line? Now is still not the time to panic. Not after a series against that quality of opponent and given how the losses came.

Offense was always going to make the difference this year and it has indeed gotten better with numbers that should continue to grow and widen the gap between the 2013 stats and those of prior years. It takes time to do that when you start off as slowly as the Mariners did in most of April. But things have been coming around for a while now after players returned from injury, and despite all the losses in Cleveland, that fundamental OBP base is still there and looking intact.

The trick now is for the Mariners to stick with their approach and keep hoping it pays off more frequently. It should, with a little luck and a few changes in personnel. It already is working. The Mariners just went tooth and nail with two of the league’s best teams. What they can’t do now is abandon their approach. They had a very tough April and May schedule and if they can survive it and get to July a .500 team, then that’s what most of us said would be key topossibly sticking around with the big boys after that.

We are a long way from July. This offense is much better than it was before. The pitching is at least decent and could improve. Let’s give this more time to play out, make some changes where they can be made and see whether this team lives up to expectations.

If not, then I’ll be the first to say that this plan isn’t working and should have accomplished more in five years of time. I won’t string you along for another five years based on my baseball politics or my own personal beliefs on the best strategy for roster construction and team design. If it appears to be working, there are a number of different processes that can accomplish the job.

This team improved over the offseason and we’ve seen it on the field of play in terms of how the games have gone, if not in the wins and loses. Let’s give the season time to play out and leave the hand-wringing for when the Mariners actually start playing like a 72-win team and not one that just went toe-to-toe with two of the games finest in their own backyards.

 

 

Comments | More in analysis | Topics: justin smoak; tom wilhelmsen; hisashi iwakuma; eric wedge

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