Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Chilly Double-Header

It was cold in the Cell last night. More than a few times the mercury dipped below 37. The previous night's game had been rained out, and Nicole was unable to join me for Tuesday afternoon, so I spent a good portion of the day down at the ball park by myself and despite the weather and the solitude, it was a fun evening.

I only caught the last 4 innings of Game 1, which ended up being a big disappointment as our replacement fifth starter did an amazing job of holding Chicago to just two hits over eight innings, but the Sox turned those hits into runs and Seattle couldn't put up more than one run to support their pitcher. Griffey hit a deep ball to right center that suffered an ill timed change in the wind--most nights that ball would have been an easy homer, but it bounced off the center field wall and he was stranded at 2nd base with no one behind him to hit him in. It was the kind of game exemplary of Seattle's strengths and weaknesses this season: excellent pitching and defense, not enough hitting through the lineup.

During the brief intermission between games I stood in the front row and watched "King Felix" warm up for what I expected to be another pitchers duel between Hernandez and Sox Ace John Danks. I was joined in the front row by a couple of men who were also taking pictures and admiring the M's pitcher, so I struck up a conversation with them about the Mariners and Felix Hernandez. They were visiting Chicago from Venezuela for some conference, so in my broken Spanish and their broken English we talked about the great Venezuelan players on the Mariners and throughout MLB.

Game two started off with a bang. Ichiro hits a great leadoff single, gets bunted over to 2nd, steals third, and gets hit home by Mike Sweeny's awkward blooper single. Its the way they've been scoring runs all year: speed and luck. With Felix pitching, it could have been enough, but the Mariners bats decided to come alive last night. Yuni Betancourt is an incredibly frustrating player-- he doesn't draw walks, strikes out a lot, hits into a lot of double plays, and plays terrible short-stop these days. He manages to put up a decent batting average, but because he can't play "smart" he doesn't help us win. Thus it was a pleasant surprise in the second inning with two on and a full count he put a fly ball just over the left field fence to tack on three more runs. After that Seattle kept on hitting, scoring five more runs and racking up 19 hits-- more than enough support for Felix who stuck out nine and held the Sox to just four hits. It was good to see some run production from Seattle. First baseman Russell Branyan went 5 for 5 with a couple of doubles. This guy has awesome power, and if he stays healthy and can keep making contact, Seattle will indeed have an offense capable of winning. As I've said many times, Adrian Beltre might be one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball, but he needs to start connecting and hitting with power again. Right now he's batting a paltry .167, and even with a golden glove, that won't cut it. Eventually folks like Endy Chavez are going to come back to earth after an uncharacteristic hot start, it would be a huge help to the team if Beltre starts hitting around that time. I like that Wlad Balentien is hitting well and Wakamatsu would be wise to keep platooning him against lefties for Griffey and Gutierrez.

For the second half of the last game I sat in front of a family visiting from Seattle. We enjoyed talking together about classic Seattle baseball and how exciting it was to have Jr. back. Though they were there to root for the Mariners, one of the girls had a big sign declaring her crush on Sox bench coach (and former Mariner) Joey Cora.

So the big question a lot of people are still asking, is this Seattle team legit? We're now nearly done with a month of baseball and they remain on top of AL west. The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are in shambles right now with half their rotation and Vlad Guerrero on the DL, and Texas and Oakland are quite beatable. The circumstances are right for the Mariners to stay in contention. They've lucked out a little and they've won some games with "small ball", but the hitting will still need to improve in order to stay on top of the division. Manager Don Wakamatsu has Seattle bunting more often than any other team in the AL; and its worked so far, but the rate of return on continuing that strategy is declinging. If all you can do is bunt, then all the oposition has to do is play the infield in. Unless you can legitimately threaten with actual hits, Seattle will keep losing a lot of 2-1/1-0 ball games. If Branyan keeps hitting well, Griffey/Sweeny don't implode, and Beltre finally starts producing, it will not be hard to run away with the division.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Christ the Lord is Risen Today

What a celebration! Church this morning was so beautiful. The bells, the choir, the brass, the tulips, the lilies, the tapestries, the butterflies--all to praise our risen Lord. I've always wanted to take some pictures in the sanctuary at North Park Covenant, and I though this would be a good opportunity.


The kids had a quick Easter Egg Hunt on the platform!

The choir sang the Hallelujah Chorus and invited the congregation to come to the front and join in
Multicolored butterflies were a new addition this year

Jesus lives, and so shall I. Death! thy sting is gone forever!

Resurrection

I believe the Easter story not because I can prove it, but because I need it to make sense of everything else. A Poem:

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

-John Updike, Seven Stanzas for Easter

Monday, April 6, 2009

Its Finally Here...

...opening day. It snowed here in Chicago last night and its a brisk 33 degrees today. Not really spring weather, but that's okay. Opening day is here. Much to Nicole's annoyance, from here on out I'll be spending a lot more time watching MLB Gameday on the computer, listening to WGN on the radio, and commandeering the remote for Baseball Tonight.

Most of us Seattle fans were duped last year when the 2007 Mariners managed to win 88 games and come in 2nd in our division, we thought the addition of Eric Bedard to the starting pitching would put us in contention for for the AL West title. Instead, we got an injury plagued pitching and a total offensive implosion which resulted in 101 losses, the second worst in baseball. This was a scenario worse than dead last, because this year's draft includes the most important prospect in decades: San Diego State's pitching phenom Stephen Strausburg. The guy has a 101 mph fastball and a wicked slider. He once struck out 23 batters in a game. I wouldn't be surprised if this summer he wasn't some team's number three or four starter. The Washington Nationals will have the first shot at him, but had we lost just two more games he could have been ours! We'll see what happens around midseason.

But what about this year? With a new GM and field manager has Seattle put together a better team than last years? Absolutely.

First off, defense: The acquisition of OFs Franklin Guitierez and Endy Chavez combined with Ichiro in right field means we have one of the best defensive outfields in MLB. Our number 4 and 5 starters Jarrod Washburn and Ryan Rowland-Smith are fly-ball pitchers. This outfield will help them win games that last year's outfield could not. There are still big defensive holes in the middle infield, particularly with Yunieski Betancourt at shortstop, but with Ronnie Cedeno as a legitimate starter on the bench it could put some pressure on Betancourt to either sharpen up his game or ride some pine. Last year Tampa Bay proved that defense and speed can get you to the World Series (of course, a big offensive year from Evan Longoria didn't hurt either).

Some Seattle fans are concerned that without power hitters in the outfield that this team won't be able to score runs, but I think subtle offensive upgrades we've made combined with some more speed on the basepaths from Guitierez and Chavez will keep this team competitive. I'd like to think we've made a big upgrade at first base this year by picking up Russ Branyan from Milwaukee. Because he couldn't get playing time from Prince Fielder the last couple of years, he doesn't have a lot of career numbers to brag about, but he hit a lot of homers this spring and almost anyone would be an upgrade Richie Sexson. Manager Don Wakumatsu has been working on playing "small ball" this spring. Kenji Johima is unlikely to be as bad as he was last year. Sure we'll miss Raul Ibanez's RBIs, but Griffey is likely to be a power upgrade over Jose Vidro in the DH spot and if Jose Lopez continues to improve his power and contact, this line-up could certainly produce runs.

If Eric Bedard stays healthy, the Mariners will have that 1-2 punch in their starting rotation that we hoped for last year. Felix Hernandez has shown flashes of brilliance in his young career, and we should hope that he continues to improve. I remember one game in particular last season when he struck out the heart of the Tiger's line up on 9 pitches. He's got the stuff to be a Cy Young winner. Carlos Silva was absolutely dreadful last year and did not look good this spring. One of the bright spots of last year was seeing the young Brandon Morrow get stretched out from the bullpen to become a starter. In his starting debut he 1-hit the Yankees through 6 innings, and I was glad to see another great starting pitcher in our rotation. Unfortunately, Morrow has type-1 diabetes and the stamina demands of starting has forced him to return to the bullpen. Morrow will be a great closer, but we are more in need of a great starter in the back half of the rotation. Aside from Morrow the bullpen doesn't have any superstar relievers, but they can all throw hard and there is plenty of competent relief arms in Tacoma to call up as the season goes on.

Finally, the bench has been greatly improved and that means more than some people might think. After cutting a bunch of the dead weight from last years team, the Mariners were basically sending a AAA team out on the field night after night to get slaughtered. GM Jack Zduriencik deserves kudos for cutting $20million out of the budget but building a team with better depth than last years. Cedeno can plug any holes in our infield, Chris Shelton would be a fine option at 1st base if Branyan is injured, and if Mike Sweeny isn't washed up he could serve as a fine pinch hitter.

The AL west might be a toss up again this year. I don't know anyone picking the Mariners to run away with it, the Angels are certainly still the favorites, but if all the pieces fall together we could see Seattle and Oakland contending late into the season. If at mid-season we aren't in second place, expect management to unload some of our best talent in their final year of contract (Beltre and Beddard) and watch the team fall to 3rd or 4th.

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In the NL central I think the Cubs are destined to dominate again this year. They might have been the best club in baseball last year, and they're almost certainly better this year with the addition of Milton Bradley. Defense is the Cubs only weakness. The can score runs in all kinds of ways, and they have an excellent rotation. Carlos Marmol will be as good a closer as Kerry Wood was. The trick is not choking in the first round of the playoffs three years in a row. You might be getting tired of hearing it, but this is the year. The Brewers are a fun team to watch, I hope they can win the Wild Card again this year. Then again, Albert Pujols and the Cards could always come up with some surprises too.

The AL Central is another "toss-up". Of course I like the Twins, but if Joe Mauer doesn't get healthy and stay healthy they could struggle to keep up with Cleaveland. The White Sox squeeked it out last year, but its hard to imagine lightening striking twice for a team that doesn't look any better on paper.

I was thrilled last season when Tampa Bay finally pushed past the Yankees and Red Sox in the AL East--especially when you consider the Rays have the second lowest payroll in baseball and the NE teams have the two biggest! Rooting for the Rays again this year, though most people are picking the Yankees barring a meltdown from A-Rod after his offseason from hell.

Aside from that I got the Mets in the NL East and the Dodgers in the West. Even though last year was a miserable season to be a Seattle sports fan, the level of parity in baseball last year and this year makes for some excitement as "dark horse" teams keep just keep us guessing. As the saying goes, every team starts the season in first place.