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.

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