Even if it ended badly for the Mariners, and for Willie Bloomquist in particular, last night's game against first-place Tampa Bay showed that the Mariners still have some fight in them. Though they blew a four-run lead on errors by Jose Lopez and failed to drive home a run in what should have been an easy game-winning situation, Seattle provided some excitement and refused to give up, even with an utterly depleted bench that had them giving up the DH in order to have enough position players. And we got another glimpse of the Mariners' future, at least on the mound.
Ryan Rowland-Smith had been sent down to stretch out his arm as a starter, a wise decision on a team without a strong rotation--and, if Washburn is traded as expected, even weaker--and for a pitcher who'd done well as a reliever. He'd logged a 2-1 record this year, with two saves, in 46.1 IP, putting up 39 strikeouts against 21 BBs. That last number is the only glaring mark against his 3.30 ERA, and part of what he'd gone down to the minors to work on. In Tacoma, he did a little better, with 12 Ks against 7 BBs in 18.2 IP, with a 2-0 record and a 2.89 ERA.
He seemed ready to go as a starter, probably with a short leash, when he took the mound last night. In retrospect, the leash was probably not short enough. Through five-and-two-third innings, he'd only given up one run on five hits and one walk, striking out five. Gabe Gross' solo shot in the third was his only blemish to this point, and with a four-run lead, this didn't seem to be a big deal. He struck out Carlos Pena with the bases loaded to end the fifth inning, and looked like he might cruise for at least one more inning to get the win.
Then the circus began. Aybar doubled, Navarro walked, and Gabe Gross hit a hard shot to Lopez, who laid out and gloved it. But then he couldn't get the ball out to force Navarro at second, so the bases were juiced, and Rowland-Smith got the hook. In came Cesar Jimenez, who only needed to retire one batter to keep Seattle in the lead. But Iwamura reached on an infield single that scored Aybar, B.J. Upton and Carl Crawford hit back-to-back two-run doubles, and Carlos Pena drove in another on a single. Had Pena not tried to stretch the single to a double--as Carl Crawford had done successfully the inning before--the damage might have been worse.
Still, Seattle was only down two, and managed to keep it that way until the eighth, when Bryan LaHair and Jeff Clement both doubled, and Ichiro drove in Miguel Cairo (running for Clement). Raul Ibanez couldn't keep it going, but it was enough to stretch the game into extra innings.
J.J. Putz faced his own difficulties in the ninth and tenth. With runners on the corner and two out in the ninth, he got Dioner Navarro to foul out; and in the tenth, he walked the bases loaded with one out, then struck out Carlos Pena and got some defensive help from Yuniesky Betancourt, who snagged a hard line drive off the bat of Eric Hinske, leaping to make a great catch.
But, on the downside, Seattle couldn't capitalize on its own bases-loaded situation in the bottom of the tenth. Betancourt led off with a single, and Ichiro moved him over with a single of his own. Willie Bloomquist then stepped to the plate and hit a hard grounder to Aybar at third, who tried to turn two. Bloomquist hustled it out, however, beating the throw to first with the sort of lunge coaches try and prevent players from doing.
The reason for this caution was borne out by Bloomquist, who grabbed his right hamstring and collapsed. He had to leave the game--and will likely miss even more time--which presented a problem for manager Jim Riggleman, whose bench was empty. He brought in Jarrod Washburn to pinch run, but if Seattle failed to score, it would mean that a pitcher would have to play the field, or Seattle would lose the DH. It was a real do-or-die (or at least do-or-die-slowly) situation.
Facing Ibanez at the plate and runners at the corners, Joe Maddon elected to walk the red-hot Ibanez to load the bases and face Adrian Beltre with one out. All it would take was a deep fly ball to score Betancourt from third and the game would be over. Typically managers will bring in the outfield in this situation, to deny the sinking liner. Maddon went one further, bringing center fielder B.J. Upton all the way in to the infiel, to stand in front of second. It was an odd move, and Upton could be seen saying "What the ----?"
Beltre had wide open power alleys and foul lines, so a ball pulled hard, poked over the middle, or hit hard and deep, would all score. Unfortunately, he was facing submarining Chad Bradford, recently acquired by the Rays. Bradford is an extreme submariner, his knuckles practically scraping the ground as he releases the pitch; as a result, he induces plenty of ground balls, which is just what Maddon needed. With the count 0-2, Beltre took a pitch, then fouled off five more, before hitting a ground ball to third. Double play, inning over.
This seemed to take the rest of the steam out of the Ms, to say nothing of its bullpen, as Miguel Batista (he of the 6.82 ERA) came on to give up a sac fly to Navarro that put the Rays up for good. Percival closed out the side in order, and the Rays won, 8-7.
Plenty of excitement doesn't always lead to a good result, and Seattle fans walked away sad last night. But they got to see lots of stuff they'd never seen before--like a five-man infield, or an empty bench eliminating the DH--and lots more they'd seen already--like the Mariners pen coughing up a lead or Seattle failing to drive in a run in the clutch.
But there were silver linings in the all-too-familiar clouds. The Mariners scrapped hard, their youngsters hit well (two-hit days from LaHair, Betancourt, Lopez, and Johjima), Ichiro shone (4-6, with a homer and 3 RBI), and Putz showed guts in pitching out of trouble. Even the loss of Bloomquist isn't necessarily a bad thing, since it will mean more playing time for the younger players.
Most of all, in a game and a series where the Ms could have just laid down and died, they battled hard and showed their fans glimmers of hope for the future. With very few reasons to watch Seattle games, sometimes that's all you can ask for.
Keywords: Adrian Beltre, Akinori Iwamura, B.J. Upton, Bryan LaHair, Carl Crawford, Carlos Pena, Cesar Jimenez, Chad Bradford, Gabe Gross, Ichiro Suzuki, J.J. Putz, Jarrod Washburn, Jeff Clement, Jeremy Reed, Jim Riggleman, Jose Lopez, Miguel Batista, Miguel Cairo, Raul Ibanez, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Seattle Mariners, Tampa Bay Rays, Willie Bloomquist, Yuniesky Betancourt