The season in microcosm

Cubs beat mariners
John Lester’s squeeze bunt beat the Mariners in the 12th inning at Wrigley Field.  It shouldn’t have ended this way.

I wasn’t able to watch either of the first two games in Chicago.  Stuff happens, I was busy, and the Cubs predilection for day games simply worked against me.  But I got all my Sunday errandy duties out of the way so I could catch a rare Mariners game on Sunday Night Baseball.  I reflected on Saturday’s miracle win over Aroldis Chapman, and remembered the King was pitching before a national audience, and decided I had to see it.  When I turned the game off in the 10th inning, game tied 6-6, I knew what was going to happen.

Waking up early this morning, I reached for my iPad and the MLB.com update that would appear in the 4:00 darkness, and sure enough there it was: Cubs beat Mariners 7-6.

This game had so much promise, just as the Mariners did in May.  The M’s should have won, but were sabotaged by so many of the same factors that have plagued the team throughout the season.

The offense does its bit . . . sort of

When Nelson Cruz hit his 26th home run in the first inning to give Felix and the M’s an early lead, I cheered.  I cheered some more when Robinson Cano homered in the second to make it 4-0.  I think I said out loud-“We got this,” when Dae-Ho Lee awakened from his slump to blast a ball out to center in the third and increase the lead to 6-0.

But the M’s offense did nothing good after the third inning and after Cub manager Joe Maddon replaced Cubs starter Brian Matusz. It’s not that the Mariners didn’t have chances. The M’s loaded the bases with no outs in the sixth inning, but lefty reliever Travis Wood masterfully handled the next three M’s batters-Shawn O’Malley, Leonys Martin, and Cano, all left-handed-and the M’s came away with nothing.

The Mariners had another opportunity in the eighth inning when Mike Zunino led off with double, but the inexperienced Edwin Diaz, trying to move Zunino to third, bunted directly to first baseman Anthony Rizzo, playing virtually on top of him, who fired to  third to nail Zunino.  O’Malley forced Diaz as second, and then was cleverly picked off to end the inning.

The 2016 Mariners are the team of homers.  Not solo homers like 2015. But when they need a base hit, or a sacrifice fly it feels increasingly hard to come by. The Mariners had plenty of chances to add on in this game, and they simply failed.

Felix holds the Cubs at bay . . . as long as he can.

The Cubs blasted the M’s and the Mariners most consistent starting pitcher, Hisashi Iwakuma,  for 12 runs on Friday.  They are one of the most potent run-scoring teams in baseball.  Felix Hernandez had his hands full.

Despite walking the first two batters, Felix struck out the next three batters to end the threat. He held the Cubs hitless until the fourth inning.  Just as obviously, the King was not going to remain in the game long, as the Cubs relentlessly ground out long at bats, driving up his pitch count. Though he struck out eight in the game, Felix also walked five, including walking in a run in a bases loaded fifth inning. Hernandez was pulled for a pinch hitter after the fifth inning with his pitch count at 103.

Though he managed to hold the Cubs to two runs, this outing was emblematic of Mariners starting pitching in 2016.  Short outings that expose the bullpen for too long, that’s the story of this rotation for this season.  Felix is simply exhibit A.

The Defense-help like this, we don’t need.

The Mariners defense has, speaking charitably, been spotty this year. Sunday was no exception. Kyle Seager’s third inning error on Dexter Fowler’s groundout was not a difference maker in the game, but it did prolong the inning, allow another batter and contribute to Felix’s burgeoning pitch count.

But the biggest defensive mistake doesn’t even figure into the box score. In the seventh inning Fowler led off with a walk and stole second.  Batting with two outs, Ben Zobrist lined a single into center that centerfielder Leonys Martin took a terrible route to and misplayed into a triple.  Fowler scored, and with his speed likely would have scored on a single, but it was a needless mental mistake. Diaz relieved Wilhelmsen to stop the bleeding.

The Mariners make too many defensive mistake that prolong innings and allow extra runs, earned and unearned. This is simply too difficult a game under the best of circumstances to give away extra outs, extra bases, or extra runs. But the M’s continue to play that game.

CISHEK!!!

Manager Scott Servais ran out Drew Storen, Tom Wilhelmsen, and Edwin Diaz to preserve the Mariner lead and the King’s victory on national television.  The Cubs chipped away at the 6-0 advantage, but when the M’s ran their closer, Steve Cishek, out to apply the coup de grace, they still held a 6-3 lead.  Three run lead, three outs. Sounds easy right?

Back in 1997, when the M’s were hitting home runs and scoring at a historic pace, they had the worst bullpen ever. Paul Spoljaric, Mike Timlin, Heathcliff Slocumb, a terrible Norm Charlton, remember those guys?  Bobby Ayala actually looked good by comparison.  The Ms would be ahead by six or eight runs in the sixth or seventh inning, and I’d start counting down outs while trading off runs. I’ve taken to doing that in 2016.  Okay, they’ve got a three run lead to trade for six outs.  Still a two run lead, only need four outs . . .

Strikeout, double, single, single (Rizzo scores,) hit batsman (bases loaded,) fielders choice (run scores.) Gaaahhhhh.  But with two outs, it seemed the M’s might escape with a 6-5 win.  Facing right-hander Sczur, Cishek threw a ball at least two feet outside in the dirt which fortunately didn’t ricochet any further than it did, because it seemed to roll forever. Tying run scored.

The remaining three innings were all academic.  The M’s used up their best relievers early, while the Cubs could run out platoons of guys with good stuff. Former Mariner Mike Montgomery, Hector Strop, Pedro Rondon, and Aroldis Chapman, all guys who can match up and throw hard finished the game for Chicago.  The M’s rolled out Cody Martin, recently called up from Tacoma, who lasted 2.1 innings until the inevitable happened.

Cishek has had his moments of good, but way too many moments of oops. It is clear he is decreasingly effective against left=handed batters.  His splits for right=handers .147/.221.232 vs lefties .250/.341/.500 is breathtaking.  Five of his seven home runs allowed are against left-handed hitters. Rizzo, Zobrist, Addison Russell, and Justin Heyward all reached base in the ninth.  Only Russell is right-handed.

The bottom line is if you can’t pitch to off-handed hitters, you can’t be an effective closer in the major leagues.  Do the M’s have someone who can close? Well, they have three failed closers in Storen, Wilhemsen and Cishek.  The one untried, and unproven guy on staff with closer stuff is Diaz, and I just don’t know if they are ready to go there with a 22-year old with little major league experience.

Maddon vs. Servais

Joe Maddon is the probably the best manager in major league baseball. Scott Servais is learning on the job. Maddon ran rings around Servais in this game with a plethora of double switches, and his amazing use of lefty Travis Wood, who stymied the Mariner rally in the seventh, ran out to the outfield to make a great catch against the wall, and ran back in to pitch some more. The Cubs have a much deeper bench, and a much better bullpen. But surely there was some other answer than making Diaz try to bunt in the eighth inning.

Yes it was just one game.  Was it a difference maker, a back breaker? I dunno.  It turned a pretty tough road trip against three good teams from 5-3 to 4-4.  It left the Mariners record at 52-51 instead of 53-50.  Most important, it left them 5.0 games behind in the Wild Card race and seeming further than ever from catching a spark that will propel them up the standings.  They are a mediocre team. As I sat thinking about what to write, all I could hear was, “This is why you can’t have nice things.”

 

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