Despite the lopsided score and prevailing sense of hopelessness, there was a moment of late-game suspense during another desultory game Sunday at Safeco Field.
It came in the bottom of the seventh inning, after Ken Griffey Jr. led off with a walk and Matt Tuiasasopo crushed a double off the right-field wall. Although the Mariners were trailing 3-0, the crowd finally had a chance to cheer something more substantial than scoreboard hydro races and blooper-play videos. There were runners at second and third, the tying run was at the plate, and the San Diego Padres’ tougher-than-saucepan-grime starting pitcher, Mat Latos, had been replaced by Luke Gregerson.
And then the public-address announcer killed the mood. Just killed it, like the obnoxious ring tone of a cell phone during a fiery speech.
“Now batting for the Mariners,” said Tom Hutyler, “Rob Johnson.”
I don’t want to belittle Johnson, who spent last winter recovering from surgeries to both hips, his left wrist and his right elbow. He does what he can with the ability he’s been given. He tries, he really tries.
But Rob Johnson was hitting .172 when his name was called to sustain the only threat the Mariners were able to muster Sunday. Furthermore, the right-hander posed no matchup advantage against the Padres’ right-handed reliever. While Johnson stood at home plate, left-handed hitters Ryan Langerhans and Michael Saunders remained in the dugout, as did switch-hitter Josh Bard.
That trio of possible pinch hitters is nobody’s idea of a murderers’ row, but any of them would’ve represented an upgrade over Rob Johnson.
Anyway, you probably know what happened: Johnson made solid contact on a 3-2 pitch, driving in his team’s only run with a sacrifice fly to deep left. A run scored, but now there was one out and Tuiasasopo was still on second base, and he remained there until Josh Wilson popped out and Ichiro Suzuki struck out to retire the side.
Forget the shoddy bullpen work that soon followed, when Jesus Colomé and Kanekoa Texeira teamed up to allow five hits and a walk during the Padres’ five-run eighth inning. Those guys were mops summoned after the fact. If the Mariners take advantage of their lone rally in the bottom of the seventh, if they send eight or nine men to the plate instead of five, manager Don Wakamatsu gives the assignment of replacing Felix Hernandez to reliever Brandon League.
League conceivably holds on in the eighth, closer David Aardsma shows up in the ninth, and instead of losing for the 28th time this spring, maybe the Mariners win their first series since April 28.
In any case, it was the failure to produce eventful results after baserunners reached second and third with nobody out that cost the Mariners. And the failure points to Wakamatsu’s mishandling of his resources.
Why not use Langerhans instead of Johnson in the bottom of the seventh? That’s what his role is supposed to be. He’s a veteran, he’s comfortable in stressful situations – he won two games last year hitting home runs as a pinch hitter – and, at the risk of repeating myself, he’s a better option than Rob Johnson.
And then there’s Saunders. Remember Michael Saunders? Remember the kid who struggled through a challenging month in Tacoma before revealing a glimpse of his potential with the big club? After Saunders was promoted from the Rainiers on May 8, he had seven hits in 18 at-bats, including a Mother’s Day home run that ranks among the few Mariners highlights of 2010.
But once Milton Bradley returned from his two-week stay on the restricted list, somebody had to sit, and Wakamatsu has decided that somebody shall be Saunders. It’s a discouraging development, underscored by the plodding look of Wakamatsu’s revised lineup on Sunday. The Mariners started a 36-year-old designed hitter at first base (Mike Sweeney), a 32-year-old designated hitter in left field (Bradley), and a 40-year-old as their actual designated hitter (Griffey).
A team rolling along a track toward 95 defeats, a team that’s virtually been eliminated from playoff contention – don’t bother doing the math, it’ll only depress you – is a team whose fans deserve somebody to hinge their hopes upon the future.
Saunders is 23. The last time we saw him put in meaningful work, he was making a diving catch that led to a double play in an extra-inning game against the A’s in Oakland. This was, let’s see, last Tuesday.
I’m not sure Saunders ever will grow into anything more than an outfield utility player. On the other hand, I’m not sure he can’t mash right-handed pitching and learn to hold his own against lefties. The point is, I’m not sure, he’s not sure, and the Mariners aren’t sure. All any of us can be sure about is that at his age, with his skills, he should me more than a spectator to this mess.
And, yikes, what a mess. Hernandez, who began the season as a favorite to win the Cy Young Award that narrowly eluded him in 2009, is 2-4. He’ll be fortunate to win 10 games. His co-ace on the staff, Cliff Lee, is 2-2. Two of the most talented pitchers in the world have combined to win four times over seven weeks.
“When I have command of my fastball, the other pitches are there,” Hernandez said after he showered and dressed in the clubhouse. “The fastball was there. This was a good game.”
What he meant was, it was a good game for him, something to build on.
For his teammates, it was an afternoon version of a recurring nightmare – another game lost, another rally scotched, another example of a belief system doomed by the sound of a public address announcer’s voice when he says:
“Now batting, Rob Johnson.”