Veteran leaders must lead for Mariners
This may sound funny, but the Seattle Mariners are more fun to watch when they fail to put a runner on base than when they score a few times and take a lead into the sixth inning.
At least Philip Humber’s perfect game Saturday was spellbinding theater, even if the Mariners supplied the role of the vanquished. The 7-4 defeat to the Chicago White Sox on Sunday had nothing in common with Humber’s gem except the losers still were the Mariners, who closed out the disappointing season-opening homestand by giving fans a primer on bad baseball.
Bad baseball is a vague term, so let me zero in on one sequence from Sunday. Trailing 5-4 in the bottom of the sixth, the Mariners appeared ready to put together a rally when Brendan Ryan, the No. 9 hitter, got things started by taking a walk from White Sox starter John Danks.
With the top of the order due up, this was a chance for a big inning, right?
Except the Mariners weren’t thinking big. In fact, they weren’t thinking at all, merely hoping leadoff man Chone Figgins could contribute something.
So Figgins attempted a bunt that went foul, and then another bunt that went foul. Despite the two-strike count, Figgins finally got the bunt down, advancing Ryan to second base.
I am not a proponent of sacrifice bunting in any inning but the eighth or ninth, or by anybody but the eighth or ninth hitter in the lineup.
Outs are just too precious to give away for the sake of advancing a runner 90 feet.
But when the leadoff hitter is bunting in the sixth inning – bunting, mind you, with two strikes – that’s a sign of desperation, a scream for help.
At least Figgins was able to put the ball in play. A fouled bunt on the third attempt would have counted as a strikeout, on an afternoon where Figgins had three of them. In 65 at-bats this season, Figgins has whiffed 20 times. You can live with a power hitter who strikes out once every three or four trips to the plate, but Figgins is not a power hitter.
He is a leadoff hitter with one stolen base, a .215 batting average and a .278 on-base percentage. How long does the experiment manager Eric Wedge implemented in spring training – returning Figgins to his leadoff roots – last before Wedge is forced to admit it’s not working?
In any case, this was one of those games Wedge has in mind when he reminds the world about the virtues of remaining patient. It’s a young team – four of the Mariners’ position players Sunday were in the minor leagues last April – and young teams are nothing if not inconsistent.
But this young team also has veterans general manager Jack Zduriencik signed as free agents, and they’re struggling more than the virtual rookies. Take catcher Miguel Olivo, whose numbers make Figgins resemble an All-Star candidate.
Olivo is hitting .154. Not known for his sure hands behind the plate, he could be tolerated if he sent the occasional ball over the fence. (His 18 home runs in 2011 led the team.)
Through 16 games, Olivo’s power has produced two extra-base hits, both doubles. His slugging percentage is .192.
I don’t want to pile on here because Olivo actually played one his better games Sunday. He had two hits and made two tag outs at the plate.
But, yikes, he’s a catcher who has difficulty with the essential fundamental of the position – that would be catching the ball – and isn’t doing anything when there’s a bat in his hands.
The Mariners most recent free-agent acquisition, starting pitcher Kevin Millwood, was the losing pitcher Sunday. The 37-year-old right-hander came to Seattle on the recommendation of Wedge, who managed Millwood in Cleveland. Wedge admires Millwood’s work ethic and leadership qualities – admirable traits, to be sure, but at some point a gritty veteran pitcher has to make gritty veteran pitches.
A two-run rally in the bottom of the fourth – by Mariners standards, it qualified as an explosion – had given them a 4-2 lead.
Millwood surrendered it in the top of the sixth. He walked Adam Dunn and gave up a hit to Paul Konerko, and before the White Sox were through, three runs crossed the plate.
“Every time I needed to get out of a jam, I wasn’t able to do it,” Millwood said. “Thing is, I felt really good, and I thought my stuff was good. I just didn’t make pitches when I needed to.
”It’s not because I’m tired. I’m just searching, trying to figure this out. I’ll do some work and see what happens.”
Since handcuffing the Rangers after escaping a laborious first inning in Texas on April 11, Millwood has been rocked by the Indians and White Sox. He’s 0-2 with a 7.08 ERA. Millwood knows his craft and seems to be a stand-up guy, but again, where are the results?
For that matter, where are the results for Figgins and Olivo? If the Mariners are committed to a youth movement that requires us to be patient with kids, I’d rather see the struggle waged by kids vying for a future with the team than by veterans unable to pull their weight.
“We can’t panic,” Millwood said of the Mariners, who lost four in a row at home to beatable opponents. “We’re only 16 or 17 games into this season. Panic is definitely not the answer.”
Noted. April is not a time to panic. There will be plenty of time to panic in May and June and July.
Meanwhile, Chone Figgins needs to start rallies by getting on base, and Kevin Millwood needs to quell rallies by making pitches that extricate him from jams, and Miguel Olivo needs some timely intercession from St. Jude.
The patron saint of lost causes.