The Seattle Mariners have 66 home dates remaining on their schedule.
If there’s a better game than the potential pitchers’ duel tonight between Felix Hernandez and the Texas Rangers’ Yu Darvish, I’m not seeing it.
Sure, the Los Angeles Angels start a four-game series at Safeco Field on Thursday, but the team that owes $240 million to Albert Pujols is still trying to push its way to .500. The Dodgers are coming to Seattle for a weekend series in June, and that should be fun, except the history between the clubs is so scant, it could be written on the back of an ATM receipt.
The Boston Red Sox are looking at two visits to Safeco Field, but they’re only interesting because of manager Bobby Valentine, whose nine different personalities represent a team that barely has one.
And then, of course, there are the Yankees, who are supposed to evoke fear and loathing. They were swept out of their house by the Cincinnati Reds over the weekend. The Yanks could well be their old selves when they make their only Seattle appearance in late July. On the other hand, that’s the problem in the Bronx: The Yankees’ old selves.
Remember when the American League offensive leaderboards were populated by guys in pinstripes? Remember when their postseason aspirations were considered a playoff-berth right? Remember when the Bombers packed flair and glamour into a lineup that contained no easy outs? Remember when their owner was seen as almost larger-than-life?
Remember when the Yankees were the “It” team?
There’s still an It team, but this season the designation belongs to the Rangers, the New Yankees of the AL.
Texas ranks as the league’s No. 1 team in, let’s see, hits, runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and total bases. Such a comprehensive domination of the stats might be explained by the fact the Rangers play their home games inside a ballpark where a hot summer breeze bounces off the upper deck behind home plate and provides a slingshot effect for balls hit in the air.
Fair enough. But then how do you explain the Rangers leading the league in ERA? How do you explain a 15-7 road record that’s better than their 11-9 home record?
The Rangers came one pitch from beating St. Louis in a six-game World Series last year. It was their second Fall Classic stumble in two seasons, and some figured the so-close, yet-so-far trend would find Ron Washington’s team emotionally toasted, running on empty.
But just as the world champion, team-for-the-ages Yankees did in 1961– the year after they lost a World Series to Pittsburgh, on Bill Mazeroski’s bottom of the ninth, Game 7 home run – the Rangers returned to work with a fury. Comparisons between those Yankees and these Rangers don’t stop there. Texas center fielder Josh Hamilton is a modern-day Mickey Mantle: A switch-hitting, Triple-Crown threat whose off-the-field issues are his only challenge.
Nobody – not even Hamilton, who with 18 homers is on pace to break Roger Maris’ non-juiced-era record of 61 in a season – has been more influential to the Rangers’ surge atop the AL West than Darvish, the right-handed starter they acquired as a free agent from Japan. Darvish made his big-league debut against the Mariners on April 9, and for about 45 minutes, he looked like somebody suffering an acute case of stage fright.
As a procession of Seattle batters took confident swings on those rare pitches that were thrown in the strike zone, Nolan Ryan, the Rangers’ chief executive, could be seen grimacing from his seat over the first-base dugout.
Ryan’s body language was eloquent. It said: “We paid $110 million for Yu?”
But the Mariners didn’t have a knockout punch that night, and Darvish survived long enough to pick up the victory, and now he’s 6-1, with 58 strikeouts. The odds-on choice for AL rookie of the year, Darvish also is in contention for the Cy Young Award.
Which brings us to Hernandez, the 2010 Cy Young recipient whose work in 2012 has run the gamut, from wow to ow. Wow could be in store tonight. The last time Hernandez faced a ballyhooed rookie pitcher from Japan – on April 11, 2007, in Boston, facing Daisuke Matsuzaka – he threw a one-hit shutout.
King Felix vs. The Whirling Darvish.
It’s a pitching match made in heaven, along with a chance to see the presumptive AL champions take on a Mariners team that looked like a powerhouse in Colorado.
After Jesus Montero and Justin Smoak hit back-to-back homers in the third inning Sunday, radio broadcaster Ken Levine couldn’t be blamed for calling Mike Carp’s shot to the fence a third consecutive home run. Carp’s poke was reeled in, but no matter. In his next at-bat, Carp left no room for optimistic speculation. He put the ball in the upper deck.
Weeknight games during the school year are a tough sell – the Mariners have played six of them, with an average attendance of 13,386 – but if you aren’t jazzed about the New Yankees in Safeco Field, about Felix dealing with Darvish, you have my condolences.
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