Just when it seemed as though Seattle’s thick layer of marine air had turned the typical Mariners lineup into a collection of head cases, the team concluded its homestand under the bluest sky you’ll ever see.
Would the suddenly pristine weather conditions, combined with a festive holiday crowd, shake the hitters from their Safeco Field funk?
The home scoreboard line Wednesday afternoon looked a lot like the home scoreboard line from any other day or night game during this funeral dirge of a baseball season: Two runs, three hits and no errors in a 4-2 defeat to the Baltimore Orioles.
The Fourth of July might as well have been the Twelfth of Never.
But at least the 49th defeat of 2012 provided a subplot, cruel though it was.
This was tale of two trades: one that backfired on the Mariners almost from the moment it was made, and one that may yet work out – as long as the events of Wednesday don’t become the norm.
No need to dwell too much on the backfired trade: the 2008 blockbuster that sent center fielder Adam Jones, relief pitcher George Sherrill and three minor league pitching prospects to the Orioles for left-handed starter Erik Bedard.
It’s destined to be remembered as the deal that defined a once-successful organization’s retreat into irrelevance under former general manager Bill Bavasi.
“I know it seems like a long time coming,” Bavasi said after the long-anticipated trade finally was made official. “But these are high-stakes deals, and we are getting one hell of a player.”
As it turned out, the Mariners didn’t get that much of a player – Bedard went 15-14 over parts of three injury-plagued seasons, receiving $15.75 million for his part-time work – but they did catch hell, a state of despair that keeps on giving.
Jones, the key to the trade, is headed to the All-Star Game.
He has become a fan favorite in Baltimore, and it’s easy to understand why.
The second-inning homer that landed in the upper-deck seats in left field was his 20th of the season, but as impressive as his power and speed is his flair for having fun.
Whenever the Orioles trotted off the field for their turn at bat, Jones made it a point to get the ball and toss it into the stands.
These weren’t indifferent lobs, by the way. He put some mustard on the throws. Fans competed for the souvenirs, as they might compete for foul balls.
And then there is Chris Tillman, considered the best of the three pitching prospects Bavasi gave the Orioles.
The career of the 2007 Mariners Minor League Pitcher of the Year has had its stalls and detours, but the right-hander – promoted from Triple-A on Wednesday morning – looked like a hoss in his first big-league start of 2012.
Tillman didn’t allow a baserunner to advance as far as second until the ninth inning, when John Jaso and Justin Smoak finally managed two high-quality swings off him.
“Oh, he was great,” said Baltimore manager Buck Showalter. “Tillman did it. We got to the point where we needed a little fresh gunpowder, and ‘Tilly’ provided that.
“Adam got us off to a good start, but Tillman was the story today.”
He was the story of the Orioles.
The Mariners’ story, aside from the usual harangue about their feeble bats, was how starting pitcher Hector Noesi got knocked around by a team whose only consistent offensive force is Jones.
“I was not good today,” said Noesi, and let’s give him this much: Instead of fertilizing the lawn with the usual clichés about his good stuff undermined by only one or two bad pitches, he cut to the chase: He was not good.
The not-good pitching of Noesi has become a trend. He’s 2-11, with an ERA of 5.77, and he’s still throwing fat-as-a-punching-bag pitches on 0-2 counts. In the third inning, for instance, after Mark Reynolds led off with a single, Noesi had the Orioles’ No. 9 batter, light-hitting second baseman Roberto Andino, where he wanted him – behind on an 0-2 count.
Instead of wasting a pitch, Noesi threw a breaking ball that Andino returned through the middle of the infield, and after Xavier Avery put down the expected bunt, Baltimore had two runners in position to score.
Which they did.
“He made some mistakes,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said of Noesi. “We just need him to take the next step, to the point where we know what we’re getting from him.”
Noesi’s next step likely will require 45 minutes, depending on the traffic on Interstate-5.
He should be pitching in Cheney Stadium, a pleasant correctional facility for major league pitchers habitually disinclined to take advantage of 0-2 counts.
Noesi was acquired this past winter from the Yankees, along with catcher/designated hitter Jesus Montero, in a deal that sent starting right-hander Michael Pineda and minor league pitcher Jose Campos to New York.
In any analysis of the trades overseen by Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, the acquisition of Montero and Noesi remains on the plus side, if for no other reason than Pineda’s season-ending shoulder injury.
But even that preliminary verdict is tenuous, and appeared even more tenuous when Montero had to be helped off the field in the top of the fifth after suffering an apparent “minor” concussion.
“It happens to every catcher,” said Montero. “But catchers got to be tough. I’m a little dizzy, but I’ll be OK.”
That Montero is tough is not the issue, nor should it be. He took a knockout to the mask, which spared any damage to his face but makes you wonder about the toll of knockouts – by my count, including spring training, it’s at least three – is taking on his head.
Montero, like almost everybody else in the lineup, has been slumping, but the Mariners would be wise to keep their eyes on the prize:
Montero was brought to Seattle to rake in a cleanup role, and every shot to the head that leaves him dizzy at the age of 22 makes him less of a threat to rake in a cleanup role at the age of 27, when he figures to be reaching his prime.
Enough with this nonsense. Montero’s long-range potential behind the plate is minimal, a concession Zduriencik made last month when the Mariners chose University of Florida catcher Mike Zunino as the third overall player in the amateur draft. So why put Montero in harm’s way?
The trade that cost Jones turned out to be a disaster for the Mariners. The trade that cost Pineda looks much better, but only if Montero develops into the hitter Zduriencik envisioned.
In the bottom of the ninth inning Wednesday, with two outs and a runner at second, Montero should have had a chance at tying the score with one swing. But because he’d been knocked out and was dealing with dizziness, he didn’t get that chance.
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