Late in a game that looked like hundreds of others the Seattle Mariners have played at Safeco Field this decade, Justin Smoak hit a routine grounder to third base for the first out in the bottom of the ninth.
Because the Mariners were trailing the Texas Rangers 4-0, and because crowd involvement was limited to the only routines that bring on noise – hydro races on the video board, dancing groundskeepers on the infield, and The Wave – the fans had no reaction to Smoak’s out.
Nobody realized that as the slumping switch hitter was returning to the dugout for another quick conclusion to another uneventful game, he had just done something historic. By going 0-for-4 Sunday, Smoak ended the afternoon with a batting average of .199.
Smoak thus became the fourth player in the Mariners’ lineup to be hitting below .200, joining catcher Miguel Olivo (.199), third baseman Chone Figgins (.185) and shortstop Brendan Ryan (.183). Has a big league team ever started four guys who were hitting below .200 in the middle of July?
It’s a question I’m not equipped to answer, but I’ll go ahead and venture a hunch:
I seriously doubt it.
Last season’s Mariners set a standard of offensive futility for teams of the designated-hitter era – they hit a collective .233 – and not even they finished a game with four starting players below .200. The 1967 Chicago White Sox featured a lineup as meek as any ever assembled – nobody reached 20 homers, or 65 RBI, and no regular hit better than .250. But no regular hit below .200, either.
If there’s a bright side to the Not-So-Fab-Four – and manager Eric Wedge is big on identifying bright sides – it’s that the group isn’t part of the organization’s long-term plans.
Olivo, who turned 34 Sunday, likely won’t be re-signed after his contract expires in October. Figgins, whose contract is guaranteed through 2013, could be included in one of those “we’ll-trade-our-underperforming-player-for-your-underperforming-player” deals. But even if Figgins stays, his role will look like it did Sunday, when he filled in at third for Kyle Seager, who filled in a second for Dustin Ackley, who got the day off against Texas’ ace left-handed pitcher, Matt Harrison.
Ryan is such a gifted acrobat at shortstop that there’s a place for him, but if prospect Nick Franklin progresses in Tacoma, all bets are off for Ryan, an impending free agent.
That leaves Smoak, the erstwhile phenom whose clock is ticking now that he has 1,000 at-bats in the major leagues. Wedge noted that Smoak looked better making contact Sunday, and he did – he put four pitches into play without striking out. But, really, how tough are things when your manager interprets your 0-for-4 effort as a good day?
Without tangible numbers to back him up, Wedge will continue to emphasize the strides the Mariners are making. They held a mighty Texas lineup to four runs in the series finale, they played mistake-free defense, and those bats? Well, if Ryan’s second-inning liner isn’t a dart snabbed by second baseman Ian Kinsler, maybe Olivo scores from second, and maybe Figgins reaches third, and maybe Ichiro Suzuki continues the rally with a hit that turns Harrison from monster into mortal.
Or maybe not.
Ryan offered a lengthy summation of the frustrations that follow a sharply hit ball caught to end a rare scoring threat, then smiled and said: “I’m trying, but I’m running out of quotes.”
The clubhouse on Sunday was not the usual glum place it is after a defeat. In the players lounge, utility infielder Munenori Kawasaki (who didn’t start, preventing Wedge from turning in a lineup with still another player hitting below .200) led a chorus of “Happy Birthday” for Olivo. With a flight to catch for a trip that begins tonight in Kansas City, Mo., there was little inclination to bereave the season’s 53rd defeat.
But it’s July 16, and Smoak is hitting below .200, and so is Ryan and Figgins and Olivo, and those are the kind of statistics that force the question: How bleak can it get?
Still, the beauty of stats is in their fluidity. Slump numbers can be converted into streak numbers with a couple of hits.
Olivo had a chance to hike his batting average to .200 with two outs in the ninth inning. He already had a single off Harrison, whose pitch count – well over 100 – had been noticed by Rangers manager Ron Washington. Despite a 4-0 lead, Washington had closer Joe Nathan warming up in the bullpen.
Harrison coaxed Olivo into two strikes, and then, on the lefty’s 114th pitch of the afternoon, whiffed him.
It’s Wedge’s challenge to accentuate the positive, but the stats don’t lie: The Mariners played a game in mid-July, and when the game was over, four hitters in their starting lineup had batting averages below .200.