Are the Seattle Mariners cursed? It sure seemed like it Thursday afternoon, when they blew another big lead against a Boston Red Sox team that once knew doom on a first-name basis.
Those days are no more.
Basking in the affection of a Safeco Field crowd so jumping with Boston fans you almost expected “Sweet Caroline” to replace “Louie, Louie” during the seventh-inning stretch, the Red Sox showed all the good things that can happen when a franchise is liberated from eight decades of disappointing history.
After the Mariners had scored seven runs off starter Ryan Dempster, Boston manager John Farrell, hoping to keep the deficit within a touchdown or so, summoned reliever Steven Wright from a depleted bullpen. Wright, promoted this week from Triple A, showed up with a wicked knuckleball that baffled the Mariners long enough for his teammates to even the score and set up a 10th inning with an inevitable outcome.
“The story of the game,” manager Eric Wedge said after the Mariners’ 8-7 defeat. Wedge meant an obscure knuckleball specialist was the story of the game, not needing to note Wright wouldn’t have been the story of the game had Seattle starter Erasmo Ramirez been able to throw strikes.
But Ramirez, making his first big league start of 2013, couldn’t get a grip and the Mariners, for the second time in three games, wasted a 5-1 lead over a team with the best record in the American League. Remember all that organizational pitching depth
purportedly assembled by general manager Jack Zduriencik?
The depth has been reduced to the right arm of ace starter Felix Hernandez and the left arm of reliever Oliver Perez. That’s it, a party of two. Hisashi Iwakuma might be going to the All-Star Game, but he hasn’t resembled that guy in almost a month. Jeremy Bonderman, meanwhile, was designated for assignment Monday, and the same fate would be awaiting fellow veteran starter Aaron Harang if replacements were viable.
They aren’t. Danny Hultzen was on the cusp of a promotion from Tacoma when his left shoulder tightened up – again. James Paxton’s obvious talent has been mitigated by a pattern of reliably unreliable performances for the Rainiers. Taijuan Walker? Don’t hold your breath. The pitching star of the farm system is closing in on the maximum number of innings – about 135 – he’ll be allowed to work in his third full professional season.
In other words, despite giving up seven earned runs before the end of the fifth inning, despite walking four batters and hitting another, despite looking like he was overmatched, Ramirez didn’t pitch himself out of the starting rotation for the same reason Harang hasn’t pitched himself out of the starting rotation:
Nobody is ready to take his place.
As the Mariners’ pitching woes were showcased Thursday – an afternoon of frustration compounded by the Red Sox’s ability to summon a Triple-A reliever for a sensational stint in long relief – it was learned that Blue Jays’ reliever Steve Delabar earned All-Star Game inclusion from a final vote of fans.
Delabar, you might recall, belonged to the Mariners through last July 31, when Zduriencik shipped him to Toronto for outfielder Eric Thames, who since has been traded to the Orioles.
I bring up Delabar not as another example of Zduriencik’s spotty midseason trading record, which begins with the regrettable exchange that sent starter Doug Fister to the Tigers for a multitude of players with far less to offer. It’s fair to second-guess the Fister trade; it’s not fair to second-guess the Delabar deal.
The right-hander was ineffective last season – he gave up nine home runs in 34 appearances – and when Zduriencik sent him to Toronto for what amounted to a fifth outfielder, you shrugged your shoulders, and so did I.
And yet Delabar’s maturation into a reliever with impressive numbers (5-1, 1.74 ERA in 37 appearances) is relevant: An afterthought with the 2012 Mariners, an All-Star with the 2013 Blue Jays? Sure, of course. It’s the sort of pattern consistent with a cursed team.
Another pattern consistent with a cursed team is for its nominal closer to get two strikes on the opposing leadoff batter in the 10th inning, only to watch him foul off a succession of pitches. Tom Wilhelmsen finally lost Ryan Lavarnway to ball four. Brock Holt put down a sacrifice bunt that advanced pinch-runner Jackie Bradley Jr. into scoring position, and when Wilhelmsen struck out Jose Iglesias for the second out, it shaped up as a potential jam possibly averted.
Or not. Wedge ordered an intentional walk to Jacoby Ellsbury for a chance to face the switch-hitting Daniel Nava, who was 0-for-5. Wilhelmsen got ahead 0-2, wasted a pitch outside, then threw a breaker Nava reached down to connect on a grounder up the middle.
A superior-fielding pitcher – think Greg Maddux – gloves the ball and converts it into an easy out, but Wilhelmsen is not a superior-fielding pitcher. He is not even a competent-fielding pitcher.
The ball went through the infield and the Red Sox scored the winning run.
“I knew when he put the ball on the ground,” Wedge said of Nava, “we were in trouble. I was just hoping somebody could get to it.”
On a typical team, somebody probably gets to it. On a cursed team, there was no chance.
By the way, the knuckleball that agitated the Seattle hitters? Five years ago, the Mariners had a guy who threw an even better one.
His name is R.A. Dickey, the 2012 winner of the National League Cy Young Award. He didn’t do much with the trick pitch around here, but once he relocated to New York, he got it to sing and dance and do all sorts of crazy things.
A coincidence? Nah. It’s a curse.