The 12-inning marathon Sunday at Safeco Field was so long and relentlessly boring, it’s easy to forget the Seattle Mariners were on their way to winning when the afternoon was young.
Before a 6-3 defeat to Cleveland that came down to a last-man-standing battle of the bullpens, the Mariners had a 3-0 lead, a runner on third base, and Nelson Cruz at the plate. Cruz crushed a drive into the right-center gap worth extra bases and another run when right fielder Ryan Raburn made the kind of sensational highlight catch that victimizes underachieving teams.
Between Raburn’s inning-ending catch in the fifth and Seth Smith’s game-ending grounder in the 12th, the Mariners sent 25 men to the plate and got one hit — a two-out Smith double that allowed Robinson Cano a chance to drive in the winning run in the bottom of the 10th.
But Cano could only manage a come-backer to the pitchers mound, and the Mariners’ first threat in five innings was over before anybody in the crowd had a chance to yell: “Hey, Robbie! Now would be a pretty good time to improve your RBI total to 17!”
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Cano’s lack of production is not the problem. Well, OK, it is a problem, but there are other, more glaring problems, and besides — other than propose a pointless change in a batting order that always finds Cano at No. 3 — the only solution for a slumping superstar hitter is patience, patience and more patience.
Extra-inning games such as the one the Mariners slogged through Sunday reveal a less publicized team weakness: An inferior bench that haunts McClendon on those occasions he turns to it.
In the sixth inning, for instance, McClendon called upon Rickie Weeks to pinch-hit for the left-handed Brad Miller because Indians lefty Nick Hagadone was on the mound. After Weeks hit a grounder for the third out, Miller was replaced at shortstop by Chris Taylor, who eventually was replaced by Willie Bloomquist.
Think about this: A simple wish for a righty-lefty matchup at the plate forced McClendon to rely on a pinch hitter batting .183, a shortstop batting .159 and a utility player batting .182.
When another lefty, Dustin Ackley, was due up in the seventh, McClendon sent pinch hitter Justin Ruggiano to the plate. The strategy was sound — Ackley is hitting .188, and Ruggiano is the better option for left field in the late innings of a tie game — except Ruggiano, at .190, isn’t hitting any better than the guy he replaced.
“I can sit here and analyze it,” McClendon said of the 4-hour and 36-minute exercise in frustration. “But the fact is, we got five hits in, what, 12 innings? You’re not gonna win.”
McClendon holds a theory, commonplace among managers, that the most important aspect his job is to put his players in a position to succeed. But 50 games into a season fast approaching the one-third juncture, it’s clear some imagination will be required if Taylor, Bloomquist, Ruggiano and Weeks are to be put in a position to succeed consistently.
Taylor’s steady, sometimes spectacular defense is not enough to compensate for his routine-out offense. Once vaunted for his versatility, Bloomquist’s only skill right now is as a reliable pinch runner unlikely to jog into a home-plate tag out because he’s lost track of how many teammates are on the basepaths.
Despite air-mailing a throw Sunday from left field — he missed the cutoff man, effectively turning a single into a double for the chance to make a play he had no chance of make — Ruggiano’s defense is reputed to be solid. So there’s that.
As for Weeks? I’m not sure why the Mariners acquired him, although it should be pointed out he’s got two home runs in 71 at-bats, which is as many homers as Cano has hit in 195 at-bats.
But Cano’s unproductive bat is not the problem. I keep telling myself this, and here’s why: Every time I get the sense his unproductive bat is the problem, I notice the Mariners bats that are even more unproductive and more of a problem.