It took half a season for Jesus Sucre to show a skill worthy of keeping him on the Seattle Mariners’ roster.
One skill, that’s all. Something — anything — to justify why he has occupied the job of backing up starting catcher Mike Zunino.
Sucre finally made his case Wednesday afternoon.
With a runner on first and nobody out in the bottom of the third inning, he put down a sacrifice bunt along the first base line. The approach was solid and the form was flawless, resulting in Brad Miller’s advancement to second base.
As if determined to prove the success of the sacrifice was no fluke, Sucre dropped a similarly effective bunt in the sixth inning. Sure enough, it allowed Miller reach second base with one out.
Nothing in baseball is as easy as major leaguers make it look, and bunting is no exception. When players who almost never square up at the plate fail to put the ball on the ground — American League pitchers in National League parks, for example — they return to the dugout more relieved than frustrated.
Sucre, we now realize, can bunt. His apparent mastery of a difficult task might not be enough to impress Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik, who recently acquired Erik Kratz, a 35-year old journeyman catcher with 151 games of big league experience, and assigned him to Tacoma. Then again, you never know.
Zduriencik traded nWelington Castillo, a better-than-average backup and serviceable as a starter, in part because he figured Sucre could handle the challenge of starting the occasional afternoon game following a night game.
Here is how Sucre has handled the challenge: One hit in 26 at-bats, no walks, six strikeouts. Granted, offense is not the most important aspect of a backup catcher. The most important aspect of a backup catcher is his ability to catch the pitches he’s expected to catch, and to keep the pitches that bounce in front of him from getting behind him.
Sucre had a tough time on both counts Wednesday during a 5-4 defeat to the Detroit Tigers. Starter J.A. Happ had just given up a leadoff single to J.D. Martinez, in the top of the second, when Sucre was charged with the passed ball that put Martinez in scoring position.
Martinez crossed the plate a moment later when Nick Castellanos lined a single to left field, and suddenly Castellanos was on second because Dustin Ackley’s throw from left field — nobody would describe it as a dart — was botched by the cutoff tandem of Kyle Seager at third and Sucre at the plate.
The longest inning of a long game got even longer when Happ’s sinker to Andrew Romine bounced past Sucre, putting Marte on third and Happ in even more of a pickle. It was correctly ruled a wild pitch, but there’s no ruling at all if a major league catcher blocks the pitch.
Happ wasn’t his best Wednesday, but his failure to work beyond the fourth inning pointed to the catcher. When a pitcher can’t trust the catcher to keep down-low pitches from becoming wild pitches, it seriously reduces a pitcher’s arsenal.
“Happ had some breaks that clearly didn’t help his performance,” is how Trent Jewett put it, negotiating the delicate line between a full-time role as bench coach and a brief stint substituting for manager Lloyd McClendon, who was on bereavement leave following the death of his sister.
“Some unfortunate things happened,” Jewett continued. “Some occurrences could have gone more his way. Those occurrences were things that could have shined a little brighter on J.A.”
Jewett clearly didn’t want to point a finger at anybody in a Mariners uniform, but the reporters he addressed afterward have been liberated to tell the truth: The backup catcher doesn’t belong in a Mariners uniform right now.
This should not make him an object of ridicule. The level of pro baseball we recognize as the major leagues dates to 1869. During the 146 years since then, only about 18,500 players have made it to the majors.
It’s astounding, really: There were 10,000 more persons watching the Tigers beat the Mariners at Safeco Field than have ever appeared in the major leagues.
Jesus Sucre is among the fortunate few who have gotten to the majors, and I probably wasn’t alone in wondering: How did this happen?
Then he bunted down the first-base line, and bunted again down the first-base line, and if there’s a more proficient bunter who struggles in the field while producing one hit in 26 at-bats, I haven’t seen him.