Can bullpen hold up enough to keep this 'special' feeling going?

I visit a lot of sites that analyze the Mariners, and so many of them center around numbers. I even dabble in the numbers a bit -- though not to the degree those Baseball Prospectus guys will -- and I've learned to gain a healthy appreciation for them by reading books like "Baseball Between the Numbers."

But sometimes, numbers just don't do the trick when we're talking about a team and its performance.

It's about time we all admit it: There's a different feeling about this Mariners club, it's something that can't be quantified with numbers, and it's a feeling that's going to make this team a heck of a lot of fun to watch the rest of this season.

Even Ichiro's getting on board.

"There is some kind of atmosphere that this team has,'' Ichiro said through an interpreter after his team completed its second consecutive late-game comeback against the Orioles. "I'm not exactly able to put a finger on it. But we definitely have something going on.''

The thing that's got me believing more and more everyday in this team is that they seem to be doing it in different ways now. There's never been any doubt that this team could roll on a pitcher and score seven to 10 runs on any given night. But there were always far too many zero- to two- or three-run nights.

Tuesday was different in that it wasn't like the M's were hammering the ball all night and not finding holes -- they were genuinely struggling against yet another mediocre junk-ball pitcher. Yet they figured out a way to come back against the Orioles' flammable bullpen yet again.

"Today was a situation where our opponent gave us a chance to win,'' Ichiro said. "So, when something like that happens, with the team that we have this year, I felt like, 'We can capture this.' ''

This from the guy who essentially said after taking five of six from Tampa Bay and Kansas City that the team was winning, but not in ways it would be able to sustain against quality opponents.

The turning point in my mind was the series with the Angels. Yes, they lost two of three, but the way they fought through the series -- and displayed some genuine irritation at not winning the series -- showed me this team just has a different make-up than M's teams of the last three years.

Of course, those that cling to numbers will point to the production the team is getting throughout its lineup, including increased contributions from hot hitters Kenji Johjima, Yuniesky Betancourt and Jose Lopez.

But there's just an intangible quality with this team: It now believes it can win any game, and that simply can't be quantified with numbers. I don't see the defeatest attitude that permeated every Mariners team the last three years. I see a team that continues to scrap, and has been doing a much better job of getting into teams' bullpens as of late.

Of course, what's allowed them to scrap has been the unbelievable pitching out of the bullpen, made even more astounding by the fact that this team is at the end of 23 straight games without a day off. They're now 28-0 in games they lead after the seventh inning, which is unbelievable praise for a unit that had all kinds of question marks -- George Sherrill's poor spring, Brandon Morrow's youth, J.J. Putz's health -- heading into the season.

For all the crap Mike Hargrove got at the beginning of the year -- and believe me, a lot of it was deserved -- he's done a great job managing those arms to be able to get the games that are winnable during this stretch. Even letting John Huber and Chris Reitsma get the snot beat out of them today probably was a good decision with two games against the Orioles already in hand.

Of bigger concern at the moment is whether those relievers can keep it up. Not because I'm worried about them so much as I'm worried about the starting pitchers, most of whom seem allergic to the seventh inning.

Felix has not looked like himself since returning from injury. Jarrod Washburn just threw up his second consecutive poor start, and those of us who thought his early-season success is a mirage might unfortunately be looking right. Miguel Batista, Horacio Ramirez and Jeff Weaver were predicatbly bad, and with Weaver returning from "injury" and Batista having proven across his mediocre career to be virtually indestructable, one has to wonder if the bullpen is going to start feeling the effects of carrying this team.

Get more innings out of Felix, get Washburn back on track, get Weaver in the bullpen and Ryan Feierabend into the rotation, and we might be on to something big. Fail to do those things, and those late-inning comebacks might be a thing of the past as close games slip away -- as it did today.


Anna said...

That's an awful lot of ifs, Nuss. The real test will be the Padres this weekend. They're a hot ballclub right now -- and they have great pitching.

I love the M's this year, and I agree that there's something different about them. However, more and more, the Soriano for Reitsma and Ramirez deal is looking like Bavasi's worst trade ever (and he's made some awful ones). Jeff Weaver is a selfish liability. The only way for the M's to get better and stay better is to obtain better starters. I don't have the confidence that Bavasi will do that.

I predict that Bavasi and Weaver both go around the same time. Then maybe we'll have a shot at the playoffs.

Nuss said...

That's why I wrote earlier that while this team is improved and is finally going to make for a fun summer of watching baseball, Bavasi needs to be replaced to get this team over the hump. Yes, the addition of Guillen is looking like a good one, but let's be real -- the guy has made far more poor moves in his career with the M's than good ones.

He consistently overvalues others' talent and undervalues his own, and that's his biggest problem. It's the exact opposite of Billy Beane, which is why he's always able to turn his team into a winner: He picks up teams' other undervalued pieces and makes them work for him, while trading away his own overvalued pieces before their value can come crashing down. It's genius, really.

And as far as the pitching goes, that's why I advocated for just enjoying the season for what it's worth. It's highly unlikely this team can add a starting pitcher this season of any reasonable caliber, which means this season is either going to be highly entertaining or highly frustrating, depending on your choice of view, because the starters are going to be what keeps this team from truly being playoff worthy.