Had Seattle relief pitcher Fernando Rodney coughed up a three-run lead to Texas on Friday night, Mariner manager Lloyd McLendon might have opened his post-game press conference with the following statement.
“Though we never thought that we could lose, there’s no regret,” he could have said. “If I had to do the same again, I would (pitch) my friend, Fernando.”
McLendon might not have phrased it exactly that way, unless he was a fan of the defunct pop singing group ABBA (and, somehow, that doesn’t quite fit his image). That fanciful quote was lifted from the lyrics of the Swedish quartet’s 1976 hit single, “Fernando.”
The Seattle skipper’s musicology was never tested, because the Mariners hung on to win Friday’s game. His faith in Rodney was justified two days later when the M’s pulled out an even more improbable victory to close out a near-disastrous home stand with a ray of hope.
The Mariners could have easily been saddled with a 12-game losing streak entering a road trip that begins tonight in New York. Their skid had reached eight games last Tuesday following a pair of losses to the woeful Houston Astros. Kyle Seager’s walk-off three-run home run in the ninth inning Wednesday enabled them to salvage the final game of that series.
Two nights later, a four-run eighth inning gave the M’s a 6-3 lead over Texas in the opening contest of a three-game set at Safeco Field. Rodney was then summoned from the bullpen to close it out.
Six batters later, the Rangers had closed the gap to 6-5 and loaded the bases with one out after Rodney had issued consecutive bases-loaded walks. Yet McClendon allowed his relief specialist to remain in the game to face All-Star third baseman Adrian Beltre.
There are two commonly accepted tactics in professional baseball that are so off-base to be almost brain-dead.
With the winning run on third base and less than two out in a late inning, most managers will intentionally walk the bases loaded to set up a force at any base. This strategy nearly always backfires, since rally-killing double plays in such a scenario are far outnumbered by unintentional walks and hit batters that force across the deciding run.
The second dubious tactic is to entrust a ninth-inning lead exclusively to a designated closer without considering making another change. Even warming up another reliever, the theory goes, undermines the confidence of the ace.
If the 37-year-old Rodney was still confident with the game on the line Friday, he was about the only one in the stadium. Having blown a similar lead (with the aid of a key Brad Miller error) a week earlier in Texas, he had amply demonstrated that he lacked his best stuff and control by the time Beltre came to the plate.
The former Mariner third baseman promptly drilled a rocket toward the right-field line, only to be robbed by first baseman Justin Smoak’s spectacular diving catch. Smoak then trotted to the bag to complete a game-ending double play.
Rodney’s casual, business-as-usual reaction to the concluding developments served only to infuriate the long-suffering Mariner faithful.
Sunday’s win by an identical 6-5 score might have less spectacular, but was even more unexpected. Having knocked out starter Brandon Mauer in the fourth inning, the Rangers were cruising with a 5-0 lead. Texas pitcher (and notorious Mariner killer) Matt Harrison was working on a perfect game through three innings and still owned a 5-1 advantage in the sixth.
Another Seager three-run homer — his second of the game — in the eighth inning, however, gave Seattle its first lead of the contest. Displaying the type of dominance he has seldom demonstrated in his brief Mariner tenure, Rodney emphatically slammed the door with a perfect ninth.
While it is risky to draw conclusions this early in the season, Sunday’s win had dual significance. The M’s, who seem to be responding to McLendon’s low-key but authoritative leadership, didn’t run up the white flag in a seemingly lost cause. In addition, their bullpen finally functioned the way it had been designed.
Although falling short in other areas of his off-season maneuvering, beleaguered Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik did address one of the team’s prime shortcomings last season by seemingly bolstering the relief corps.
Signing former Detroit and Tampa Bay closer Rodney enabled the M’s to shift erstwhile bullpen aces Tom Wilhelmsen and Danny Farquhar to more comfortable roles as set-up men. That, in turn, moved erratic Yoervis Medina (an architect of many late-game Seattle collapses last season) to presumably less stressful duty.
Like a lot of Mariner notions, this one hasn’t worked out as planned — a failing that goes beyond Rodney’s vulnerability. Wilhelmsen has been shaky and left-hander Charlie Furbush (coming off a solid 2013 campaign) ineffective in set-up roles, bringing Medina back into the late-inning equation.
On Sunday, however, Lucas Luetge, Furbush, Wilhelmsen, Farquhar and Rodney combined to work 5 1/3 scoreless innings of relief.
Fixing Seattle’s offensive miseries might be more challenging.
Following the shocking free-agent signing of All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano, Zduriencik pledged that he wasn’t done in his off-season wheeling and dealing. Yet the Mariners opened the campaign without proven outfielders, another big bat or two to protect Cano and a reliable lead-off batter. Only the M’s would replace a .204-hitting lead-off man (Abraham Almonte) with one batting .189 (Michael Saunders).
Sabermetricians would have no difficulty pinpointing the prime cause of Seattle’s offensive dysfunction. Not only are the Mariners batting less than .230 as a team, they seldom draw walks. Most teams have close to a 2-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Texas, for exmple, had walked 88 times and struck out 163 times following Sunday’s game. With the M’s, it’s almost 4-to-1. To date, they had collected only 59 walks while striking out 212 times.
Until they can generate more baserunners, McLendon may never learn the lyrics to another ABBA standard, “The Winner Takes It All.”
Rick Anderson: firstname.lastname@example.org; (360) 537-3924.