Chone Figgins received some positive press for his three hit night on Friday but it lacked redeeming qualities. His first hit came on a bunt that Oakland A's catcher-turned-third baseman Jason Donaldson threw away and his other two singles weren't particularly well hit. It didn't help that he misplayed a ball in left field late in the game.
There was nothing cheap about Figgins' Saturday performance. He's looked completely incapable of making hard contact for much of his Seattle Mariners career, but in the season's fourth game he seemed to take all of his frustration from the past two seasons out on Bartolo Colon and Grant Balfour. He led off the game with a line drive triple to the right field corner, putting him in scoring position for Dustin Ackley. In the fourth he drove Colon's offering off the right field wall for a double, allowing Miguel Olivo and Munenori Kawasaki to walk home. In the ninth he turned on yet another pitch for a strong single, capping his night with an aggressive takeout slide on Oakland shortstop Cliff Pennington to save Ackley from a double play.
Is Figgins back? A comeback at this point is still unlikely, but this was one of his very best games since 2010. I might have been rooting for Figgins to fall on his face this season so that the Mariners could quickly make the decision to commit to guys like Kyle Seager, but a game like this reminds just how fun Figgins used to be to watch and serves up hope that he still has some value to give.
All eyes were on Felix Hernandez's fastball early. Pitch f/x for Felix is always a little tricky because of the similarities between his two-seamer and changeup, but he topped out at 92 and appears to have sat somewhere around 89-91. We expect more, but the hope is that he's still building up after a rushed Spring Training. In the mean time, that velocity should still allow him to perform at a high level.
And tonight he did... at first. He struck out Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick in the opening inning and started the second by making Yoenis Cespedes look silly once again for another K. But his command and velocity began to elude him as the game progressed. He loaded the bases in the fourth, surrendering one run. In the fifth he grooved one to Jemile Weeks that wound up in the right field seats. In the sixth he surrendered a solid single and a walk before Kurt Suzuki knocked one off the left-center field wall for two RBI. In the seventh he allowed two more baserunners before being pulled. Good velocity allows pitchers to get away with mistakes, so Felix can't afford to have many games like this if he's going to remain in the very low-90s.
The Mariner offense accounted for the Felix off night by putting up 8 runs. It was a strong performance, but it could have easily gone another way. The 6-run fourth inning was brought to us by BABIP; Mariner hitters were narrowly avoiding Athletic leather. Ackley's leadoff single deflected off the shortstop Pennington's glove. Ichiro's RBI triple was facilitated by a Cespedes misplay in center field. Justin Smoak's RBI single was a broken bat flair into shallow right. Seager's single fell inches in front of Reddick's outstretched glove in right. Kawasaki knocked another ball off of Pennington's glove.
But luck is part of the game and Smoak was the only one that didn't hit the ball hard during the rally. Some would have gone for outs another day but Ackley, Ichiro, Seager, Miguel Olivo, Kawasaki and Figgins all hit the ball hard. Michael Saunders later added some much needed padding when he took lefty Jerry Blevins deep for a solo home run in the sixth. This one is written into the books as another offensive onslaught for the Mariners. They've scored 15 runs in the last two ballgames against two quality Athletics pitchers who shut them down a week ago in Japan.
Felix left the ballgame with two runners on and an 8-4 lead. Rule 5 rookie Lucas Luetge entered as a situational lefty and kicked off his Major League career with a bang by striking Reddick out on a breaking ball. Steve Delabar came in to face Cespedes and immediately allowed the runners to move into scoring position by spiking a breaking ball. That may have cost him by taking away his breaker against someone who clearly struggles with the bendy stuff. Cespedes got ahold of a fastball and hit another mammoth home run to bring the A's to within one.
But that was it. Delebar escaped the inning with the lead before handing the ball off to Tom Wilhelmsen and Brandon League, easily the team's top two relievers. It was smooth sailing from there.
The Mariners take a 3-1 record to Dallas for a four game set against the two-time defending American League Champion Texas Rangers. Can they come out the other side above .500?
A few more notes...
Next start serves as a litmus test for Felix - The King's next start comes in the Mariners home opener. With the home crowd amping him up we might expect to get a true gauge as to what kind of fastball velocity Hernandez is capable of at this point in the season. If he continues to sit 89-91 the panic could really begin to set in.
Big boppers still silent - Justin Smoak (.118/.167/.294) and Jesus Montero (.200/.188/.200) failed to get results and generally looked nothing like middle of the order muscle through the season's opening series. The rest of the Mariner offense won't be able keep producing runs with these two making weak contact.
Yoenis Cespedes' first MLB series - Clearly, pitch recognition is a problem. Clearly, he can punish a mistake. If you heard that Cespedes struck out 7 ugly times, didn't walk, and had 4 hits in the series, you might not make much of it. But those four hits were comprised of a double and 3 home runs, leading to a staggering batting line of .308/.400/1.077.
It will be fun to track Cespedes throughout the season and see if he gets enough meatballs to maintain a decent batting line. His ability to obliterate mistakes has been eye opening.
He'll also be interesting to track defensively. He didn't appear to be as advertised in the first four games. The A's would probably be better off today with Crisp in center and Cespedes in left. His route running and arm left a lot to be desired in the first four games, but the A's will continue to develop him as a center fielder in an attempt to get the most value. It's the right move.
Michael Saunders goes deep - There was a lot of talk about Saunders' revamped swing during Spring Training. We can clearly see that he's made some changes for the better and through four games he's hitting .308/.400/.615. That said, he still looks like he's struggling to make solid contact and hasn't yet shown the ability to hit the ball the other way with authority. It's going to take him some time -- whether it be with Seattle or AAA Tacoma -- for him to get comfortable, but at very least it was nice to see him crush Blevins' mistake. He can make up for a lot of his shortcomings by holding pitchers accountable.
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