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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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April 2, 2008 8:55 AM

Ease away from the ledge

Posted by Geoff Baker

Yes, that was a tough one last night. But it was only loss No. 1 of the 2008 season. Truth is, the Mariners didn't much deserve to win it, whether or not J.J. Putz was on his game. He clearly wasn't. You can't leave 15 men on base and expect a victory. The only reason Seattle was still in it was the Texas Rangers booting the ball around. You saw the value of Ichiro in that eighth inning, the stuff that doesn't show up on the stats sheets. His speed from home to first base is what caused second baseman Ian Kinsler to hurry too much and bobble what would have been a potential double-play grounder by any other hitter. Not for Ichiro. No way he gets doubled-up on that ball.

But the turning point of the game, for me, was not the Josh Hamilton homer off Putz. It was the Richie Sexson at-bat in the eighth with one out and the bases loaded in what was still a 3-3 game.

Sexson did a good job of working the count full -- especially after a borderline strike two call that both Sexson and I thought was too far inside. No matter, since, with the count full, the payoff pitch from Joaquin Benoit was clearly going to be ball four the minute it left his hand. Unfortunately, an over-eager Sexson could not resist swinging at a pitch that had nothing going for it from start to finish. Instead of a 4-3 game, M's leading with the bases still loaded and only one out, there were now two outs in the inning. Yes, the M's did take the lead on an ensuing wild pitch, but that second out changed the complexion of the game. Walking Adrian Beltre to load the bases with two out to get to Brad Wilkerson is not the same as having him come up with one out and the sacks juiced. Wilkerson swung at a bad pitch and popped out.

But as I said, the Sexson at-bat -- and he clearly knew it judging by his disgusted reaction -- should have been a walk and a run instread of an out. We don't know whether Benoit would have uncorked the wild-pitch subsequently, had Sexson walked, but I'd say there was a better chance of getting two or more runs home with one out in the inning than two. Better chance of Putz working with a 6-3 lead instead of 4-3.

The USS Mariner has a nice graphic showing the Sexson strikeout as well as its take on what should happen with him.

I'm not sure I would have brought Mike Morse in to pinch-hit in that situation, not with two out. Wilkerson, as many of you have noted already, does hit lefties better than righties (which makes the Morse platoon rather interesting). He was still hitless for the season and, quite frankly, due for one at that stage. If I'm playing a hunch, the hunch is that Wilkerson is going to break through. I think there's a better chance of that happening than a non pinch-hitter like Morse coming off the bench cold -- we're talking really cold in this weather -- and trying to hit off a veteran like Eddie Guardado.

Sure, Morse could have continued his hot surge and notched the key hit. But it's not a clear-cut decision for me.

Besides, McLaren had already burned most of his bench other than Miguel Cairo at that stage. It wouldn't hurt to have Morse available for extra-innings. And I don't know if it's wise to be yanking Wilkerson in only the second game of the year.

That's the point of this post, I suppose. To point at the calendar and remind you all of that. As Larry Stone wrote last night, the buzzards are already circling for Richie Sexson. Truth be told, I've liked Sexson's approach at the plate and the way he has worked counts so far. I liked the way he worked counts in spring training as well. If he doesn't swing at that terrible Benoit pitch, it's a whole different conversation we're having about a 2-0 team. Instead, it's a 1-1 team.

Yes, Sexson has to produce and it doesn't matter whether or not he's good with the media. The fact that he stood up and answered questions last night is to be commended, since not everyone in that clubhouse is as accountable afterwards. But the bottom line is, Sexson is not being paid $14 million to strike out in key situations. And I think he feels that pressure. For me, he's pressing too hard in front of the home fans again, heard the boos early, and wanted to make up for it all in one swing.

Is that making excuses for a player? No, it isn't. But as I said on KJR 950 yesterday morning, you don't judge a player on the first game of the season. And not on the second one either. I know it's tough, but we're not about to send Putz packing either, right? Of course, Sexson had a miserable 2007 season as well and that's why I believe he's on a shorter leash this year. But it's not a two-game leash. You're going to have to wait at least until May. At least until the cold weather isn't turning hands numb. At least until Sexson has a chance to get out on the road a few times, away from booing home fans, and sort himself out. I'm not criticizing the fans' right to boo whoever they want. But I do think it's having an impact on Sexson and I'm stating that fact. Interpret it and pass out blame any way you want.

If this same stuff is happening into May, the team has to take a step back and seriously consider some things. But we're a long way from that after only two games. What I see is an anxious hitter working the count well and then missing the hittable pitches he's getting. He just missed a home run in that at-bat on a ball fouled straight back. It's cold and it's early. Maybe it's actually late for Sexson, who knows? But we won't know for certain for a little while so just climb back off the ledge and contemplate this 1-1 start to the season. If the M's win tonight, they'll have accomplished what they had to in taking the series. That's the important thing at stake here.

Yes, I'm a little worried about the offense I've seen so far, with zero home runs and scant few extra-base hits. That can't continue on a regular basis or it's going to be a long season.

On the positive side, Felix Hernandez was every bit the bulldog Erik Bedard was on opening day. Not much else to say. He caught some breaks on that terrible home plate slide by Hank Blalock (who otherwise would have been safe on the Hernandez throw), while that bunt throw to nab Ben Broussard at second looked to be a generous call. But you make your own luck in this game sometimes. Hernandez battled through some mid-game adversity and got out of jams -- twice. I want to see more of that from him. But it was a great start to his season. If Hernandez delivers seven innings per night and allows only one earned run, he will be a Cy Young Award candidate. Fought off the cold well, too.

So far, everything is going according to plan for the M's on the starting pitching front. And that's the big key to the season. The bullpen needs to straighten out a bit, but I think it will. The offense? It needs to get going. We've said all winter that Sexson will be an offensive key. He has to be and he'll have the rest of this month and part of next to figure things out. After that, if Sexson and the team are still struggling to produce runs, that problem will have to be addressed.

But not on April 2. Not on a team that would be 2-0 if Putz had been Putz last night. Use this first series to evaluate, form some opinions, and then see how things go on the road. Getting all worked up about every pitch, every at-bat and every inning at this stage of a season isn't going to help. You won't make it past June if that happens.

But I will agree, leaving 15 men on base was tough to watch. It can't continue indefinitely. Not this year.



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