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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 6, 2008 5:32 PM

Watch out for falling Mariners fans

Posted by Geoff Baker

orioles3 007.jpg

OK, I see how this is going to work. Less than one week into the season and some of you are ready to jump out windows and trade the entire team. I see. Is there any use pointing out that the team is only 2-4, not 2-20? Probably not, but duty and logic compells me to. I've always wondered, why is it, for some people, that sample size is the be-all, end-all in a baseball debate, but the minute something happens to "confirm" their worst fears, the concept of sample size goes out the window?

Here it goes, for the sake on getting it on-record: yes, the M's are playing lousy baseball right now. The offense needs to score more runs. The bullpen needs to do a better job of getting the job done. The starters not named Felix Hernandez or Carlos Silva have to deliver more than five innings a little earlier than they normally would in April.

But let's get real. If J.J. Putz was healthy, this team is probably 4-2 right now. And if this team was 4-2, a lot of the other problems would be nitpicked at, but no one would be getting fired or burned in effigy. Not telling you it's wrong to be concerned about the offense. I am a little concerned about it. Some guys, like Brad Wilkerson and Jose Vidro, have to pick it up. We saw Raul Ibanez pick it up today and Richie Sexson seems to be rediscovering his power and still is drawing more walks than he normally does.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, the season is not even a week old. As bad as this loss hurts today, this wasn't the Pittsburgh Pirates blowing a 2-0 lead to Atlanta in the ninth inning of the decisive game of the 1992 NLCS. By mid-season, the M's should be above .500 and the Orioles will probably be the worst team in the American League. Much better chance of that happening than the M's being sub-.500 and the O's being the AL East leaders. Yes, these losses are frustrating. The players are frustrated too.

Why did John McLaren use Eric O'Flaherty in the ninth, instead of Ryan Rowland-Smith? Good question.

Here is how things work in the major leagues during the first week of the season. The pitching coach, Mel Stottlemyre, tells the manager pre-game who is good to go, who is fresh and can be used in what situation. It doesn't matter that O'Flaherty threw some pitches the other night. He was good to go. He is your eighth-inning, or ninth-inning situational lefty. Not Rowland-Smith. He is primarily your longer lefty reliever, earlier-inning guy, or the one you'd like to use when behind in a game.

When a team is winning in the ninth and the situational lefty is ready to go, you don't use Rowland-Smith. Not on April 6. Not if you want to stay a major league manager. If this were mid-August, or July, and some guys were tired, or banged up, you might start going crazy and flipping guys around like this is some MLB computer game. We had this same debate last year about Mike Hargrove using Julio Mateo in a high leverage situation in the sixth inning of an April game against the Twins instead of his later-inning guys.

Once again, that was in April. In April, when guys are relatively fresh, you keep it simple, stick to roles, and don't complicate your life moving forward. Successful big league managers don't start flipping the bullpen all over the place in the first week of the season.

O'Flaherty did give up an inning-opening double. But he also got the ensuing grounders he needed -- three consecutive ones. Problem is, instead of being the game-ending out, the third grounder got through the right side for a hit. It happens. But it's not like every single hitter was crushing doubles off O'Flaherty. Nick Markakis did. He's probably the best hitter on the entire Orioles team. He's paid to get hits. Stuff happens.

Am I justifying what went on? No. Bottom line is, O'Flaherty will have to get guys out in the late innings and win more games than he helps lose. If he wants to be the situational lefty. It's simple. But sometimes, you lose games.

O'Flaherty and Mark Lowe are the late guys. They are not infallible. Lowe was not supposed to be pitching the eighth right off the bat. It was going to be Brandon Morrow in the eighth, with Putz closing. Both got hurt. Right now, the M's are trying to get by without their top two bullpen arms. Most teams would have a tough time with that. And the M's are having it tough.

But Rowland-Smith, as much as I like his work with men on-base, was not the card you play in that situation. I'm all for new-fangled trends and flexibility. But not this early. You don't play the first week in April like Game 7 of the World Series. Remember back over the winter, when bullpen coach Norm Charlton suggested that Hargrove (after that infamous Mateo game) might have gone the opposite route and been trying too hard to win in the near-term -- the way he used his relievers -- at the expense of the bullpen's long-term health, in order to save his job? When he was using his best relievers more and more, in every critical spot, no matter how early, as if each game had a championship on the line?

Well, those of you who thought that was horrible can't have it both ways. Right now, McLaren, Stottlemyre and Charlton are playing it like guys who know there are still 156 games left. And in this case, they actually used the high-leverage guys in the high-leverage, late situation they were supposed to. What's the problem?

So, let's see. When is it not "too early'' in the season to worry? Well, never. Of course people are worried. The team is playing poorly and has to get better, no doubt. But you don't panic and make a series of knee-jerk reaction moves that will leave you caught short when it really matters. McLaren spent the past few days saving his big arms for a game in which the M's were close to winning. Now that he's finally got one of those games, some of you want to see Rowland-Smith in the ninth? Come on.

I could understand the freak-outs last August when Rick White walked home that run in the ninth in Cleveland, But not now. It's one loss and a 2-4 start. It's a tough stretch. But nothing will be decided now, in two weeks or in two months from now. It is still the time to sit back and evaluate. But hey, it is frustrating, I do understand.

If Felix Hernandez felt strong and ready for the ninth, I'd be all over McLaren for pulling him after 97 pitches. After all, McLaren let Jarrod Washburn start the fifth on 90 pitches the other night. No reason Washburn should be allowed past his threshold and not Hernandez. But there was a reason today. Conspiracy buffs out there who think Hernandez is covering for McLaren? Give me a break. Hernandez has never done that before. Any time he thought he was ready to pitch the ninth and wasn't allowed, he's told us.

Here's what he said:

"You guys know me, I don't want to come out of the game,'' Hernandez told reporters. "But when I feel tired, I don't want to make any mistakes. Because I felt a little bit tired. I threw a bullpen the other day. I didn't expect that, to throw eight innings after just one day's rest.''

That wasn't all Hernandez said. He'd left a couple of balls up in the zone in the eighth. "I didn't want to make a mistake in the ninth,'' he said.

Hear some of it right here in this audio clip.

McLaren looked frustrated afterwards. Believe me, he isn't going to force Hernandez to head back out for the ninth in the first week of the season when he says his arm is not feeling as strong as it usually does at that point. Not after missing that day of rest since his bullpen session. Not after his elbow injury suffered in mid-April last year. When Hernandez doesn't fight being pulled, you pull him. And you take your chances.

"I don't know what we could do differently,'' McLaren said. "We got the matchups we wanted. It just didn't work.''

Hear more of McLaren right here.

Not much more for me to say. If you want to criticize, let's jump all over the team's decision to carry 11 pitchers. I mean, in this day and age, 12 is becoming the AL norm even for healthy teams. What's the point of letting Charlton Jimerson and Miguel Cairo stay glued to the bench as the bullpen goes through this. With R.A. Dickey up here, you still could have kept Cha Seung Baek on a 12-man staff. You pitch Dickey in the sixth and seventh innings instead of auditioning a free-for-all of arms for it. Or you go another route. But keeping these extra position guys who don't get into games? What's the point? Didn't understand it when Putz was healthy, still don't. I'm done for today. Have at it.


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