Updated May 21, 2012 - 10:26 am
Rangers round two: How far have the Mariners come?
Back in early April, the Rangers took a four-game series from the Mariners, three games to one. I don't think anyone was surprised to see the American League champs make quick work of (at the time) the second youngest team in baseball. Some may have been surprised to see how close the games were, however.
In game one, after scoring four and loading the bases in the first inning, the Mariners let Yu Darvish off the hook when Brendan Ryan struck out and Chone Figgins grounded out quickly to end what could have been a bigger inning or even an inning that Darvish, in his debut, was pulled from. Hector Noesi was not able to hold onto the nice five-run lead his team gave him and the Mariners went on to lose the game, 11-5. What looked so promising turned ugly quick. After that the games were a different story, however.
In the next game Blake Beavan and the pen held the Rangers to just one run. The trouble was, the offense could not come up with anything against Neftali Feliz and the Rangers came away with a very rare 1-0 win at Arlington. The Mariners won the next game and lost the finale by two, leaving Arlington with three losses by a combined nine runs. Take out the first game and they went 1-2, losing by a combined two runs. Jason Vargas took note of this in his comments following the final game.
"We threw the ball great," he said at his locker that day. "They have got some guys who do it on the mound over there so it is tough for our guys. But to come over here and first series of the year do what we did? We can pitch and we have pitched for a the last few years so they know that. They know that they need to come in ready and we know we have to come in ready, so looking forward to seeing them again."
I liked the competitiveness Vargas displayed with those comments. He is veteran enough to know that at the time it was early and that the Texas offense would no doubt kick things up a notch, or 10, as the season progressed. But he was confident about the pitching. The Rangers cranked things up offensively and have had quite a run so far this season as predicted. What about the Mariners? How different are they from that opening road trip?
Well, since that trip there has been a change at the top of the order. Figgins is no longer a starter and it has been learned that Ichiro is not a three hitter, although he still occupies the spot in the lineup. Kyle Seager has firmly established himself as a starter and has found himself in the power spots in the lineup along with Jesus Montero.
Justin Smoak has proven to be more of a question mark than was hoped back in April. Ryan has had his struggles but still holds down the shortstop position. Michael Saunders may not have big numbers but there is no denying he has been hitting the ball hard on a consistent basis.
In April, we thought Franklin Gutierrez would have rejoined the team by the next meeting with Texas. We still don't have an ETA on Guti as he suffered a setback, coming up with plantar fasciitis.
The solid pitching that Vargas talked about has been up and down. Vargas has been off to his typical solid start, Felix Hernandez has been lights out for periods of time but is coming off one of his worst starts in recent memory. Noesi and Kevin Millwood are coming off their best starts of the year and Blake Beavan has been Blake Beavan.
The bullpen is another matter. In April, the Mariners had question marks about the pen but felt good about the back end of it. That has flip-flopped completely. The seventh, eighth and ninth innings have been inconsistent while the unknowns in the lower part of the pen have come through. Lucas Luetge has more than handled the lefties and Hisashi Iwakuma has shown he can pitch.
It is still all very much a work in progress. This team is not dramatically different from the one we saw in April but a lot has been learned in that time and some areas of the club appear to be moving in the right direction. How "real" is what we saw in Colorado? Once more the offense took advantage of some bad pitching, but what can they take from that heading into a 10-day span where they will see very good pitching? Here is where you want to see them take a step forward. Get to a pitcher they are not supposed to. They face Darvish tonight for the second time. What did they learn from him the first time? It should be a tough but very interesting week ahead that all starts with a great pitching matchup tonight.
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