Fun with Photoshop: The Condor Flies North for the Summer

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Ain’t It Grand: Saunders Slams Mariners Past Blue Jays 9-5

Here’s hoping this becomes a familiar sight for Seattle fans. (Photo by Abelimages/Getty Images)

It’s difficult to describe the feeling of euphoria that followed tonight’s roller coaster win. Thrilling? Of course. Satisfying? Undoubtedly. Orgasmic? Hopefully not…

After looking like the ’27 Yankees in a three game sweep of the Detroit Tigers, the Mariners offense was stymied by Toronto lefty Ricky Romero, failing to record a hit through the game’s first five innings. Here we go again…

It was looking more and more like the last series was an aberration, and Seattle was back to hitting like the team that suffered a perfect game at the hands of the indomitable Philip Humber less than a week earlier. Philip. Humber.

Toronto went ahead 3-1 in the fourth on a double from the perpetually disappointing Colby Rasmus, and with Romero dealing, the game seemed all but over. Oh well…

Then the seventh inning rolled around and the Mariners managed to pull things even on a Jesus Montero home run and a Casper Wells RBI double; maybe Seattle wasn’t going to roll over after all. With top reliever Tom Wilhemsen entering the game in the eighth, the thought of victory crept back into the minds of Mariners fans.

Oh how quickly it would be snatched away. Eric Thames jumped on a Wilhelmsen fastball and deposited the go-ahead run over the centerfield wall. As if the indignity of losing the lead wasn’t enough, the Blue Jays tacked on an insurance run on a sac fly after Wilhelmsen’s throwing error allowed Brett Lawrie to advance to third. There’s always tomorrow

Heading to the ninth, the bottom of the Mariners order was due up, and expectations were understandably low. Seattle had already come back once in the game and this wasn’t exactly an offense built to do it again. Alex Liddi flied out to start the inning, bringing Michael Saunders, who was 0-2 in the game, to the plate. On the ninth pitch of his at-bat against Francisco Cordero, Saunders got a hanging fastball over the plate and tattooed it, sending a rocket off the facade in dead-center field (an estimated distance of 452 feet) for his second home run of the year. The Mariners might not win the game, but seeing one of the M’s young players hit one out is an encouraging sign, so it wasn’t a total loss. That’s life as a Mariners fan.

True to form, Miguel Olivo popped out to shortstop, leaving the Mariners just one out away from defeat. Pinch-hitter Kyle Seager swung at the first pitch he saw from Cordero, hitting a lazy ground ball to Lawrie at third base. Time to flip over to the NFL Draft…

Only the game didn’t end on that lazy ground ball. Lawrie’s throw to first skipped well short of the dirt, and first baseman Adam Lind wasn’t able to pick it; Seager was safe and the Mariners were given a second chance. Would they take advantage of it?

Pinch-runner Munenori Kawasaki got all the way to third on an errant and ill-advised pick off attempt from catcher J.P. Arencibia, and suddenly the tying run was only 90 feet away. Toronto intentionally walked Dustin Ackley to put runners and first and third, and pinch-hitter John Jaso came to the plate with the chance to play hero once again. He was this close.

Jaso lashed a line drive into centerfield that landed just in front of a diving Rasmus. Normally a ball hitting the artificial turf would have ricocheted past Rasmus and gone all the way to the wall allowing the Mariners to take the lead, but the Blue Jays outfielder caught a break when the ball hit his non-gloved hand and stayed within reach. Kawasaki had already scored and the speedy Ackley was close behind, but not close enough, as a strong relay throw from Kelly Johnson cut down Ackley at the plate and kept the game tied. The Mariners had caught their break and come within a few inches of taking the lead. At least they made things interesting…

Seattle held Toronto off the board in the bottom of the 9th, and with the heart of the order due up in the 10th,  the Mariners had another chance to grab control of a game that had so many times felt out of reach. Ichiro lead off the inning with a ground out, but Smoak, Montero, and Liddi singled to load the bases with one out for Saunders (who came into the game 0-11 in his career with the bases loaded). Standing on the mound for the Blue Jays was reliever Luis Perez, who had yet to allow a run on the season and had struck out nearly 50% of the left-handed hitters he had faced. The odds were not stacked in Saunders favor. All we need is a flyball…

Perez quickly ran the count to 1-2, and M’s fans braced themselves for the impending check swing strike three from Saunders that had left them shaking their heads in disgust and pity so many times before. Perez, sensing blood in the water, went with a breaking ball on the inner third of the plate, a pitch that had flummoxed Saunders countless times in the past. The ball seemed destined to find the catchers glove just as Seager’s ground ball in the ninth seemed destined to end the game…only it didn’t.

This happened instead.

It certainly wasn’t the longest or most impressive home run of Saunders career, but is there any doubt that it was the most important? A go-ahead grand slam off a lefty in his native country? Was such an occurrence even fathomable a year ago?  Two months ago? A week ago?

With a baseball season stretching over 162 games, tonight’s game accounted for a mere 0.006 percent of the Mariners year. But you can’t tell me this game didn’t matter more than that to Mariners fans, or especially to Saunders, who went through so much on and off the field last year.

Don’t lose this game in the shuffle of the next 140 games. This was truly something special. Remember it. Treasure it. Mark it as the day Saunders silenced his critics and finally blossomed into the ballplayer who we all imagined he would be.

My Oh My!

Salt in the Wound: Blue Jays’ Brandon Morrow Loses No Hitter, But Raises Doubts About Mariners’ Front Office Decision Making.

Did the Mariners give up on Brandon Morrow too early? It looked that way on Sunday.

This time last season Seattle fans were wearing “In Jack We Trust” t-shirts, petitioning the organization to construct a statue of new GM Jack Zduriencik in front of Safeco Field and writing in his name for governor of Washington.

What a difference a year makes.

Though Brandon Morrow fell just short of a no-hitter on Sunday afternoon against the Rays, his sterling 17 strikeout, one-hit performance still took some of the sheen off Zduriencik’s head and Seattle’s shiny new Bill Bavasi-less front office. Morrow was shipped to Toronto during the offseason in return for power reliever Brandon League who was supposed to bridge the gap between Seattle’s starting pitchers and closer David Aardsma. League hasn’t been bad (8-6, 3.16 ERA) but has consistently faltered in high-leverage situations, and despite a reputation as a flamethrower, has only struck out 40 batters in 57 innings.

The number five overall pick in the 2006 draft, Morrow was flipped from the starting rotation to the bullpen to Triple-A and back again so many times, it’s a wonder he doesn’t have multiple personalities. While the current regime can’t be blamed for the mismanagement of Morrow early in his career, they certainly can be accused of giving up on the young ace too early.

The 26-year-old Morrow is 9-6 on the season, with a 4.45 ERA (a number which would almost certainly be lower if he was pitching at Safeco Field) and 151 strikeouts in 127 innings (a league leading 10.67 K’s/9 innings). A full season in the starting rotation has done wonders for Morrow’s confidence and he’s started to hit the strike zone with more consistency. If he can continue to cut down on the walks and pitch deep into games, Morrow has the potential to become a staff ace in the mold of Bert Blyleven.

With their pitching staff in shambles (Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas are Seattle’s only reliable starters) the Mariners can use all the arms that they can get. Who do you suppose they would rather have right now: an average middle reliever with a propensity for big innings, or an up-and-coming starter with the makings of a future star?

I’m not giving up on Zduriencik and Co., but a 42-70 record and scores of Mariners (Beltre, Silva, Thorton, etc.) finding success elsewhere don’t make it easy to believe things are going to chance anytime soon.

Is it football season yet?

Frank “The Big Hurt” Thomas’ Retirement Leaves a Big Hole In Baseball’s Heart.

At 6’5″ and 260 pounds, Frank Thomas was one of the most intimidating hitters in the history of baseball.

Perhaps no athlete in sports better embodied his nickname than Frank Thomas. Dubbed “the Big Hurt” by his teammates and the media, the gargantuan Thomas (a former tight-end at Auburn) towered over the baseball landscape as the best right-handed hitter for nearly a decade. The two-time MVP possessed a rare combination of prodigious power and plate discipline that made him one of the most feared sluggers of the 1990’s.

Along with Ken Griffey Jr. and Juan Gonzalez, Thomas was part of a group of young stars that led a revival of the home run during the early 90’s, peaking in the strike-shortened 1994 season in which he hit 39 longballs in only 399 at bats. Thomas finished his career with 521 home runs, good enough for 18th all-time, though the Big Hurt’s game was much more than just big flys.

A disciplined hitter who led the American League in walks four times, Thomas’ knowledge of the strike zone was nearly unparalleled among his peers. His 1,667 walks rank 9th all-time, and combined with his .301 batting average, result in a robust .419 career OBP (21st all-time, just behind Mickey Mantle and ahead of Stan Musial and Edgar Martinez).

Though the later part of his career was marred by injuries (joining Griffey Jr. in the “what if” club), the Big Hurt still finished 15th all-time in OPS, 25th in slugging, 22nd in RBI’s and 26th in extra-base hits. Sure he made David Ortiz look like John Olerud at first base, and yeah he ran with all the grace of a bewildered water buffalo, but Thomas owned home plate with a modern-day Thor’s hammer. Frank Thomas didn’t just hit baseballs…he destroyed them.

Even more impressive than all the numbers Thomas accumulated is the fact that he played baseball the right way, refusing to substitute shortcuts or supplements for hard work. Despite being a home run hitter in the scandal-filled steroids era, the Big Hurt has never been linked to PED’s and was one of baseball’s most outspoken players about steroids, calling for strict punishments of convicted cheaters.

Frank Thomas retired from baseball as one of the 15-20 greatest hitters of all-time. His numbers alone make him a Hall-of-Fame candidate, but it’s his integrity that ensures he will go in on the first ballot. Happy trails Big Hurt; baseball was a better sport because of you.

Bud’s Top Ten Players for 2010 (Part 1)

Aroldis Chapman is set to become a household name in 2010.

As a dual member of baseball’s brain trust and the sportswriting community, I am often approached by strangers on sidewalks or in stores who ask questions like: Why do you use so many commas in your writing? What are your thoughts on Cliff Floyd’s Hall-of-Fame candidacy? Did you ever take any courses on grammar or the English language? Why do people think Dane Cook is funny? And of course, which ten players are you most looking forward to watching in 2010? Well, I can provide little insight on most of their queries (Floyd did hit 34 HR’s 2005 for what it’s worth), so here is a look at Bud’s Top Ten Players for 2010 in some particular order:  

10.) Aroldis Chapman: Genetically engineered by Cuban scientists (think Ivan Drago or Yao Ming) to become the greatest left-handed pitcher of the 21st century and beyond, the 21-year-old Chapman might not throw a pitch in the majors next season, but the hype surrounding him is reaching New Moon levels. As a lefty who consistently throws in the high-90’s, Chapman could be a long-term impact arm for whatever team (Blue Jays, A’s, Angels, Red Sox or Yankees) ponies up the cash for him. How Chapman fairs in the minors in 2010 will go a long way in determining whether he’s worth the $20-25 million he’s likely to get (which he will of course mail back to Castro to support the resistance) or if he’s just another overpriced bust.  

9.) Alex Rodriguez: With Kate Hudson by his side in 2009, A-Rod captured his first World Series title and performed like a king in the postseason despite a nagging hip injury–but now she’s gone. While his body might be fully healthy in time for 2010 his heart will likely still be on the mend, and many baseball pundits wonder if he will be able to perform at last year’s high level without the flaxen-haired feline by his side. He’s on pace to reach 600 HR’s next season and could make a legitimate push for his fourth MVP with an absolutely stacked Yankees lineup, but can Alex do it with a heavy heart? I just don’t know. 

You've Gotta Love This Guy!

8.) Ken Griffey Jr:  My Seattle Mariners bias aside, Ken Griffey Jr. is one of the greatest all around players in the history of baseball and should receive a fond farewell everywhere the M’s play this year, ala Cal Ripken Jr. in 2001. This is the last time fans will be able to see the sweetest swing in baseball and the smile so big and bright that it brought joy to millions around the world. Is that a bit of an exaggeration? Not if you are from the Pacific Northwest it isn’t, the “Kid” will always have a special place in our hearts. Hopefully the Mariners can send Junior out on a high note…perhaps with a trip to their first World Series ever?  

7.) Joe Mauer: Coming off the greatest offensive season ever by a catcher last year, Joe Mauer is poised for even bigger things in 2010 (like dating Scarlett Johansson, curing polio and signing a billion dollar contract—seriously, pay him whatever he wants Minnesota). Mauer captured the AL MVP award last year despite missing a month of the season and the sky is the limit for Minnesota’s 26-year-old savior as the Twins move into their brand spankin’ new stadium. With Justin Morneau protecting him in the lineup and having all of this offseason to recover from nagging injuries, will Mauer make another run at hitting .400 in 2010? If he can stay healthy and continue to hit home runs in bunches, Mauer needs to be mentioned in the same breath as Albert Pujols and Adam Everett as one of the best hitters in baseball. Yeah, he’s that good.  

Will 2010 be Felix's last season in Seattle?

6.) Felix Hernandez: Though it seems like he’s been around longer than Methuselah, Felix Hernandez won’t turn 24 until April and has already established himself as one of the top right-handed pitchers in baseball. Hernandez narrowly missed out on capturing the Cy Young award last year (19-5, 2.49 ERA, 217 K’s) and will have even more incentive to perform in 2010 with free agency looming. If the Mariners aren’t able to sign King Felix to a long-term contract sometime soon the team may be forced to move him at the trade deadline in order to recoup their losses. Can you imagine the bidding war for Felix between the Yankees and Red Sox? I think New York would throw in the Statue of Liberty if it brought Hernandez to the Big Apple. Please don’t go Felix, please! 

Coming Soon: Players 5 through 1!

Changing of the Guard: Do the Red Sox Recent Acquisitions Make Them the Team to Beat in the AL East for 2010?

John Lackey has the heart of a warrior. Will it be enough to propel Boston past New York?

The Boston Red Sox came into this offseason in a foul mood. Not only were they swept from the playoffs by the Los Angeles Angels, but their bitter rivals, the New York Yankees, returned to baseball’s limelight by capturing the World Series on the strength of stars Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia—players that Boston had at one time targeted through free agency or trades. To make matters worse, the Yankees had already pulled off one of the biggest moves of the offseason, acquiring talented center fielder Curtis Granderson in a trade with the Tigers. Clearly Boston was feeling the heat in a never-ending arms race with New York, and it didn’t take long for the Red Sox to respond in turn. In the span of two days they acquired John Lackey, the best free-agent pitcher on the market, and Mike Cameron, a defensive virtuoso, to fill the void in left field. Both players will play important roles for Boston in 2009, but will they make the Red Sox the best team in the AL East?   

The addition of Lackey gives Boston one of the deepest pitching rotations in all of baseball, with a talented trio at the top and a number of serviceable arms at the back of the rotation. Lackey received staff ace money from the Red Sox (5 years/$82.5 million) but will probably be the third starting pitcher in the rotation behind Josh Beckett and Jon Lester (Killer J’s? J-Cubed?). Though hampered by injuries in 2009, Lackey still went 11-8 with a 3.83 ERA and 139 strikeouts against only 47 walks. He is mainly a groundball pitcher but can be susceptible to the longball (he allowed 26 home runs in 2008), which may prove to be an issue with the Green Monster out in left field. Despite the fact that Lackey might not be in the same class as pitchers like Roy Halladay and Cliff Lee, he has a strong postseason track record (3.12 career playoff ERA) and past success against AL East foes (25-15, 3.62 ERA vs. New York, Baltimore, Toronto and Tampa Bay). After getting burned last year by the John Smoltz experiment the Red Sox were eager to acquire a dependable arm (Lackey has a .590 career winning percentage) and now have one of the most formidable starting fives with Beckett, Lester, Lackey, Clay Bucholz (though be may be traded for an additional bat) and either Dice-K or Tim Wakefield. In terms of pitching, Boston certainly has the talent to compete with the Yankees; do they on offense?  

Mike Cameron has some big shoes to fill in left field.

While Mike Cameron will be an upgrade defensively over Jason Bay in left field (or centerfield, depending on where Terry Francona decides to play Jacoby Ellsbury), he will be hard pressed to match Bay’s 36 home runs and 119 RBI’s. The 36-year-old Cameron hit .250 with 24 HR’s and 70 RBI’s last season, but also chipped in 32 doubles and 75 walks which led to a .342 OBP (vs. Bay’s .384 OBP). With the perpetually disappointing J.D. Drew in right, Boston won’t exactly have a murderer’s row in the outfield, and may lose even more ground to the Yankees’ big bats (New York outscored Boston by 43 runs in 2009). As questions continue to swirl around the health of Mike Lowell, and David Ortiz continues to age at the speed of light, the Red Sox are still at least another bat away from usurping the Bronx Bombers, and that’s assuming that New York doesn’t make any more moves (they did).

So, while the signings of Lackey and Cameron have improved the Red Sox’s pitching and defense, New York is still clearly the team to beat in the AL East. The Yankees have done nothing but improve this offseason after winning 102 games in 2009, and with a healthy A-Rod and the newly acquired Granderson the team could be a juggernaut in 2010. Boston is moving in the right direction, but unless they want to spend another postseason watching the Yankees raise a World Series trophy, general manager Theo Epstein had better continue to work the phones…New York isn’t going anywhere soon.

Breaking News: Blockbuster Trade Sends Roy Halladay to Philadelphia; Cliff Lee to Seattle; Prospects to Toronto.

The star of last year's postseason, Cliff Lee is heading to Seattle after today's mega deal.

In the biggest surprise of the offseason thus far the Mariners, Phillies and Blue Jays have laid the groundwork for a stunning deal that would send Roy Halladay to Philadelphia, Cliff Lee to Seattle and prospects from both teams to Toronto. The Phillies actively pursued Halladay at last season’s trade deadline, but reached an impasse with Toronto regarding which players the Blue Jays would receive in compensation, and the deal was never completed. Philadelphia eventually worked out a trade with Cleveland to acquire Lee who was instrumental in guiding the Phillies to their second straight World Series-berth. Toronto has been shopping Halladay since his agent released a statement asking for a deal before Spring Training with New York, Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia listed as possible trade destinations. The Mariners have been an active player all offseason, with the team linked to numerous free-agents, and the signing of third baseman Chone Figgins. If this deal is finalized, it will have major ramifications for all three teams, and could dramatically alter the power structure of both the AL West and NL East.

In this trade, the Mariners gain a certified staff ace to pair with Felix Hernandez, giving Seattle one of the most potent 1-2 combinations in baseball. The move also strongly indicates that GM Jack Zdurinciek is looking to build a team capable of not only winning the division, but also a World Series title. Seattle led the AL in numerous pitching categories last year, but needed to bolster their rotation with the departures of Erik Bedard and Jarrod Washburn. Enter Cliff Lee, the 2008 AL Cy Young award winner, who went a combined 14-13 with a 3.22 ERA and 181 strikeouts between Cleveland and Philadelphia. The 31-year-old lefty was even more impressive in the postseason, going 4-0 with a 1.56 ERA, including a 2-0 mark against the Yankees in the World Series. The Mariners still have work to do offensively in order to have dreams of a pennant, but this move certainly makes them an early favorite to capture the AL West.

The Phillies hope Roy Halladay is the right player to lead them to a third straight World Series.

The Phillies finally acquired the pitcher they had long coveted in this deal and are likely to negotiate a long-term contract with Halladay in the next few days or weeks (somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 years/$100 million dollars). Halladay continued his run as one of the game’s best pitchers in 2009, posting a 17-10 record with a 2.79 ERA and 208 strikeouts. The 32-year-old right hander is baseball’s most durable and consistent starting pitcher, having topped 220 innings in each of the past four seasons. Already the favorite to capture the NL East in 2010, this move solidifies the Phillies as a perennial contender in the National League. Lee was outstanding for Philadelphia last-season but the team was having trouble working out a long-term contract with the lefty, and decided to pursue Halladay as their frontline starter moving forward. Barring any significant injuries next season, this move gives the Phillies a strong shot at another trip to the World Series in 2010.

Toronto really had no choice except to trade Roy Halladay as their star pitcher planned to leave via free agency after the season. The Blue Jays will receive a package of top prospects from both the Mariners and Phillies, but it has not yet been announced which players are involved in the deal (early reports indicate that Seattle’s Phillipe Aumont and Philadelphia’s Travis d’Arnaud are headed to the Blue Jays). Toronto has a solid young core of position players (Aaron Hill, Adam Lind, Travis Snider) and starting pitchers (Ricky Romero, Dustin McGowan, Brad Mills), and this trade will allow them to stockpile talent for a run at the division in a few years. As with all trades involving prospects it won’t be clear for a couple of seasons whether Toronto received a fair haul for Halladay, but the team’s hands were tied in this particular situation, and they made the move that they believed will give the Blue Jays the best shot to win in the near future.

It’s not often that a sport’s offseason is more exciting than the actual play on the field, but that’s been the case for baseball in 2009. Another blockbuster deal has two teams eyeing a World Series trophy and the other hoping it can overcome the loss of its franchise player. The Mariners and Phillies both made major strides with today’s trade, now how will the rest of baseball respond?