The Five Best M’s Games of 2013

marc w · February 8, 2014 at 9:00 am · Filed Under Mariners 

Even in a year characterized by disappointment and failure – a year that brought us the weird, bitter end of the Zduriencik and Wedge partnership and the total, comprehensive destruction of the M’s best position-player prospect – there are moments of joy and beauty. No, there aren’t any meaningful games to choose from in the traditional sense, but what are we all doing here if not searching for meaning? We M’s fans look into the void, and declare a corner of it “a future #2 starter.” We see, ok, if not beauty, then auguries of change, development and not-Brendan Ryan.

Game Number: 12
M’s record: 4-7
SPs: Iwakuma vs. Darvish
Why it’s listed: The M’s opened 2013 with a dominating performance from Felix and backed it up with a great start by Hisashi Iwakuma. And then they went 2-7. Before this game, Dave wrote that the next 9 days were crucial to the M’s continued ability to compete in 2013, and that with Michael Saunders ailing, the team needed a huge lift from someone to stay competitive against two of the league’s elite in Texas and Detroit. 12 days later, Dave wrote this, so you can tell how that all worked out. But this game…THIS game was different. This was one of the bigger mismatches of the young season, with presumed (and actual) Cy Young candidate Darvish facing a line-up of Jason Bay, Endy Chavez, Brendan Ryan and Kelly Shoppach and facing presumed DL candidate Hisashi Iwakuma. A third of this line-up would be DFA’d during the year, and that’s the part that DOESN’T include Brendan Ryan.

The M’s jumped on Darvish early, with a HBP/WP, a 1B, then an RBI single from Raul Ibanez, who’d looked abysmal to that point, followed by a huge two-run double by Kyle Seager. It wasn’t text-book, but the M’s had a 3-0 lead. Given the nature of the line-up, you won’t be shocked to recall that the M’s were done scoring after that, but Iwakuma made three runs hold up, going 6 1/3 IP of 1-run ball (a solo HR accounting for the run, naturally) over 6 1/3 IP. The M’s bullpen helped out, with Stephen Pryor unhittable for 1 1/3 IP, then turning it over to Tom Wilhelmsen, whom M’s fans still trusted in mid-April.

The M’s were in deep trouble and absolutely needed to steal a win, and they did. Their actions over the next two weeks rendered the importance of this game moot, and we all settled in to another year of…this. But this game showed that Iwakuma was both not hurt and ridiculously good when he was on.

Line from the game post: “The M’s are facing Yu Darvish, at home, with a starting pitcher who may not be 100%, and it *kind of makes sense* to start Ibanez/Chavez/Bay in the outfield. That’s why the M’s are in trouble in the short term. But if you’re going to steal a win, *steal* one. Make it hurt.”

What would the Seahawks have done?
Not enter the game 4-7.


Game Number: 134
M’s record: 61-73
SPs: Walker vs. Peacock
Why it’s listed:
Taijuan Walker’s the best pitching prospect the M’s have produced since King Felix. Of course his big league debut’s going to be on the list, and the fact that he shut the Astros out for 5 innings on only 2 hits just makes the decision easier. I’d been following Walker’s meteoric rise, which helped make this one of the few games in 2013 that felt like it mattered. I was nervous. I clapped at my TV after groundouts and whiffs. It was like a simulacrum of a playoff game, or a meaningful down-the-stretch game – the kind we haven’t had in a decade plus. Part of that’s my own weirdness, and part of that’s the dearth of any opportunity to get stoked for a late-season ballgame, but I *felt* something. Thanks, Taijuan Walker.

Let’s be clear: this was not actually one of Walker’s best games. I’ve seen Walker in person maybe 3 times, and on TV a few more, and I *still* don’t think we’ve seen what he can actually do. In the first inning of this contest, he was touching 94-95, and didn’t have his best command (understandably so). His cutter in particular just wasn’t that sharp, as he left quite a few up over the zone, and piped a couple over the heart of the plate. But that’s what makes this special – Walker doesn’t need to have everything working the way a Joe Saunders does, or hell, the way Erasmo Ramirez does. His repertoire, mechanics and stuff mean that hitters have a lot to consider, and thus Walker got away with some centered pitches.

I’d been struck by his poise in his AAA debut, another outing where he simply didn’t have a feel for his cutter, but he pitched out of a jam in the 3rd, when a 2-out double and then an error by Justin Smoak led to an unearned run. He was facing hitters for the 2nd time, and he yielded another hit and a line drive before getting out of the inning. In the 4th, facing the heart of the Astros line-up, he struck out Jason Castro, got a foul-out and a grounder. I know: it was the Astros. That’s context, sure, but Walker dominated a big-league team (kind of) without his best stuff. In his first big league appearance. That’s worth celebrating.

Line from the game post: ” It’s important to be reminded that it’s possible to really care about this team, and the development of a core group of players who could actually compete someday. Is this a low bar to get over? Yes, it is, but that doesn’t mean we’ve cleared it very often.”
What would the Seahawks have done? Faced with opposition like this, the M’s would have dominated early on to ease the pressure on Walker. Final score: 45-1.

Game Number: 1

M’s record: 0-0
SPs: Hernandez vs. Anderson
Why it’s listed:
Yes, we’ve seen it before. Hell, Felix has dominated the Oakland A’s on opening day before. This wasn’t about novelty, this was about Felix eliminating any doubt that his massive contract extension had changed him. This was about sending a message to the A’s, suddenly an elite team in the AL. And yes, the rest of the league is accustomed to these messages, and now disregards them because the M’s have struggled to back up a dominating Felix performance with more than a flurry of ground ball outs and a quick series loss. But so what? It was opening day, and Felix pitched 7 2/3 IP with 8 Ks and just 1 walk. John Jaso doubled, and while that was annoying because of context/circumstances, it just didn’t matter. The M’s got the best team in the AL West, facing that team’s best pitcher in one of his rare bouts of health, and shut them out.

Was the lack of run support worrying? Not facing the A’s #1 starter, and not on April 1st in Oakland’s cavernous ballpark. Is it annoying that the best most fans felt about the team came on opening night? Yes, sure, though I want to point out they won the next game too. But the M’s season went south quickly, as we saw in #5 above. If that just means it was somewhat inevitable that this game would end up on the list, well, so be it. Felix dominated a really good division rival, and somewhere underneath all of that scar tissue, we were excited about the M’s again.

Line from the game post: “Opening day means we can stop tabulating probabilities and start rooting *against* them.”
What would the Seahawks have done? A key early season match-up against a tough divisional foe? They’d focus on defense. With 2 outs in each inning, Felix would bean an A’s batter. With runs at a premium, the M’s would play ridiculously shallow on the IF corners while shouting insults to the batter. Chin music and constant abuse will take a team out of their rhythm.

Game Number: 32

M’s record: 15-17
SPs: Iwakuma vs. Dickey
Why it’s listed:
As discussed above, the M’s were at a crossroads in mid-April – the early series win in Oakland rendered moot by two, yes TWO, series losses to the Astros, as well as predictable domination by teams like Texas and Detroit. But then the M’s caught a break. They faced the Angels at exactly the right time, taking 3 of 4 against the stuggling halos – even getting a promising start from Brandon Maurer. They won 2 of 3 against a solid Orioles club before going on the road to face Toronto, the team many experts picked to win not only the AL East, but the AL pennant. Sure, they were struggling, but the Astros struggles didn’t prevent them from winning home and road series against the M’s this month. Were the Blue Jays just waiting to prey upon a young, bad team, using the easy wins to jump back into the race? Or would the M’s expose the Jays weaknesses and essentially end the Jays dreams in late April?

The first batter to face RA Dickey, the reigning NL CY Young winner, was Michael Saunders, who sent Dickey’s 2nd pitch over the RF fence. Dustin Ackley entered the game with a .577 OPS, but left with a grand slam and the fleeting hope that he’d start hitting for power again. Raul Ibanez *tripled* because screw you Toronto, that’s why. Endy Chavez didn’t really do anything, but ha ha, we played Endy Chavez and won 8-1, and you called yourselves contenders!

This is schadenfreude. I understand that. The M’s couldn’t be contenders, but they could spread the feeling so many of us had in early 2010 – the creeping realization that not only were the M’s not going to win the division, they weren’t going to compete, and they were going to be bad. That mismatch between expectations and results, the unmitigated horror of so many of those mid-2010 games…I’m not proud of myself here, but I wanted someone else to feel that. I wanted to pass the torch, so someone else could watch millions in FA contracts go up in smoke. And hey, Mike Saunders hit 2 home runs in this game!

Line from the game post: “Opening day means we can stop tabulating probabilities and start rooting *against* them.”
What would the Seahawks have done? This was the most Seahawks game the M’s played all season. A lead-off HR. A grand slam. Hisashi Iwakuma proving that his hot start wasn’t a fluke, and pitching around some sub-par stuff to keep the Jays in check. Raul Ibanez tripling is far more of an insult than anything Richard Sherman could say. The M’s could have repeatedly called Dickey “mediocre” in the postgame presser, I guess.

Game Number: 158

M’s record: No one cared by this point
SPs: Paxton vs. Chen
Why it’s listed:
Why would anyone – besides a Royals fan – care about this game? What’s the point of proclaiming one meaningless game slightly less meaningless than all the others? Despite the false dawns of the Jeremy Reed era, the Cliff Lee trade (either of them), and Dustin Ackley’s hot 2011, we’re still looking for players that this team is actually going to build around. Tai Walker’s looking like a great candidate at this point, and so is Brad Miller – one of Miller’s 2-HR games is on the “honorable mention” list that I just made up. Still, this team’s had Felix for years, and was in the midst of a blistering run of form from Hisashi Iwakuma, and they still found themselves roughly 20 games below .500. Another good pitcher – a really good one – wasn’t going to suddenly transform them into contenders. The M’s needed multiple prospects to step up.

James Paxton had been brilliant down the stretch in 2012 for AA Jackson, and he’d carried it over, at least for a while, in the Arizona Fall League that year. He sat in the mid-90s, he flashed that famous curve, and while he wasn’t always dominant, he had stuff that made him an intriguing darkhorse rotation candidate in 2013-14. Then came spring training, where Paxton sat 89-90 and got knocked around by AAAA lifers and 19-year old prospects. Sure, maybe it was all just fatigue after an injury-plagued 2012 and the Fall League – he could fatten up on AAA hitters and get back into the conversation for the M’s rotation.

Early in the AAA season, he showed flashes of his AFL-self – 6 Ks and no walks in 4IP against Fresno, 9 Ks and a walk vs. Reno – but then he’d fall apart and give up 8 hits and 3 walks against no Ks in 1 1/3 against Salt Lake. Or he’d have a brilliant outing for 4 or 5 innings only to disintegrate in his final inning. After a mid-season swoon, I thought he’d blown any chance to have an impact in 2013, and, worse, I thought he might transition to the pen in 2014. He improved down the stretch, but over his last five AAA starts, Paxton gave up 14 walks to 18 strikeouts in 27 2/3 IP, yielding 16 runs in the process. I went to his final AAA game to get a look at Danny Hultzen, but despite the so-so numbers, Paxton looked absurdly good. The 90 mph fastball was gone, replaced by a consistent 95. The curve still had two-plane bite, and he showcased a cutter/slider at around 90 that looked like it could play at the next level. He wasn’t perfect, but he put his disastrous start to 2013 to rest. He wasn’t a finished product, but he was an actual prospect again.

His 2013 – really, his entire pro journey starting with an odd false start as a junior at Kentucky – culminated in this start, the best of his career. Facing a decent MLB line-up in a de facto playoff game (the Royals were desperately trying to catch the Indians/Rays for the 2nd wild card), Paxton went 7 shutout innings with 10 strikeout and no walks. If there was any doubt about his 2014 role before, they were settled. The only question was if the M’s would bring in a free agent to compete with him for the 5th rotation spot. Given his up-and-down track record, you can’t fault the M’s for doing so, but there aren’t many teams with talent like this as rotation depth. Or, if you prefer, there aren’t many teams with rookie starters with this kind of upside. The M’s didn’t find one potential impact starter in late 2013 – they found two.

Line from the game post: “Because we don’t get to have nice things, Danny Hultzen will go see Dr. James Andrews about his ailing labrum.” Awww, c’mon, just give us ONE DAY to be not-apathetic!
What would the Seahawks have done? The Seahawks once got a huge performance, seemingly out of nowhere, in an important late-season game. The moment galvanized fans and marked the beginning of a new era. The Seahawks would capitalize on the moment with a franchise-altering draft in 2012 and make the leap to perennial contenders/favorites within a year. Let’s be clear – the Paxton game’s one that almost no one in Seattle saw, let alone cheered en masse. The so-so Seahawks team had limped into the playoffs, as opposed to the M’s coming in 20 games under. But I certainly wouldn’t mind if, years down the road, people pointed to this game and saw it as a turning point. The following day, a healthy Mike Zunino slugged two HRs against the Royals, as Iwakuma continued his unlikely run at Cy Young contention. Sure, the M’s then crapped the bed in the final series, culminating in a 9-0 season-ending loss, but for 48 hours, we saw…I don’t know, maybe we just saw what we wanted to see. But for 48 hours, the M’s didn’t visibly look like a failed team playing out the string. I liked that.


10 Responses to “The Five Best M’s Games of 2013”

  1. TherzAlwaysHope on February 8th, 2014 11:44 am

    [quote]the total, comprehensive destruction of the M’s best position-player prospect[/quote]

    Who was this guy? Seriously. I can only think Ackley but he was pretty much destroyed in his first year when he was hitting well and Wedge was criticizing him for not putting big league at-bats.

  2. Westside guy on February 8th, 2014 1:16 pm

    I was reading this while drinking my first cup of coffee today. I had the cup to my lips when I hit the first “What would the Seahawks have done?” – and just about spewed coffee all over my iPad!

    The line “… but what are we all doing here if not searching for meaning?” was classic as well.

    This was a great post, Marc. A wonderful mix of pithy prose, humor, and existentialism. And you reminded me of the feelings I had when I watched those games – there WAS occasional hope and joy! It’s too easy for me to get weighed down by the bulk of a lost season – but those moments were worth watching and remembering.

    Well done.

  3. MrZDevotee on February 8th, 2014 1:28 pm

    I was half expecting Game 162 to be on the list, just for snits and wiggles… Maybe 2 lines of text… “Why? Because Euthanasia is sometimes the only way to deal with gruesome events. Give the dog some peace.”

  4. Westside guy on February 8th, 2014 1:28 pm

    TherzAlwaysHope – I’m pretty sure he’s referring to the decision to start the season with Montero as the starting catcher, even though everyone in the league knew at that point he had no business behind the plate.

  5. MrZDevotee on February 8th, 2014 1:32 pm

    This just in via MLBTradeRumors…

    “SATURDAY: It’s only “a matter of time” before the Mariners agree to terms with Cruz, industry sources tell Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune (on Twitter).”

    Of course, “industry sources” means whatever it means (or doesn’t)… But it’s definitely feeling a bit like the climactic ending of “Dead Fan Walking” is coming soon.

  6. TherzAlwaysHope on February 8th, 2014 1:48 pm

    Thanks WSG. Montero. He shouldn’t have bat in his hands either.

    MrZDevotee: Are you working on a new handle just in case?

  7. TumwaterMike on February 8th, 2014 1:58 pm

    Its really hard to compare the Seahawks success with the Mariners. First of all Seahawk draft picks are expected to contribute immediately (especially 1st rounders)..Mariner draft picks usually spend a year to year and a half or more in the minor leagues. Too many things can happen to a player in the minor leagues. A pitcher can get a bad arm, a hitter can lose his confidence etc. You are lucky to get 1 to 2 players out of each draft to make it to the majors. In the NFL you usually get 4-5 players who contribute every year. Just saying.

  8. MrZDevotee on February 8th, 2014 4:28 pm

    How ’bout OlivierNewtonJohn… The Aussie “dude” who wrote “Hopelessly Devoted To Z”?

  9. TherzAlwaysHope on February 8th, 2014 6:12 pm

    Uhhh … Good luck with that.

    Moving on, is there any chance K Morales is returning to the M’s? Just say no. Pleeeez.

  10. PackBob on February 11th, 2014 11:01 am

    It’s a little distressing that these are all pitcher’s games. Yeah Dickey, but when a knuckleballer doesn’t have it, runs can come in bunches. On the other hand, a couple of promising rookie pitchers to go with Felix and Hisashi is pretty cool.

    Maybe that starts to change with Cano. It’s been such a long time since the Mariners have had a really good hitter that it’s easy to feel like nothing will change. But maybe the M’s few decent hitters like Seager and hopefully Miller combined with Cano will make this finally feel like a ML lineup again.

    If the game didn’t feel like it was over when the other teams scores a few runs, it would be a lot more fun.

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