April 2011

Raise your hand if you saw this coming …

Mariners manager Eric Wedge was fired up as he replaced Doug Fister after a gutsy performance Saturday in a 2-0 shutout at Fenway. (Getty Images/Elsa)

Sometimes sports just flat out surprise you. Sometimes teams do the unexpected. And sometimes you should just enjoy it when your team is the one doing the surprising.

Tonight’s 2-0 tight-rope victory over the Red Sox makes it five straight for a Mariners club everyone was writing off before this season had barely started … and for good reason.

Two weeks ago, the Mariners offense was awful, their bullpen suspect and their hopes waning. But five straight road wins at Detroit and now Boston — with Felix Hernandez taking the hill Sunday — have given Seattle nine wins in its past 14 games.

And instead of sinking slowly to oblivion, the Mariners are suddenly just 3 1/2 games back in the AL West and at least in position to make things interesting again if they keep playing well.

Ichiro Suzuki told Japanese reporters tonight these were the kind of games that just didn’t happen a year ago, the club getting all the needed breaks as Boston came up empty time and again with runners in scoring position.

There was a certain amount of good fortune involved, but I’ll tell you something else. Doug Fister is one tough son of a gun and his fire is contagious. And respected.

“Straight Fresno State Bulldog,” said Jack Wilson.

While he’s a quiet man off the field,  Fister gets fired up when his teammates make plays. And he’s quick to credit them afterward.

“This was all about the offense getting on the board early and more importantly, the defense,” Fister said. “That’s the defense we play, that’s our game. I don’t know where to start. Whether it’s Olivo diving into the stands catching balls, Smoak doing the same thing, Figgy making the diving catch at third base. That’s every pitcher’s dream, to have the defense play all out, every out.”

Yeah, something interesting is happening with these Mariners. Who knows whether this team will continue playing this well, but at least now we know they’re capable of playing winning baseball and competing.

Their bullpen has been excellent (14 1/3 straight scoreless innings on this trip), the offense is improving with Justin Smoak and Miguel Olivo producing in the middle and the starting pitching is better than expected with Michael Pineda throwing extremely well, Fister and Jason Vargas holding up well and Erik Bedard coming off a strong outing. Then there’s that Felix guy, of course.

So we shall see. It’s a long season with many twists and turns. But this particular turn has at least made things interesting again for the Mariners. And that’s something none of us were sure we’d see.

Pineda proving himself at every turning point

Mariners manager Eric Wedge remembers when he truly realized Michael Pineda was ready to be an impactful Major League starting pitcher. It was the big youngster’s final spring training start against Milwaukee, when the kid threw six shutout innings with just two hits, two walks and seven strikeouts.

“I sat there trying to punch holes in it,” Wedge said, “and I couldn’t.”

Nope, there’s not to pick apart when it comes to Pineda’s meteoric progress. The 22-year-old improved to 4-1 with a 2.01 ERA on Thursday with a 7-2 victory over the Tigers, helping Seattle to a series sweep that breathed life back in a club now sitting 11-15.

If you’re wondering, that’s the same record the Mariners had at this point last season. But at that juncture, the 2010 club was four games into an eight-game tailspin at Safeco Field that took the starch out of Don Wakamatsu’s team.

This year’s club struggled early, but for now at least has begun playing competitive baseball with seven wins in the last 11 games and some offense to team with the productive starting pitching.

No secret formulas here. The Mariners just finally gotting some production in the middle of their order with the return of Justin Smoak and the surprising success of Miguel Olivo in the cleanup role.

“They’re a good baseball team,” Wedge said of the Tigers. “It’s tough to sweep another Major League team and even that much tougher on the road. But we came in here, our starting pitchers gave us great effort, we had some timely hitting and that was really the difference.”

And what a difference it was. Did we see this sweep coming? No. But if you’ve been paying attention, you knew Pineda had a chance to be special and Bedard could be solid if he got back to how he was pitching this spring. Felix is Felix and Doug Fister and Jason Vargas fill out a pretty decent rotation. Given a little run support and some solid bullpen work from guys like David Pauley, Jamey Wright and Brandon League, the Mariners are finding their footing.

Can it continue? We’ll see how things play out in Boston the next three days, but at least the Mariners reminded us they can make things interesting. And now, it’s on to Fenway.

Smoak on fire since rejoining team

Big Justin Smoak continued putting on a show since his return from the bereavement list on Wednesday, racking up a career-high five RBIs in the Mariners’ 10-1 victory over the Tigers at Comerica Park.

You can’t help but feel good for the youngster, who just buried his father Saturday in Goose Creek, S.C.

His first-inning home run to left-center field off right-hander Justin Verlander was a big-time blow, a 405-foot shot off the Tigers ace to give Seattle a quick 3-0 lead.

Did he think it was gone?

“No. this is a huge park,” Smoak said. “I knew I hit it well and thought it was in the gap. It just happened to go over.”

Understated was the word in the Mariners clubhouse tonight. Erik Bedard downplayed any sort of storyline about his first win in nearly two years, saying he was just trying to throw strikes and help his team win.

But Bedard’s effort was huge for the Mariners, who have quietly won six of their last 10 now. We’ll see if they can keep it rolling with rookie Michael Pineda pitching Thursday in the 10:05 a.m. PT series finale.

Smoak heroics, freak homer and a Felix win

Justin Smoak launches his two-run home run Tuesday in Detroit in his first game back after his father passed away in Goose Creek, S.C. (Getty Images/Leon Halip)

For a team many have written off already this season, the Mariners provided a boatload of interesting storylines Tuesday with a 7-3 win over the Tigers at Comerica Park.

Justin Smoak provided the perfect touch on his return from the bereavement list, the quiet youngster from Goose Creek, S.C., belting a two-run home run in his first game back following his father’s funeral.

Miguel Olivo, inserted into the clean-up spot by manager Eric Wedge, hit a home run of his own over the left-field fence … though Olivo got a most-interesting assist from Tigers outfielder Ryan Raburn with a little Jose Canseco-esque deflection on a line drive that was coming down on the warning track.

If you haven’t seen that one, que up the video replay here. We’ll be seeing this one for years on blooper reels.

And then there was Felix Hernandez, fighting to find his breaking ball and location much of the night, but taking advantage of the rare run support and battling his way through six innings to earn his third win of the season.

Don’t forget David Pauley and Brandon League, as well, as those two held the Tigers to one hit over the final three frames.

All in all, quite a night at the ballpark here in Detroit. There were some happy faces in the clubhouses afterward. For Olivo, who has been struggling. For Hernandez, who deserves all the help he can get. And most of all for Smoak, who went through the kind of week that puts everything in perspective.

Olivo will be on all the highlights for his bizarre home run, but he had one of the quotes of the year as well when talking about Smoak’s dramatic moment.

“When he hit it, I got chills,” Olivo said. “I think his father did that for him. I met him at home plate and said, ‘Hey, that was for Papa.’”

Smoak eager to get back to baseball

Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak was back with the Mariners Tuesday in Detroit and in tonight’s lineup, hitting fifth, after missing six games following the death of his father in Goose Creek, S.C.

Smoak asked not to talk about his family situation, but answered questions about baseball and said he’s not worried about regaining his stroke.

The 24-year-old has a seven-game hitting streak going and was 9-for-24 (.375) during that stretch to raise his batting average to .291 with a pair of home runs.

“With time off you’ve always got to shake things off, but it’s part of it and I’m ready to get going here again,” he said. “I’m excited to be back.”

The Mariners didn’t take early batting practice Tuesday due to threats of bad weather that never materialized, but Smoak worked in the batting cage and said he felt fine.

“I think it’s just one of those things. I feel like my last game was yesterday,” he said. “It’s been a whirlwind, but we’ll see what happens tonight. I feel good. I was hitting in the cage today and everything felt about the same, so we’ll see what happens.”

Also back with the team is young reliever Dan Cortes, who was sent down to Tacoma late in Spring Training after initially being regarded as one of the late-inning candidates. Cortes replaces Josh Lueke, who threw 2 1/3 innings of shutout ball for the Rainiers yesterday.

Cortes said he’s been looking to harness his emotions, as well as his upper-90s fastball.

“I’m not throwing quite as hard, I was throwing 95-97, but the main thing is to throw strikes,” he said. “I’m not trying to throw my arm out trying to get to triple-digits. My main focus is just to throw strikes and get hitters out.

“I’d get in my own head and get frustrated and angry. That’s what caused me to get wild and stay off line from home plate. I’ve been pretty chilled mentally and it’s helping me out.”

Here’s tonight’s lineup for the 4:05 p.m. PT game against the Tigers:

Ichiro Suzuki RF
Chone Figgins 3B
Milton Bradley LF
Miguel Olivo C
Justin Smoak 1B
Jack Cust DH
Brendan Ryan SS
Michael Saunders CF
Jack Wilson 2B
Felix Hernandez P

Wondering weather or not there’ll be game tonight?

Yeah, that’s a play on words — whether, weather — get it? We’re going to get a little of it in Detroit today, judging by the winds whipping through Motown this morning and the forecast for thundershowers tonight.

If the weathermen are accurate, any storm is most likely to hit about 7-7:30 p.m. ET, or right about when Felix Hernandez and the boys take the field.

I’ll be heading to Comerica Park in about half an hour and it’s overcast and kind of a muggy mid-60s afternoon at the moment, so we’ll see how it plays out. Matter of fact, it just now started raining at 1:45 p.m. here (or 10:45 a.m. PT).

One thing Eric Wedge won’t want to get caught in is a situation where Hernandez gets all warmed up and starts the game, then gets caught in a rain delay that wipes out his chances to pitch deep into the game. Felix is obviously a guy the Mariners want to ride as often as possible — which is why he’s pitching today on his normal fifth day even though Seattle had an off day yesterday.

Despite throwing 126 pitches in his last outing, Hernandez wasn’t given an extra day. Instead, Erik Bedard was bumped back to get an extra two days and will pitch tomorrow, while the rest of the rotation gets one extra day.

Interesting note from Tim Hevly and Kelly Munro of the Mariners baseball information department: Felix has won six straight games against the Tigers over his last seven starts with a 3.00 ERA, his longest streak against any team. Next on the list are the Yankees and A’s with four straight wins.

So, yeah, the Mariners want this one to go as scheduled against Tigers lefty Phil Coke, the guy they knocked around pretty good in the 13-3 win last week in Safeco Field when he gave up six hits, six runs (two earned) with four walks in 3 2/3 innings.

UPDATE: 12:05 p.m. PT (or 3:05 here in Detroit) — The sun is out for now and it’s looking pretty nice at the moment. Mariners pitchers are working out with strength coach Allen Wirtala on the field. Also good to see Franklin Gutierrez out doing some early work.

Gutierrez made the trip with the club and will work to improve his conditioning and see how things progress now that his diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome has been confirmed by doctors at the Mayo Clinic.

Wedge confirms Smoak will rejoin team on Tuesday

As I suggested earlier today on the blog, Justin Smoak will join the team Tuesday in Detroit after dealing with his father’s funeral tomorrow in North Charleston, S.C.

Manager Eric Wedge just met with the media prior to tonight’s game against the A’s and confirmed that Smoak would be back when the Mariners open a three-game road series against the Tigers.

Keith Smoak died Tuesday at the age of 57 in South Carolina, shortly after Justin was placed on the bereavement list in order to fly home to be with him. Justin will remain with the family through the weekend and then fly to Michigan on Monday.

“I talked to Justin yesterday and we’re going to give him the time with his family and have the closure he needs to have before he comes back,” Wedge said.

Wedge said the 24-year-old first baseman is doing as well as could be expected.

“He was OK,” Wedge said. “I think we’ve all been through this in some shape or form. What he’s trying to do is just take care of his family.”

The skipper said there was nothing new yet on center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, who is still at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., being evaluated for his ongoing digestive tract problems.

“They’ve taken a lot of tests and are evaluating all the information and we should have something for you in the next day or two,” Wedge said.

Milton Bradley returns to the lineup today after recovering from what Wedge called one of those “24 hour things” that caused him to be scratched from Thursday’s 1-0 victory over the A’s.

Here’s today’s full lineup:

51  Ichiro Suzuki (L)     RF
9  Chone Figgins (S)     3B
15  Milton Bradley (S)    LF
29  Jack Cust (L)         DH
4  Adam Kennedy (L)      1B
30  Miguel Olivo          C
12  Ryan Langerhans (L)   CF
26  Brendan Ryan          SS
2  Jack Wilson           2B
36  Michael Pineda        RHP

Felix moving ahead of Bedard with off day upcoming

Felix Hernandez threw 7 2/3 scoreless innings in Thursday's 1-0 victory over the A's. (Elaine Thompson/AP photo)

If you don’t want to wait too long for Felix Hernandez’s next start — and who does in the wake of Thursday’s 1-0 gem against the A’s? — the Mariners are helping out by moving The King ahead of Erik Bedard in the rotation the next time around.

With an off day Monday, manager Eric Wedge will keep Hernandez on his normal five-day turn by skipping him ahead of Bedard and letting him pitch Tuesday in Detroit in the opening game of the Tigers series.

As happened earlier in the season with Michael Pineda, that pushes Bedard back an extra day to Wednesday — meaning he’ll have a full week since his previous start against the same Tigers squad he lost to last Wednesday. That makes sense on both fronts,  keeping Hernandez in his routine and giving Bedard’s arm extra time as he continues building back up after missing 18 months with shoulder problems.

In other news, it appears first baseman Justin Smoak probably won’t rejoin the team until Tuesday in Detroit at the earliest. The club has made no announcement, but his father’s funeral is Saturday in North Charleston, S.C., and the Mariners have a day game Sunday in Seattle followed by an off day Monday.

So it seems logical to have Smoak take the time with his family and then meet the Mariners in Michigan. His father, Keith, died at the age of 57 this past Tuesday. Here’s a story in the Charleston (S.C.) Courier and Herald about how Justin and his dad got together to play catch one last time in February before Justin headed to Spring Training, with his father in a wheelchair while battling his lung cancer.

Stories like that serve as a great reminder of how important it is to enjoy the time we have with our families. For lots of dads, playing catch with their sons is as good as it gets and I have no doubt Justin and his dad treasured that moment.

Smoak is definitely missed in the Mariners clubhouse, where his quiet, low-key personality have made him a popular teammate. And there’s no question the team misses his bat in the middle of the lineup, even with Adam Kennedy doing a nice job defensively and also popping home runs in the past two games.

Last night’s win was one of those reminders of how there are always great moments even in rough seasons. While Seattle has struggled to a 7-13 start, this year has already produced a couple memorable contests with the seven-run comeback win against Toronto and now the 1-0 classic against the A’s.

Now comes another Michael Pineda start tonight. The 22-year-old was beaming yesterday after getting his first driver’s license in the U.S., passing on his first try. He said he’d never had a car in the Dominican Republic, but plans to get something here soon. He was driving a truck provided by his agent when he passed his test, which he says went with flying colors.

So far, everything has gone well for the big youngster this season and he’ll look to add to that tonight in a matchup against Oakland’s own big kid, 6-foot-6 right-hander Tyson Ross, who turns 24 today and will make his first start of the year in place of the injured Dallas Braden.

Peguero gets first start this afternoon

Eric Wedge is wasting no time getting Carlos Peguero in the lineup as the big rookie is penciled in at left field for today’s 12:40 p.m. start against Detroit right-hander Rick Porcello.

Wedge is giving Milton Bradley the day off after a night game and going with the 6-5, 247-pound Peguero, a 24-year-old with a lot of pop. The challenge for Peguero will be making contact at this level. He struck out 178 times in 488 at-bats last year in Double-A West Tenn and 172 times in 491 at-bats the year before at Class A High Desert.

Peguero was hitting well in the first dozen games at Tacoma this season and now makes his first Major League start after being called up Tuesday to take the roster spot created by Justin Smoak going on the bereavement list.

Here’s the full lineup:

51  Ichiro Suzuki (L)     RF
9  Chone Figgins (S)     3B
4  Adam Kennedy (L)      1B
29  Jack Cust (L)         DH
55  Michael Saunders (L)  CF
1  Luis Rodriguez (S)    SS
8  Carlos Peguero (L)    LF
2  Jack Wilson           2B
5  Chris Gimenez         C
45  Erik Bedard           LHP

Smoak on Bereavement List; Peguero recalled

Mariners first baseman Justin Smoak has been placed on the Bereavement List due to a family situation and is not in the lineup for tonight’s game against Detroit, with outfielder Carlos Peguero recalled from Triple A Tacoma to take his place on the roster.

Smoak can remain on the list for 3-7 days.

Backup catcher Chris Gimenez, on the roster because of his versatility, will start tonight against the Tigers in Smoak’s place at first base.

Smoak, 24, has been the Mariners hottest hitter to start the season and is riding a seven-game hitting streak, including his second home run of the year in Monday’s 8-3 loss to the Tigers.

Peguero has hit .311 in 12 games for Tacoma with two home runs, seven RBIs and a .511 slugging percentage. The 24-year-old left-hander has five walks and 10 strikeouts in 45 at-bats.

Smoak leads the Mariners with a .291 batting average and his .885 OPS ranks third among American League first baseman behind Miguel Cabrera (1.073) and Paul Konerko (.904).

Here is today’s complete lineup:

Ichiro Suzuki RF
Chone Figgins 3B
Milton Bradley LF
Jack Cust DH
Miguel Olivo C
Brendan Ryan SS
Jack Wilson 2B
Chris Gimenez 1B
Michael Saunders CF
Doug Fister P