The Mariners came into tonight a beat up team, more emotionally than physically. Rob Johnson and Russell Branyan were both back after attending funerals, but it is not as if the grieving process is completely over now that they are back. On top of that, the bullpen got taxed pretty badly yesterday as the team continues to stretch out Brandon Morrow, so it was up to Jarrod Washburn to pitch deep into tonight's ballgame, with a back that has been giving him problems lately. One look at the starting lineup gave a sense of how the team is faring right now. The last four hitters combined have hit a total of three home runs this season.
The game got frustrating quickly. The Mariners were getting hits off Jon Garland, but stranded runners all over the bases. Jarrod Washburn started to get squeezed a bit with the strike zone, and then got a really bad break with the Stephen Drew bunt. Drew was on the grass for a few steps, which is clearly inside the baseline. Not surprisingly, Washburn hit him with the throw to first, allowing a run to score without any out being recorded. Drew should have been called out, and the runners should not have advanced. That changed the whole complexion of the inning, allowed a couple runs to score, and ran up Washburn's pitch count on a night the M's needed him to work deep into the ballgame. Meanwhile, the offense continued to strand runners. It was a frustrating game.
Frustration gave way to despair in the fifth inning on a soft fly ball to short left field. It was in no man's land, and both Yuniesky Betancourt and Endy Chavez charged after it full speed. Betancourt caught it, but in the process uprooted Chavez, who went down hard, and immediately was writhing in obvious pain. It was an ugly collision that halted the game for several minutes. Endy was ultimately carted off the field, a very rare sight in baseball. The moment was sobering, and made the frustration of the game sink into an even worse feeling. With how the game was going, and how that past few weeks have gone off the field for this team, this felt like the latest blow. If there was ever a game to mail in, this was it.
Washburn had other plans though. He settled into a nice groove, and made it through seven innings. He has been criticized many times for his inability to pitch deep into ballgames as a Mariner, but he deserves credit tonight. Considering his back was not feeling completely healthy, and the bad non-call on the bunt early on, Washburn hung in the game valiantly. He deserves credit for stepping up and delivering a quality start in the face of adversity, frustration, and watching a teammate getting carted off the field. Washburn sent the message that this game was not over.
Then came the eighth inning. The Mariners still had not scored. Russell Branyan scorched a missile into the right field seats to finally get the Mariners on the board. Adrian Beltre got on base, bringing the tying run to the plate. With two outs, Wladimir Balentien was slated to come to the plate, but Don Wakamatsu decided to pinch-hit with Ken Griffey Jr. Safeco Field came to life with a standing ovation, as thousands of fans in the ballpark and across the Pacific Northwest got the same magical vision in their head, dreaming, "what if..."
Tony Pena set, and delivered his high-octane gas. Ken Griffey Jr., the aging, 30-something slugger that has lost more than a step or two, and sat on the bench the entire game through unseasonably cold weather, had the odds stacked against him. The odds should have been stacked against him at least. However, Griffey wasted no time and attacked the heater with that sweet black bat of his, and even sweeter swing.
The drop of the bat.
The deficit was erased. Ken Griffey Jr., the aging, 30-something slugger, is still Ken Griffey Jr.
The game was far from over though. The inning was far from over for that matter. Chris Woodward reached base for the second time on the night via a grounder that was just a tad too far to Stephen Drew's right. That set the stage for Rob Johnson, fresh off the bereavement list after attending the funeral for his mother-in-law, who unexpectedly lost her life in a car accident. Not known for his hitting anyway, Johnson found a way to turn on a Tony Pena fireball too, and laced it down the left field line. It kicked away from Eric Byrnes, easily allowing Woodward to score, and with a headfirst dive Johnson made it all the way into third base with his first triple of the season. It might be the sharpest Johnson has hit a ball all year. The Mariners, a team frustrated, battered, and bruised in about every way imaginable, dug down somewhere deep and pulled out some magic. An inspired David Aardsma came out of the bullpen, and shut the door emphatically, striking out the side with pure heat.
The Mariners came into the game a team that could use some good news. The road trip was not all that bad on the field, but spirits had to be down with the personal problems mounting. Throw on top of that injuries, especially the one to Chavez in the middle of tonight's game, and it all seemed unfair. In the end, this team made their own breaks tonight, and gutted out a magical victory that they can feel great about.
It is dangerous to put lots of stock in one game, especially in baseball, but tonight's game was bigger than most. This clubhouse needed something to go right after all the things that have unexpectedly gone wrong the past couple weeks. It was not to the point where this team was going to completely lose it, but you could feel the season slowly slipping away. Tonight stopped the bleeding. It may not be the start of a hot streak, and it did not transform the team, or fix any of its holes. However, this team really needed something to feel good about it, and it got exactly that tonight. This is the kind of victory the team can rally behind, and think back on when the next rough patch happens. Tonight said something about this team's mettle, and also galvanized the team further. The Mariners needed a game like this to stay in the pennant race.