When the Mariners had the bases loaded with only one out in the top of the eighth, they sent out a pair of pinch-hitters, Michael Saunders and Casey Kotchman, to face the Padres ace setup man, Mike Adams. The reasoning was more than sound. The two hit in place of Rob Johnson and Brandon League, respectively, and created righty versus lefty match-ups. In particular, I was pleasantly surprised to see Don Wakamatsu pick Saunders above all his other bench options. Maybe Saunders is close to earning the belief that he deserves.
Anyway, the ensuing at-bats said a bunch about both Saunders and Kotchman. Though they both failed to come through, I felt much different about the two players when their at-bats were over.
Adams quickly got ahead of Saunders 0-2 with a couple sliders the he placed well on the low-outside corner. On air, Mike Blowers said that Saunders has to learn to be more aggressive in a pinch-hitting situation, but I disagree. Those were a couple pitcher's pitches he took, and there is no reason to swing at such quality pitches until absolutely necessary.
Next, Adams saw if Saunders would expand the strike zone, finally throwing a fastball but well off the plate. Saunders did not bite. Adams stayed away with his fastball and slider, and Saunders battled hard. He fouled off pitches in the strike zone, and took the pitches that were balls. It sounds simple enough, but it is easier said than done in a situation like that, especially for someone probably feeling some urgency to prove himself. In the end, Saunders worked the count full, and then Adams threw a slider down and in that he swung over top of. The slider may not have been a strike, but it was too close to take, and very well located by Adams.
As Saunders walked away from the plate, I was deflated, but impressed. It took two sliders well located low and away, and a gutsy slider thrown low an in with the count full, to strike him out. That is some mean pitching.
Up next was Casey Kotchman, and his at-bat looked radically different. Adams started him off with a fastball more or less down the middle for strike one. Then, Adams came back again with a fastball that caught a healthy portion of the plate, and Kotchman slapped into a groundout, concluding the inning.
Those two pinch-hit at-bats illustrate exactly why Michael Saunders needs to play more, and Casey Kotchman is a lost cause. Adams approach against both hitters was extremely telling to me. Both hitters faced the same pitcher in essentially the exact same situation, and Adams treated them very differently. It makes sense to go with breaking balls against a young guy that is likely to be geared up for a fastball, but if Adams was simply trying to get Saunders to get himself out, he wouldn't have located the sliders so well. Michael Saunders got some respect from Adams, and if any scouts were watching that at-bat, I think he is going to get more respect in the future. That's the kind of at-bat that lets a scout know that a guy is not going to get himself out.
Nothing could be farther from the truth for Casey Kotchman right now. Adams showed no fear of him at all. Adams pumped a fastball right over the plate, seeming to assume that Kotchman would just take it (which he did). Then, he threw another fastball over the plate, seeming to beg Kotchman to hit it, and he did, grounding rather weakly to finish off the inning.
As the field cleared and the game went to an ad break, there was no doubt that San Diego has a ton more respect for Michael Saunders than Casey Kotchman. The results in the game, and production we have seen so far this season, back up San Diego's views too.
Really, those couple at-bats say it all for me. Michael Saunders has a nice approach at the plate. He can punish a mistake, and he is not going after pitcher's pitches. He is not a guy any team should pitch around, but he makes a pitcher buckle down and give the best that he has got. Meanwhile, Kotchman has developed a reputation as an overly timid hitter. He takes so many pitches that are pretty straight and clearly over the plate. On top of that, when he swings, he often makes weak contact. Kotchman has a good eye, but that's useless with where he is at right now. Pitchers are daring him to hit the ball, because they do not think he is liable to do anything damaging, and Kotchman is proving them right over and over.
The Mariners need more at-bats like the one Saunders put together, and they need to eliminate ones like Kotchman's. The simple answer is to play Saunders and not play Kotchman, but it goes deeper than that. This team needs to play the game with a unified aggressiveness it is yet to show. We have seen where playing the game a little scared and cautiously has gotten them.