BY Art Thiel 07:21PM 06/10/2012

Thiel: Big bat in middle draws Mariners envy

Dodgers star Ethier’s game-deciding grand slam is a reminder of what the Mariners still lack — a scary dude in the middle of the lineup.

The crowd he drove in awaits Andre Ethier after his grand slam in the second inning Sunday afternoon at Safeco. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

Back to the future the Mariners go: As has been said for most of three years, pitchers practically have to pitch no-hitters to win games.

The series with the Los Angeles Dodgers re-made the boulder-sized point: Great pitching Friday, little hitting throughout the weekend and a cumulative 16-6 loss, including 8-2 Sunday. Any luck at all Friday, and the Dodgers could have turned a no-hitter against them into a series sweep.

Instead, they won two of three and offered a reminder to the hosts what they so painfully lack — a scary dude in the middle.

Playing the role of Josh Hamilton/Albert Pujols Sunday was Andre Ethier, who tacked on four RBIs to his National League-leading total of 48 with a single swing — a second-inning grand slam off Blake Beavan, who suddenly can’t throw a fastball, a curve or a change-up for a strike.

Ethier, 30, is representative of the prime-time, big-boy bat that nearly every team in baseball has except the local nine. Although they certainly have had them. Consider:

Entering Sunday’s games, Hamilton of the Rangers led the American League in OPS at 1.096. The highest-ranked Mariner was 27th (.798) and Kyle Seager helped himself Sunday by rocking Dodger starter Chad Billingsley‘s only mistake of the game nearly into the second deck in right field.

Every other AL team has at least one hitter ranked higher than Seager, including five White Sox, and three each from the Rangers and Yankees.

Here’s the sword to the Mariners’ heart: Four ex-Mariners are ahead of Seager: Boston’s David Ortiz (4th, .975), Baltimore’s Adam Jones (10th, .916), Cleveland’s Asdrubal Cabrera (19th, .842) and Texas’s Adrian Beltre (24th, .813). Right behind Seager is another ex-M, New York’s Alex Rodriguez (28th, .796), before a second Mariner is found — Michael Saunders (30th, .793).

Plug in any one of those former Seattle prodigies into the Mariners lineup, and it’s a notably better team, because it will change how opponents pitch. Right now, despite the offensive progress made on the most recent trip, no Mariner hitter scares the scouts.

It’s true that the ex-Mariners are much more experienced than the current crew, but that’s the point. If the personnel decision-makers hadn’t screwed up so massively in previous years, the 2012 club wouldn’t feel nearly as much pressure to swing their way out of the canyon in which the franchise finds itself.

The 2-3-4 hitters Sunday were 24 (Dustin Ackley), 24 (Seager) and 22 (Jesus Montero). Youth is not an automatic disqualifer for major league achievement, but it is usually an impediment. That collective inexperience seems to be manifesting in ghastly home-field production.

After Sunday’s 5-for-32 feeb-fest against Billingsley, the Mariners as a team are hitting .171 over the last 10 home games. One-seventy-one! Any good recreational bowler hits 171.

Contrast with the recent road trip, where these same guys hit .281. That 110-point home/road number isn’t a split, it’s a continental divide.

For the season, the Mariners at home are hitting .191. Granted, Safeco is an overwhelmingly unbalanced park favoring pitchers; opponents at Safeco are hitting just .222. But still . . . .191, fergawdsake.

The overall team problem may get worse because the rock, the starting rotation, is starting to look shaky. Felix Hernandez is having a sub-par year by his standards and is attempting to pitch with a sore back Wednesday. Kevin Millwood pulled a groin muscle Friday that kept him from continuing pursuit of a no-hitter (he’s getting better, but who knows?). Jason Vargas was routed Saturday. Hector Noesi is hot and cold. Beavan has surrendered 17 runs in his last 13 innings over three starts, and doesn’t believe he’s doing much wrong.

“I really don’t think I’m made that bad of pitches; I think it’s just kind of bad luck right now,” Beavan said after giving up six runs on five hits and two walks in two innings. “The last two games I thought I gave up runs on good pitches. Today, the slam . . . if I don’t walk two guys, (by) get a (better umpiring) call, it saves four runs right there.”

That’s a lot of ifs, and Beavan knew it.

“I got to do a better job of getting ahead of guys,” he said, “and putting them away.”

If he and the rotation continue to falter, it’s going to add pressure to an offense that struck out 24 times in the games against Billingsley and Saturday’s winner, Clayton Kershaw. Moving the fences in to the infield won’t help batters who can’t touch a pitch thrown at Safeco.

Things aren’t terrible, because even with the series loss to the Dodgers, the Mariners were 6-6 against four good teams with a winning percentage of 56.9 — Dodgers, Angels, White Sox and Rangers. But there is no baseball rule that says improvement is perpetual.

Wedge is hoping that watching good hitters such as Ethier hit in Safeco will rub off on the youngsters.

“He’s a great, consistent hitter with a very good swing,” Wedge said. “He got behind (on the slam AB), got back up, and he was ready to hit a fastball in his zone.

“He’s a veteran guy in the middle of the lineup who has the consistent approach with swings and at-bats, particularly situationally. We talk to our young kids a lot about it — watch good hitters on other teams who are swinging well. Someone comparable to you, right or left handed.”

Ethier is exactly what the Mariners don’t have. Someday, maybe they can develop one among the youngsters — if they don’t learn early to expect a nightmare every time they play at home.


YourThoughts

  • Cruddly

    These two losses  against the Dodgers brought everyone back to their senses after the good road trip and the intoxicating no hitter on Friday night.  A corner was not turned.  It is back to lousy hitting as per usual:  
    Smoak is back to lousy.  As is Saunders.  Ackley resumes his slump.  Carp and Liddi are lost at the plate.  Ryan can field but cannot hit.  Montero is so so, as is Jaso and Olivo.  Father time is kicking Ichiro’s sorry butt as pitchers now just challenge him with fast balls, knowing full well that he will  most likely be slapping it to a gleeful infielder.   And worst of all, the saving grace of this sorry outfit — the pitching — is beginning to suck big time.  We are all hoping that the lousy Padres can revive the Mariners.  Hope springs eternal for a team constantly rebuilding, rebuilding, rebuilding . . .

  • Cruddly

    These two losses  against the Dodgers brought everyone back to their senses after the good road trip and the intoxicating no hitter on Friday night.  A corner was not turned.  It is back to lousy hitting as per usual:  
    Smoak is back to lousy.  As is Saunders.  Ackley resumes his slump.  Carp and Liddi are lost at the plate.  Ryan can field but cannot hit.  Montero is so so, as is Jaso and Olivo.  Father time is kicking Ichiro’s sorry butt as pitchers now just challenge him with fast balls, knowing full well that he will  most likely be slapping it to a gleeful infielder.   And worst of all, the saving grace of this sorry outfit — the pitching — is beginning to suck big time.  We are all hoping that the lousy Padres can revive the Mariners.  Hope springs eternal for a team constantly rebuilding, rebuilding, rebuilding . . .

  • jafabian

    Smoak is only lousy at Safeco.  Almost the entire team is.  It is NOT impossible to hit at Safeco Field.  The 2000-2002 teams showed that.  The players need to change their line of thinking if they’re to succeed.

  • jafabian

    Smoak is only lousy at Safeco.  Almost the entire team is.  It is NOT impossible to hit at Safeco Field.  The 2000-2002 teams showed that.  The players need to change their line of thinking if they’re to succeed.