The A's bullpen was one of the main reasons why the otherwise unimpressive 2006 squad was able to leg out the Angels for the division title. When Oakland took a lead into the late innings, they usually kept it. And if the team found itself behind, the bullpen usually kept things close enough to keep the hope of a late-inning comeback alive. The pattern figured to repeat itself in 2007, particularly after so many A's relievers enjoyed very strong springs.
Yeah, well, not so much Tuesday night. Kiko Calero came into a tie ballgame, doused it in kerosene and then became careless with matches. Justin Duchscherer took his sweet time dousing the resulting flames. It happens. That it happened on the heels of the A's getting picked apart by Felix Hernandez only makes it stand out a little more than it should.
Game Two: Mariners 8, A's 4
Your Pitchers of Record: WP -- J. Mateo (1-0) LP -- K. Calero (0-1)
Went Deep: Sexson (2, off Blanton in the second), Bradley (1, off Washburn in the sixth), Betancourt (1, off Calero in the seventh)
Your Beaulieu Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Star of the Game: Yuniesky Betancourt. A few different Mariner choices here -- Richie Sexson for hitting his second home run in as many games, Jarrod Washburn for turning in six solid innings and retiring 11 consecutive Athletics, Ichiro for plating two runners and hitting the triple in the seventh that put the game out of reach of the A's popgun offense. But in the end, the prize goes to the guy who broke the tie.
The Turning Point: Pretty much when Bob Geren walked out at the start of the bottom half of the seventh inning to remove Joe Blanton after just 81 incident-free pitches. This will smack of a second guess, I suppose, but why not leave Blanton in to start the seventh, on the condition that you yank him quick at the first hint of any trouble?
I'm not saying there aren't perfectly legitimate reasons for pulling Blanton at that point. Maybe he's not stretched out enough to throw much beyond 80 pitches at this point. Maybe he stiffened up as the A's two-out rally in the seventh continued. Maybe Geren just figured that the bullpen is supposed to be a strength and that he liked his chances with Calero and Duchscherer pitching the next couple innings. Not a flawed strategy, by the way, though the execution didn't pan out.
My point is this: Blanton was not pitching poorly at all and certainly would seem to be safely under the ceiling of where you'd yank him. So where's the doubtlessly logical explanation for why he got pulled? If it was in any of the gamereports out there, I must have missed it.
Credit Where Credit Is Due: It is safe to say I'm not a big fan of Joe Blanton. It would be even more accurate to say I'm not a fan at all of Joe Blanton. I've advocated, loudly and obnoxiously, for the A's to trade him to some turnip-truck-riding GM who's easily blinded by gaudy win totals. I snort derisively when grizzled old scouts say preposterous things about him. Whatever positive attributes other people see in Joe Blanton, I just don't perceive.
And yet -- he pitched really well last night. Seven strikeouts in six innings is nothing to sneeze out. Zero walks is even more encouraging. He worked quickly, seemed focused, and had a good demeanor on the mound -- some of the times when he's out there, he looks like a teen-ager who's just been asked to do an unpleasant chore. That wasn't the case last night. And he didn't meltdown at the first sign of trouble -- the Sexson home run or the ball that Bobby Kielty misplayed into a double. We see more performances like this from Blanton, and he'll mind up making me look like a total dunce. And I have no problem with that.
Signs of Despair/Signs of Hope: When the score was still 4-1 Seattle and puttering along to an easy Mariner win over a lifeless Oakland offense, the turning point up above was going to be Mark Ellis' sacrifice fly to plate Kielty for the A's first run of the season. Why? Because too often the A's seem to get themselves in these runners at the corners with one out or less situations and they wind up hitting a sac fly or scoring on a double-play grounder and turning what could be a big inning into a one run -- or, if you remember Travis Buck's leadoff double in Monday's game, no run -- affair.
And then came the top of the seventh: Nick Swisher leads off with a single and moves to second on Kielty's grounder. After a Bobby Crosby lineout, Mark Ellis comes through with the two-out hit to score Swish. Even more impressive, Jason Kendall hits the ball -- ! -- deep -- !! -- to notch a double -- !!! -- and tie up the game. Yeah, it's only two runs, but it's a sustained offensive effort, coming with two outs.
We'll be a lot better off when the A's can put up a crooked number like that and we don't react like it's a pleasant surprise.
Ray Fosse Contemplates His Own Duality: I seem to remember once upon a time that Ray Fosse managed to keep his boosterism in check in the broadcast booth, but in recent years, he's become more... Hudler-esque... in his enthusiasms. Occasionally, however, Foss will say something so blandly positive that even he must take a step back and wonder about the string of words that just left his mouth.
Take Bobby Crosby's first at-bat on Tuesday. Homer Foss feels the need to express a few kind words about Croz, in light of his costly fielding mishap on Monday: "I think it's great just to see Bobby in uniform, and he's going to have a good season if he stays healthy." Broadcaster Foss realizes that sentence is so generic as to be meaningless: "Of course, we say that about everybody."
But don't worry, fans of Homer Foss -- your man was back in fine form by the time Kendall doubled in the seventh to briefly tie up the ball game. "That's a home run maybe in another park," Fosse proclaimed. If we included Little League fields and local softball complexes in our calculations, then that is not an inaccurate statement.
Phil's Phun Phacts: The Mariners have now won as many games against the A's in 2007 as they did in all of 2006.
The AFLAC Trivia question during Tuesday's FSN broadcast was this: Shannon Stewart is the A's eighth opening day left fielder in as many years. Who were the other seven?
I hate questions like this, because I usually lose count after rattling off three or four names, and trivia questions shouldn't be so involved that you need to break out a calendar and scratch paper. But here was my guess: Ben Grieve (2000), Johnny Damon (2001 -- and how many people remember that Damon began his A's life as a left fielder, so that Terrence Long could continue butchering balls in center?), Jeremy Giambi (2002), the aforementioned butcher of flyballs (2003), Bobby Kielty (2004), Eric Byrnes, the other butcher of flyballs (2005), and Nick Swisher (2006).
I was right on everyone but Swisher. Jay Payton got the start in left last year on opening day. Curse me and my swiss-cheese short-term memory.
You win this round, AFLAC duck. But I shall return stronger and angrier.
Dreaded Larry Davis Sighting: Larry stayed in the dugout for nine innings. But cameras did catch the A's trainer seated next to Travis Buck, left out of the lineup in order to let Bobby Kielty have his at-bats against a southpaw. Stay away from him, T-Buck! It will only end in sorrow.