Finally. Or maybe that should read, "Final-Lee?"
The Seattle Mariners made a huge trade in the offseason to acquire the services of former Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, and tonight, a month into the season, he will make his first appearance on the mound.
Lee got off on the wrong foot this year. Literally. Literal-Lee. A couple of weeks prior to spring training, he needed a minor surgery on his foot and would miss the start of the exhibition season.
Spring training was no kinder to Lee, as he took the brunt of a collision with Arizona Diamondbacks catcher Chris Snyder, and strained his abdomen. He continued to pitch in the game, only to get into more trouble.
Lee's foot and midsection injuries forced a pitch to sail over the head of Snyder in his next at-bat. The wild throw was later ruled to be intentional, resulting in a five-game suspension to start the season.
However, the injury was more of an issue than the impending suspension, and would land him on the disabled list to start the season. During the rehab process, which included an experimental, platelet-rich injection to the abdomen area, Lee's appeal of his suspension was found to be legitimate, and MLB dropped the suspension.
His foot also seemed to heal completely. "Complete-Lee" appears to be a great descriptive for his current condition.
Lee described his injury as a "non-issue," saying, "It has been more than a month since he felt discomfort."
The Mariners were very cautious because this is the third time he has been sidelined with the same type of injury. The first two times, he missed significant playing time, and was not very productive immediately following the healing process.
The M’s know they most likely ("like-Lee") have his services for just this season, so they wanted him at a hundred percent so he could contribute at his normal, stellar capacity.
Lee is healthy now. Lee is motivated. Lee is focused.
In his Triple-A start last Sunday, he allowed just three hits (including one on a bunt and one where a fly ball was lost in the sun), while striking out four and walking none.
Lee said he is anxious to "get back and help the team up in Seattle and try to have fun and let it all hang out."
The rest of the AL West Division may be a little bit worried at this point. Seattle is just a half-game back in the standings, and they just got a whole lot better with one of their two Aces ready to take aim at division rival Texas tonight.
The balance of power in the division has shifted toward the Mariners, simply because they can now start relying on both of their Aces to carry them the rest of the year. The pennant is there for the taking, and there are five reasons Cliff Lee will be leading ("Lee”-ding") the way.
The Tampa Bay Rays lead the AL with a 3.18 team ERA. Seattle is second with a 3.37 ERA.
As the Mariners offense has lacked any kind of consistent output, the pitching staff has really stepped up in the absence of their co-ace.
Over the last 14 games, the team ERA is just 2.62, and the M’s have a 9-5 record over that span, including a four-game losing streak and a four-game winning streak.
The starting pitchers have performed better than expected. The Mariners stumbled out of the gate this season to a 2-6 record, where the only two games they won were in Felix Hernandez starts. That seemed to emphasize how inept the rotation is without Cliff Lee in the rotation.
However, taking that stance would have been premature, as the team would rebound by winning seven of their next eight games. During that stretch, the starters with the least amount of experience would step it up a notch.
Doug Fister is 2-1 on the season with a 1.67 ERA. He lost his first start against Oakland, but has been outstanding ever since. He has pitched 27 innings in four starts, allowing just 20 hits, striking out 13, and walking five.
Twice he has led the Mariners to victories following a loss. In both cases, the M’s went on winning streaks of four games and three games, respectively. In his last start against the Chicago White Sox, he got a no-decision despite going eight innings and allowing two earned runs.
Fister is officially the fourth pitcher in the rotation, but he’s currently outpitching everyone on the staff.
Jason Vargas is Seattle’s fifth starter. After giving up five earned runs against Texas in his first start, Vargas has a 2-0 record in three starts, lowering his ERA from 8.64 to 3.60. In his last start, he was also a hard-luck loser as he held the White Sox to four hits, and two runs over 6 2/3 innings.
Now, as Lee returns to the rotation which starter will be bumped to the bullpen? Will it be one of their more experienced pitchers like Ryan Rowland-Smith, who is 0-1 with a 5.28 ERA in five starts?
Instead, could it be career underachiever Ian Snell, who is 0-2 with a 5.28 ERA in four starts? There can be no argument to keep these guys in the rotation over Fister and Vargas.
Regardless, Lee’s return can only take more pressure off of the rest of the pitching staff. The Mariners will finally have the one-two punch they need at the top of the rotation.
If Fister and Vargas continue to produce, the M’s will boast the best pitching staff in the division and will be welcoming Eric Bedard back into the fold in late May.
The rest of the AL West has to be a little nervous knowing they will be facing a team with three potential Aces down the stretch run.
The baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint. The first leg of the race has put the Mariners in a good position, keeping pace with the rest of the pack. Now the M’s can kick it into a higher gear, and put some distance between them and the rest of the teams in the division.
In order to do that, the Mariners need to ride the emotion and excitement of Lee’s return.
Former Yankee catcher, Yogi Berra, said it best: "Baseball is 90 percent mental; the other half is physical."
Although, the numbers don’t exactly add up, the point is well made, as baseball players are much more likely to play better when they’re not thinking.
Berra also exclaimed, "Think! How the hell are you gonna think and hit at the same time?" In other words, keep it simple, stupid, or K.I.S.S.
One of the best ways to keep from thinking about the game, is to play with confidence and that comes from winning.
As the rotation gets stronger, the Mariners will be able to put more winning streaks together. The result will be less pressure on the bullpen and offense and a more relaxed clubhouse.
Seattle’s surprise success in 2009 was largely because of the fun atmosphere in the dugout. That team was outscored by their opponents, but still had a winning record because they won the majority of the close games. The 2010 version of the Mariners will copy that method of success with pitching, defense, and just enough offense.
The Mariners will be cruising with Lee, Hernandez and the rest of the pitching staff leading the way. After a couple of winning streaks, the game will get easier and players won’t have to wonder if they can win the next game, it will just happen. Then the confidence will build and the wins will keep coming.
As the oft-quoted Berra would say, "It will be like déjà vu all over again."
Baseball has evolved over the past 20 years, and the use of the bullpen, situational pitching, and a dominant closer, have been the keys to success for most teams.
While the starting pitchers have done a great job in Lee’s absence, there is one glaring issue the Mariners have dealt with: an overuse of their bullpen.
Relievers Sean White, Brandon League, Mark Lowe, and David Aardsma have already appeared in nine games this year. Aardsma has eight saves. Set-up man, Brandon League, leads the team with three wins.
It is a bad sign when the set-up guy leads the team in wins.
Starters Vargas and Rowland-Smith are averaging less than six innings per start. Snell is averaging less than five innings pitched.
Lee’s return means Seattle will add another starter who can go out and pitch seven or eight innings every five days. That will be two to three less innings for the bullpen to pitch each time through the rotation.
In addition, either Snell or Rowland-Smith could be pushed to the bullpen in long relief as there will be one less rotation spot available with Lee back.
Adding an arm to the bullpen will help. Limiting the use of the bullpen will be vital. Keeping arms fresh and available for matchups is paramount.
Seattle will likely use a rotation of Lee, Hernandez, Rowland-Smith, Fister, and Vargas until Eric Bedard is ready to return. This rotation will let Manager Dan Wakamatsu utilize his relievers as they are supposed to be used—without wearing them out before the All-Star break.
Fresh arms in the Mariner bullpen in September will be really bad news for the rest of the teams in the division.
When a team is struggling, everything seems to go wrong—just ask the 2009 New York Mets.
Seattle’s offense needs to prove the opposite is also true. That success is contagious.
The Mariner’s pitching staff and defense will keep the team in most games. It's up to the offense to come up with the clutch hit, the stolen base, or the timely home run that will win the game.
So far this season, the offense has been mostly absent. The Mariners have struggled to score consistently, and the results are obvious.
In seven of their wins this season, the Mariners have plated four runs or less. That doesn’t leave much wiggle room for the pitching staff.
In eight of their 11 losses this year, the offense has scored two runs or less. It won’t take a brain surgeon to determine that isn’t enough offense to win games consistently.
However, the Mariners knew going into the season they weren’t going to be an offensive juggernaut. They would play little ball. Advance the runner with contact to the right side of the diamond. Use sacrifice bunts, the hit-and-run, and stolen bases to create action on the base paths, and manufacture runs.
Their big offensive acquisition of the offseason was speedy, contact-hitting, and defensive minded Chone Figgins.
Regardless of the intent to play "small ball," the M’s need to get more production out of their lineup. The team is batting .244 overall, and has nine home runs in 22 games.
Arizona Diamondbacks second baseman Kelly Johnson hit his ninth home run of the season yesterday. Yes, the Mariners team is being out-homered by a middle infielder who was released by his team last year.
Ichiro is batting .330, scored 14 runs, and has six stolen bases, so he is doing what he is supposed to. Franklin Gutierrez is batting .345 with two homers, 13 RBI, and two stolen bases. Casey Kotchman leads the team with 14 RBI and three home runs.
The rest of the team is playing particularly pathetic. Their biggest power threat, Jose Lopez, is batting just .236 and has one homer.
Milton Bradley has two jacks, but is batting at the Mendoza Line. Ken Griffey Jr. is batting his weight (.226) and has yet to homer this year.
If the Mariners are going to step up and take the prize, the offensive players will need to start believing in themselves.
Let the pitchers take the spotlight, and do just enough to score four to five runs and the M’s will win 90 percent of those games.
The Angels and A’s set atop the division standings with 12-11 records. Seattle is a half-game back, and the Rangers are just one game off the pace.
Basically, after the first month, the season may as well be just beginning again. This bodes well for Seattle as they are in the thick of the race even without Lee, and without their offense hitting stride.
All of the teams in the division have some weaknesses, but the Mariners just plugged one of their holes.
A good test takes place for Seattle as they open a homestand against the Texas Rangers tonight, followed by the Tampa Bay Rays and the Los Angeles Angels.
All three of those teams are very potent offensively and should provide a good measuring stick for what Seattle can do with their regular starters, rested bullpen, good defense, and a pitcher-friendly ballpark.
The division crown is there for the taking and Seattle is in a great position to attain it, and get back into the postseason.
The Mariners need to set sail for high adventure, by guiding their boat through the rapids and avoiding the rocks.
They need to be patient and consistent. They need to row their boat gently down the stream. ... Merri-Lee, Merri-Lee, Merri-Lee, Merri-Lee, life is but a dream.