After a toe-stubbing stop in Philadelphia, where they lost two of three to a dispirited team with nothing on the line, the Seattle Mariners begin a three-game series Friday against the Boston Red Sox, another dispirited team with nothing on the line.
To call the series opener the most important game yet for the 2014 Mariners might sound like hyperbole — as long as they remain in a playoff race, every game is important — but Friday poses an enhanced urgency: It’s a chance for the Mariners to redeem themselves.
Their sloppy, sleepy-headed performance Wednesday afternoon included a botched suicide-squeeze attempt, an error, a passed ball and a wild pitch. All of these mistakes occurred in the fourth inning, courtesy of a battery (backup catcher Jesus Sucre and rookie pitcher James Paxton) that might not be reunited for a while.
But there were other culprits. The Mariners stranded 10, which explains why they cobbled together only three runs out of 12 hits. I know, it was a day game after a night game, not the optimum time to execute the sort of crisp baseball that has distinguished Lloyd McClendon’s team this month. But it was a day game after a night game for the Phillies, too.
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In any case, the Mariners were full of energy and confidence when they went into Philadelphia, and they left Philadelphia looking like the unrelenting pressure of the playoff race was starting to grind on them.
Lethargy is a common symptom of any baseball team in August, and there is no better cure for it than an ace with a four-pitch arsenal. Felix Hernandez will start the series opener at Fenway Park, among those destinations — Yankee Stadium is another — that bring out the best in him.
Hernandez’s major-league record streak of 16 ultra-quality starts ended last Saturday in Detroit, and as he put it, the only way to react to a broken streak is to begin another streak. Before he steps on the mound, his teammates will have the opportunity to put that process in motion by scoring a run or two.
Batting first is a subtle benefit, and a reason why the home-field advantage in baseball is not as profound as it is in other sports. On the heels of a clunker series that reinforced skeptics’ doubts about the Mariners’ potential as playoff contenders, batting first is more than a benefit.
It’s a blessing.
Which brings me to Austin Jackson, the veteran center fielder acquired from the Tigers on July 31. When it comes to the routes required to track down line drives, Jackson is much more polished than Abe Almonte and James Jones, his immediate predecessors at the position.
Jackson offers an offensive upgrade as well. Almonte couldn’t figure things out at the plate, and once pitchers realized Jones was prone to swing at balls thrown out of the strike zone, he saw few balls thrown in the strike zone. No matter. Jones still lunged at them.
Jackson hasn’t been overmatched like that, but as a leadoff hitter — specifically, the first hitter in the first inning — the early results are disappointing. He struck out swinging in his Mariners debut, and went 0-for-9 before reaching on a single against the White Sox on Aug. 10.
As a first-inning hitter overall, Jackson is 2-for-17, with no extra-base hits. He’s scored two first-inning runs.
Jackson’s leadoff role isn’t confined to the first inning, of course. But getting on base at the beginning, creating a big inning, that’s the heart of the artichoke for a leadoff man.
It’s not fair to compare anybody with Rickey Henderson, but here are two numbers illustrative of the impact an all-time great leadoff hitter had.
That was how many times Henderson led off an inning by coaxing a walk. Pitchers dreaded the thought of putting Henderson on the basepaths, because giving the all-time leader in steals was tantamount to giving him two bases, or three. And yet, with no outs and the bases empty, pitchers gave him first base 796 times.
That was how many times Henderson led off a game with a home run. Think about that: The fans still are finding their way to the seats, the opposing pitcher is maybe a half-minute removed his final warm-up throw, and all of a sudden the score is 1-0.
Baseball historian Bill James famously summed up Henderson’s legacy, noting, in a rather macabre tone, that if Rickey were cut in half, the result would be two Hall of Famers.
Austin Jackson will never be Rickey Henderson, or half of Rickey Henderson, or an eighth of Rickey Henderson. The Mariners understand that. They also understand the value of leading off a road game by getting on base.
Jackson led off the first inning Tuesday by taking ball four, the only time he’s done that in his 20 games with the Mariners. In a related development, he scored the first run in a 5-2 victory.
Hernandez likely won’t need a whole lot of offensive support Friday to beat the Red Sox in the pivotal game of a once-promising road trip.
Still, he needs some. A leadoff home run would be magical, but let’s not set the bar too high. A leadoff walk — something Rickey Henderson accomplished 796 times — will work just fine.
The Mariners usually win when they score four runs. When King Felix is pitching, the dynamic shifts.