Sports

John McGrath: Mariners could use a couple of weeks for spring training do-over

Did the Seattle Mariners really attend spring training? Did they participate in drills conducted to remove the rust that accumulates over a few months of winter inactivity?

I want to believe the Mariners practiced baseball in March, because I remember reading daily reports from Arizona filed by colleagues I know and trust. I’d be shocked to learn those reports were part of a heinous scheme arranged to dupe the public.

And yet I wonder. It’s possible photos showing Seattle players working out were altered. It’s possible impostors were placed inside the Mariners uniforms, while the real Mariners were free to golf and hunt and fish and travel and do whatever else big-league players might do when they’re not practicing baseball in March.

After a lost weekend in Houston, The Team That Appears To Have Skipped Spring Training is eight games behind the first-place, hotter-than-July Astros. An optimist might point out that three of the four defeats were by one run, and that in the blowout, starting pitcher Taijuan Walker went to work with a three-run lead.

A realist will counter that as long as the Mariners continue to struggle with the little things typically stressed in spring training — baserunning, bunting, executing pickoff throws from the pitcher’s mound — they’ll lose 100 games by October.

I suspect Robinson Cano will begin hitting like a six-time All Star who has been guaranteed $24 million a year through 2023. I suspect Kyle Seager eventually will go on the kind of tear he did last season, when he awakened from a slow start on April 23 by hitting a two-run homer in the seventh inning, followed by a three-run, game-winning homer in the bottom of the ninth against Houston.

I suspect the offense will be as balanced as it was Sunday, when the Mariners managed to score six runs without requiring a heavy-lifting contribution from Nelson Cruz.

But, again, the presumptive breakouts of Cano and Seager — and the emergence of a batting attack that doesn’t always rely on Cruz — won’t matter if hitters who’ve reached third base on a no-out triple fail to score in a game decided by one run.

Brad Miller broke for home Sunday on a third-inning infield grounder off the bat of Austin Jackson, and then froze, returning to the bag instead of continuing to the plate. The gaffe might have been inconsequential had replay review not erased the run he scored on Seth Smith’s subsequent sacrifice fly, but replay review erased the run.

An inning that began with a double and an RBI triple concluded with the Mariners only able to trim a 3-0 into a 3-1 deficit, a pivotal sequence in a 7-6 defeat.

Little things. Thursday night in the series opener, with the score tied 2-2, Smith singled to lead off the top of the 10th. A routine bunt puts a runner into scoring position with one out, Cano at the plate, Cruz on deck, and forces Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch to decide between pitching to Cano or facing Cruz with two men on.

A routine bunt allows the Mariners to draw some face cards in this poker-game showdown, but Jackson’s routine bunt is popped up to first, and the Astros are breathing free once Cano hits into a double play.

Little things. In the top of the first Friday night, starting pitcher Roenis Elias has an 0-2 count on Evan Gattis, the Astros’ famously free-swinging cleanup hitter. Gattis will hack at anything, anywhere and anytime. Elias gives Gattis a hanging curveball to hack, and an 0-2 waste pitch turns into a two-run homer.

Little things. Walker throws a fastball past Gattis on Saturday that brings the count to 1-2. The guy who’ll swing at anything figures to be toast if another fastball is thrown outside the zone. Walker offers him a curve that doesn’t curve, and Gattis has himself another two-run homer.

“I probably should have gone fastball there and blow one right by him,” said Walker, who can reach the high 90 mph range on a radar gun and had every right to shake off a curveball sign from catcher Mike Zunino.

After three games, a pattern had developed: Mariners pitchers were trying to outwit Gattis with breaking stuff and change-ups, and he was crushing the breaking stuff and change-ups delivered into the strike zone.

A different game plan for Gattis was in order Sunday, but it remained the same. Starter J.A. Happ threw Gattis a change-up over the plate in the first inning — see ya — before reliever Carson Smith threw Gattis a slider over the plate in the bottom of the eighth. Same result.

The Astros, off to the best start in their 53-year old history, are not as dominant as their 18-7 record suggests. And the Mariners, who rank alongside the Washington Nationals as baseball’s most disappointing team, are not as inept as their 10-15 record suggests.

If they simply pay heed to the little things that decide baseball games — the little things practiced in spring training — the Mariners win three out of four in Houston, and a sweep is not inconceivable. But the Mariners didn’t take care of the little things, and got swept.

It’s enough to make a fan wish the 2015 season could be suspended a few weeks, so that everybody could reconvene in Arizona for a second Seattle Mariners spring camp.

A question persists, and it both troubles and intrigues me.

Was there a first one?

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