Thiel: Great pitching, stern lectures not enough

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by Art Thiel

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on July 3, 2012 at 1:30 PM

On a day when the Mariners were accorded the mandatory minimum allotment of berths in the All Star Game (one), while six others of Mariners heritage made the gig (Adrian Beltre, Asdrubal Cabrera, R.A. Dickey,Adam Jones, Bryan LaHair and David Ortiz), the current assemblage gurgled, twisted and twitched before spitting up a close defeat to a good team it should have beaten.

How's that for a short-term and long-term summary of the Mariners at the halfway point of 2012?

This is a team that can at times be competitive with the best, but can sustain almost nothing because most of the prime-time guys that should be the heart of this team are playing elsewhere. For Mariners fans, the word exasperation gets about halfway there in describing the futility.

For manager Eric Wedge, he sometimes seems halfway to crazy, but if the listener cups ears and squints eyes, it's possible to understand what he sees. Sorta.

Over four games, the prodigious offense of the Red Sox was held to nine runs and 30 hits. They were 3-for-27 with runners in scoring position. And yet after a 2-1 win in 10 innings Sunday, Boston had a series split and no one was more thrilled than Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine.

"We played four games here and their pitching was very, very good," he said. "I'm glad we were able to score two runs and get out of here with a split."

Unsurprisingly, Wedge's emotions were found 180 degrees away.

"When you make (Boston starter Felix Doubront) throws 100 pitches in 4 1/3 innings -- you need to do a helluva lot more" than one run, he said. The Mariners had their usual tiny ladle of four hits, but had seven walks and a hit batter, yet could do nothing save for third-inning run off a sacrifice fly by Ichiro.

"We had plenty of guys up there to get a big hit for us," Wedge said. "We should have been in better position at the end to win; a chance to take three out of four against a pretty good ballclub, you gotta finish those games off."

But for one pitch that turned into an eighth-inning home run from Dustin Pedroia, Mariners starter Jason Vargas was a stud, giving up only four other hits over eight innings. But as been the case most of the season, and for most of three seasons, the Mariners do not have enough major league average hitters to support splendid pitching, much less average pitching.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this year's trudge to the bottom of the American League West is the absolute, resolute belief by the manager that this franchise is on the right track.

Never in my time covering the Mariners have I heard a manager speak with such unqualified conviction about the eventual fate of this outfit. As you may have heard, Wedge went off publicly after the 5-0 loss Friday in which they were dispatched on two hits and 81 pitches by journeyman Aaron Cook. Saturday, he went off privately, closing the clubhouse doors for 22 minutes to lay figurative wood on a team that can't lay literal wood on a baseball.

Sunday morning, he seemed a little spent, which at first he attributed to a pre-game workout. He finally got around to owning up to a little emotional fatigue.

"Yesterday was a long day," he said, meaning more than the 11 innings it took to beat the Red Sox 3-2. "I said things yesterday that weren't easy to say, but needed to be said."

Then he repeated the theme he began in spring training despite the fact that the Mariners are deeper in the hole (34-47) than they were a year ago when they lost 95 games.

"It's important for everyone to understand that we are going to do this," he said of playing championship baseball. "It's a matter of whether you're going to be part of it or not. There's no ifs, no in-betweens, no 99 percent. I have 100 percent confidence that we will accomplish what set out to do. It takes special people in that locker room to make that happen. We'll see.

"It's important for people to understand what my intentions are and what my belief system is. No more, no less than that. Confidence is a powerful thing. I've got good reason to believe what I believe."

Hearing that, most people would be ready to charge through a wall. Most people, however, wouldn't be Mariners' fans, who've spent most of a sports lifetime merely beating their heads against the wall.

That's the most difficult part of Wedge's message. Everything he says is true, but it is laid out atop a moribund franchise that is exactly like most of its current hitters -- in between. Years of poor personnel decisions and mysterious governance have left them reliant on hope and force of will instead of baseball talent.

Wedge can lecture all he wants, and he won't make Ichiro hit more line drives, won't make Justin Smoak more confident, won't make Miguel Olivo more disciplined, won't make Jesus Montero older or Brendan Ryan stronger.

Time and experience are going help some of these guys; for others, it is too late. As much as Wedge strains to pull them along, the previous years of baggage is burdensome.

Not saying he shouldn't have called out his team; that's what managers are supposed to do after debacles like Friday. But he screams into a void that can only be filled by years and years of talent growth and acquisition. Some might argue this, but I don't find among position players in the clubhouse any slackers, poseurs or phonies.

The concern is whether their shortcomings are going to pile up as they did a year ago starting Friday, when the Mariners began a club-record 17-game losing streak. Back then, it was Wedge's first year, and expectations were minimal. This season, Wedge has expectations, even if many others have ceased to share them.

Wedge remains undeterred.

"I will say this," he said. "For those fans who get on board now -- and I understand they are skeptical; that's a part of it -- they'll have a much more enjoyable ride; that much more satisfying for them."

Getting on board the bandwagon would be so much easier if there were more than five runs to talk about in the past 39 innings, and more than a team .197 batting average at home this season.

But I doubt Wedge has an alternative position. If he is any less intense and absolute, where does that leave the Mariners? Might get him fired, which has always been the scapegoat of choice for club ownership, but it won't be because he wasn't as clear, obvious and direct as a David Ortiz hack at a middle-in fastball.

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