As the Mariners entered Friday’s game against the Yankees seeking to avoid falling a season-worst 10 games below .500, the situation sparked a recall of Mets manager Casey Stengel’s famous quote to his lamentable team: “Can’t anybody here play this game?” But in fairness, the Mariners can modify Stengel’s expression, at least for the moment: “Can’t ENOUGH guys here play this game?”
One of the most remarkable nuggets left over from Wednesday’s 16-inning episode of freak-ball, the 7-5 loss to the Chicago White Sox, was this: The Mariners were the first American League team in the DH era (since 1973) to use only nine position players in a game of 16 or more innings.
That’s because two reserves, Michael Morse and catcher Jesus Sucre, were injured; a backup infielder, Carlos Triunfel, had been sent down; another rookie, Brandon Bantz, was an in-case-of-emergency-break-glass backup catcher, which left only Alex Liddi, who had to be preserved in case any of the iron nine went down.
Advance two days to Friday, and the Mariners had backups or replacements starting at catcher, first base, second base and all outfield positions. The DH, Michael Morse, missed seven games with a strained thigh muscle and was a game-long threat to re-injure himself on any hit less than a home run or a ground-rule double (which he had in the fourth inning).
“If it hadn’t bounced over the fence, he probably wouldn’t have made it to second base,” said manager Eric Wedge. “He still can’t run very well.”
Despite all, the Mariners, behind starter Jeremy Bonderman (of all people) beat the Yankees 4-1 and looked every bit the part of a major league club.
Bonderman, who pitched his second big-league game after nearly a thousand days of rest and rehab, gave up three hits and one run in six innings. Brendan Ryan had a two-run single in the fourth, when the Mariners scored all their runs.
The Yankees, spluttering, saw a four-game win streak end. They are 35-26 and shouldn’t have lost this game. On paper.
No excuses are made here for the Mariners, but the idea coming out of spring training was that this team would include pitchers Erasmo Ramirez, Stephen Pryor and perhaps by now Danny Hultzen, as well as position players Justin Smoak, Franklin Gutierrez, Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero.
All of those players, plus rookie starter Brandon Maurer, are either injured or have been demoted. What is left is roster by roto-tiller.
How the Mariners find themselves in this spot can be lamented, debated, condemned or ignored. Hey, all teams have injuries. All teams have flailing players.
What good teams have are answers.
At the moment, the Mariners have one answer on offense: Second baseman Nick Franklin.
For all the talk of the improved Mariners farm system, he is the only proof in the lineup, unless Raul Ibanez is counted, and his credit goes back to the Woody Woodward days of general managership (kids: Woody was around before smartphones, so please consult the fossil record).
Franklin was hitting .242 before Friday’s game, about 40 points up on Ackley before his trip to AAA Tacoma, and added a second-inning double and an eighth-inning single. He also appears at second base to be possessed of Shop-Vac hands.
The biggest advantage Franklin has over Ackley, both chosen in the first round of the 2009 draft, was that he was given time to figure out things in the minors.
“What’s helped him is he’s had some trouble, and he’s overcome his trouble,” said Jack Zduriencik, the Mariners general manager who was flagged down at Safeco Friday between rounds of the draft. “A few players never have trouble, but a lot of them do. In his first major league camp with us (2010), Franklin had trouble. Last year at Triple A, he struggled. But he figured it out in two or three weeks. This year, we brought him to big league camp and he had some health problems. But once he felt healthy, there was a lot of progress.
“Plus he had this grit, this confidence about him. So why take the chance away from him?”
But to create the chance, Ackley had to fizzle.
“Two things were going on: Ackley’s troubles and Franklin’s history. If Ackley hadn’t had his trouble, Franklin probably wouldn’t have gotten the shot,” Zduriencik said. So we made the flip, and Ackley gets a chance to get himself right offensively.”
For whatever can be made of hitting AAA pitching, Ackley seems to be right: Since his demotion, he is hitting .432 (19×44) with two home runs, seven RBIs and OPS of 1.164. But Zduriencik wasn’t giving in to the idea that Ackley was rushed too soon to the majors.
“He was playing so well at the Triple A level, and we had a need,” he said of his 2011 call-up. “He earned it — look at his history in AA and AAA. He played in three College World Series and he’s a mature guy.
“You can look at every single move a different way. If it works, you look good. But some guys need the the time. He goes to Triple A, and he still has time.”
Time. Franklin had it; Ackley didn’t. It’s not the only reason for the divergent careers, but it’s enough of one that the Mariners have an object lesson in not trying to make up for the franchise’s long history of personnel goofs through a handful of young careers.