Through the first few innings Sunday, Oakland A’s starting pitcher Steve Ontiveros, on his way to a career-high nine strikeouts, was cutting up Mariner batters like a caffeineated sushi chef.
On the bench between innings, Mike Blowers turned to Tino Martinez and said, “This guy’s pitching great. Let’s see if we can’t scrape three, four, five runs off him, get him out of there and get to their bullpen.”
Normally the verb “to scrape” in baseball parlance means a walk, a sacrifice bunt, a stolen base and an infield grounder deep in the hole for one run.
The Mariners “scrape” a little differently. They scrape like Dick Butkus used to scrape at linebacker. If you asked the Mariners to scrape your windshield, the car would be down to hubcaps and an ashtray.
As if Blowers dictated the outcome, the Mariners scraped Ontiveros, an All-Star this year, for five runs, bludgeoning him single after double after home run. That exposed the bullpen to similar treatment and four more runs.
Sure, it took until one was out in the bottom of the ninth before they beat the A’s. But that is merely the recent standard for the King Street theater of the absurd.
Sometimes, they scrape early, like Saturday night’s 7-0 win. Sometimes they scrape late, as with Martinez’s one-out homer off Dennis Eckersley, changing an 8-7 loss to a 9-8 win. But scraped the opponent will be, producing a shiver as if Edward Scissorhands were at the blackboard.
If you were among this weekend’s 150,000 Kingdome eyewitnesses, you saw 26 runs knock the nemesis A’s out of the postseason race and into 1996. You saw three straight wins in which no Oakland lead was too big, no Oakland pitcher was safe and no eardrum was unrung.
You saw an offense as formidable as Lou Piniella has ever experienced, including four Yankee World Series teams he played on and the 1990 Cincinnati Reds he managed to a championship.
Asked to compare, he said his old clubs don’t.
“This lineup, one through nine,” he said, “are all tough outs.”
Comparative numbers are elusive this season, what with six games remaining in an already strike-stunted campaign. But the picture becomes clear if Mariner hitters are compared to what they have done before.
Among the 11 hitters with more than 200 at-bats, nine are at or above career averages, and several are at career bests. The most prominent hitter below average is Ken Griffey Jr., because of his wrist injury. But after two hits Sunday, he’s now 12 for his past 28 at-bats (.429), which pretty much kills the old pitch-around-Joey-Cora strategy.
What this means is that every regular in the lineup is simultaneously hot, if not fully engulfed. This simply does not happen in baseball. Even on good clubs, two to four hitters are labeled easier outs. At the moment, nobody among the Mariner regulars is cake, and the bench has shown no dropoff.
“With this lineup, once Vince Coleman and Joey Cora get on base, who do you pitch to and who do you pitch around?” Blowers said. “Everybody is getting good pitches to hit.”
As a group, the Mariner regulars are nearly 20 points per batter better than their career averages, including the Griffey anomaly. While the contributions of the Martinezes, Griffey and Jay Buhner are most obvious, what makes the Mariners a bona fide post-season contender are the career years from Cora, Dan Wilson and Luis Sojo.
Wilson and Sojo are typically the eighth and ninth hitters. Sojo is hitting .338 over the past 40 games, one of which was an eye-popping six-RBI effort Wednesday. Over the past 24 games, Wilson is hitting .341 with six home runs and 16 RBI.
For the first two-thirds of the season, the Mariners were averaging 5.3 runs per game and hitting .271. Over the past 49 games, the Mariners are averaging 6.3 runs a game while hitting .294. Those are championship numbers that might even overcome their occasionally bad fielding and erratic starting pitching.
Accounting for this universal leap in batting prowess is not easy. The hitters are quick to credit hitting coach Lee Elia. Manager Lou Piniella said the tireless work habits of Elia and the players deserve accolades.
Griffey talks about team-wide attitude. Buhner says it’s contagious confidence. But other than the addition of Coleman, this is pretty much the lineup that a year ago couldn’t hit right-handed pitching if it were promised winning mail from Ed McMahon.
“I can’t explain it,” said Tino Martinez.
That’s as good an answer as any, because part of the joy of baseball is the inexplicable. And nothing in sports right now is quite as stupefying as the ride of the Seattle Mariners.
Are there enough rabbits in the world to keep the Mariner offense supplied for the nightly hat-pull?
“If this were May or June, I’d say it would be pretty hard to sustain this kind of thing,” Blowers said. “But at this point, with a two-game lead and only six to go, with the crowds like they are, it seems possible to sustain it all the way until the season ends.”