SEATTLE Ken Griffey Jr., baseball’s answer to Men’s Wearhouse, had a box full of T-shirts printed up Wednesday that he was distributing in the Seattle Mariners’ clubhouse.
White, they bore katakana lettering above the numeral 51.
“It says he’s the World’s Second Greatest Teammate,” Griffey pronounced. “It says he’s cooler than the other side of the pillow.”
It says here the wrong teammate got the rejiggered duds.
Watching Felix Hernandez at work the other night, the M’s right-hander should have the last name above the 34 on his back replaced with “Go” or “Steal” so that when he assumes the stretch position the runner on first can’t help but get the message.
It was the first time in baseball history that a catcher had to ice his arm after a game.
Of course, then there was Wednesday night, when the Mariners got six splendid innings from one of their dollar-store starters and an actual RBI from Junior. The bullpen was lights out and no one had to cross his fingers when a ball was hit to the middle of the infield. The result was a 1-0 victory over the Los Angeles Angels, a clean and briskly paced affair more reminiscent of the opening week of the season and not the first half of miserable May.
Which, yes, looked dispiritingly identical to all of 2008.
A quarter of this new Mariners season has now passed, as good a time as any to ask, “Are they really any better?”
The record says yes.
All the other math says no.
The language and the body language suggest a grade of incomplete.
But if anything is certain, it’s that whatever reupholstering opportunities confront general manager Jack Zduriencik as the season inches along, he should take them.
New M’s slogan: Ya gotta move these guys.
Not all of them, naturally. The retooled outfield is serviceable if not sensational. Hernandez, the 23-year-old teenager, is not a trifle asset. Griffey must be retained as legend-in-residence, and also to make sure everyone else in the clubhouse can get dressed.
But if there are any other parts that have value for other major league teams, Zduriencik owes it to people like the 18,580 gritty customers Wednesday to expedite the makeover he and manager Don Wakamatsu are undertaking even if it means the M’s are not as competitive as they were this night.
Because those players Zduriencik’s predecessor invested in Adrian Beltre, Jose Lopez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Erik Bedard, Jared Washburn have not been, well, substantial, nor can they be reclaimed. And if the difference is being between 15 games under .500 and 25 or 30, then that’s really no meaningful difference at all.
The M’s probably can’t be taken seriously sending an independent league refugee like Chris Jakubauskas out every fifth day but the junkyard-dog determination he demonstrated against the Angels is surely a far better example to use in educating Hernandez than the fog of indifference that Betancourt and Lopez have let infect their games.
The contrast in Seattle’s starters the past two nights couldn’t have been more pronounced. Jakubauskas needed 19 pitches just to get through the first two batters Wednesday and yet still retired both on ground balls. In the fourth, he briefly lost command after giving up a double to Torii Hunter and walked the next two batters then coaxed Howie Kendrick into popping up for the third out.
“I sure as heck wasn’t going to let anybody score,” he said.
On Tuesday, Hernandez issued a four-pitch walk to the second batter, twice surrendered leads his team had provided him and was so lazy with his delivery that the Angels stole five bases even with Kenji Johjima throwing out three runners. Wakamatsu called that “an embarrassment.”
“Sometimes you’ve got to ask guys to step up,” he said of Hernandez. “I didn’t think he stepped up today.”
He didn’t soften that stance on Wednesday.
“What I’m trying to do is really just tell the truth,” he said. “It’s not a reflection that I’m emotional about that player. It’s my responsibility to teach and educate these guys and when that doesn’t happen, I take it as a failure on my part.
“It’s still a fact that we as a staff have to get these guys to play better.”
That Hernandez defended virtually every aspect of his approach and performance was almost as disappointing as his effort. But the fact also remains that he is too young and durable and his stuff too dominating previously and potentially to give up on yet.
But not quite two months into the season, the Mariners are hitting worse (.254) than a year ago (.265), with a corresponding drop in on-base percentage. In the last 16 games, the M’s are 19 of 113 with runners in scoring position. Just as disturbing: errors in the field are markedly up, meaning his infield isn’t just struggling at the plate.
This does not scream “value” to other teams. But part of Zduriencik’s job is salesman, too.
He’s gotta move these guys. Have Junior put it on a T-shirt.