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Saturday, April 4, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Grip on Sports: Mariners flash some leather in win over Angels

Seattle’s Guillermo Heredia (5) bunts the ball during the fourth inning of a 4-2 Mariners’ victory against the Washington Nationals in Washington on Thursday. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP)
Seattle’s Guillermo Heredia (5) bunts the ball during the fourth inning of a 4-2 Mariners’ victory against the Washington Nationals in Washington on Thursday. (Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP)

A GRIP ON SPORTS • There’s an underrated aspect of baseball these days. It’s defense. When guys can hit the ball out of Yosemite at will, it doesn't seem all that important. But yesterday’s Mariner 5-3 win over the Angels hinged on two plays in the field. If either were not made, the M’s would have lost. Read on.

••••••••••

• Two plays. One by Guillermo Heredia in center field. One by Danny Valencia at first base. They were the difference between the Mariners winning or having another Sunday afternoon meltdown in Anaheim.

The former occurred because Heredia, playing centerfield because the Angels had started lefthander Jesse Chavez, ran down Cameron Maybin’s bases-loaded, eighth-inning line drive seemingly destined to bounce off the left-centerfield wall.

It was the type of catch we’ve come to expect in Seattle, made by a centerfielder who got a great jump and took the perfect route to the ball. But it was also a catch the M’s haven’t made enough of since Mike Cameron left for the Mets in 2004.

Guys like Jeremy Reed and Franklin Gutierrez and, for a couple years, Ichiro, weren’t making that play. But Jerry Dipoto knew the M’s had to be better up the middle. Leonys Martin shored up the position in 2016, and Jarrod Dyson and Heredia have been solid this season.

Sunday’s play is the type, with the dimensions of Safeco (and yes, I know Sunday’s play was made in Anaheim, but the M’s play have their games in a field with a lot of outfield grass), a centerfielder is called on to make a handful of times in the course of the season.

When the play is made – Heredia had to double clutch the ball as it barely caught in the edge of his glove, and then hang on as he ran into the wall – it gives the pitching staff confidence. Mistakes may not hurt as much. Sure, Maybin’s drive scored a run but it didn’t clear the bases and tie up the game.

That still could have happen in the eighth, and against closer Edwin Diaz no less, if not for Danny Valencia’s size 12 shoe. Or 11 or whatever it is. All that’s important is it isn’t an inch shorter. Because that’s about all Valencia was able to keep connected to first base on the last play of the bottom of the eighth.

Or if Albert Pujols wasn’t the slowest man this side of Chris Christie.

Pujols hit a slow roller to shortstop Jean Segura with two on, two outs and Diaz trying to secure a four-out save. The ball seemed to fool Segura, whose right hand was in his glove before the ball got there. It caused a bobble.

And then a hurry, as Segura seemingly forgot Pujols was pounding his way down the base line. The throw sailed wide and Valencia had to reach across his body to snag it.

Pujols and first base coach Alfredo Griffin both threw their arms out in the safe motion. But first base ump Jim Reynolds was having none of it. He waited a beat and called Pujols out. A 41-second replay later the call was upheld and the M’s had weathered another Sunday storm in Anaheim.

Thanks to their defense.

• By the way, I wanted to pass along visual images from the great plays, but after a search I just couldn't find any. Sorry. Heredia's was a thing of beauty.

• I wanted to pass along this story from the Los Angeles Times on venerable Santa Anita race track.

I fell in love with horse racing as a child due to the quirk of the track covered in John Cherwa’s story. The horses thundering down the grass hill caught my imagination. It seemed so different, so odd. Like me.

•••

WSU: USC, basketball power? Say it ain’t so. The Trojans have enough football success. They don’t need to be basketball power too.

Gonzaga: The Salt Lake Tribune has a feature on Nigel Williams-Goss and his year at Gonzaga. It’s a nice advertisement for the program in BYU country. … Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie continue to compete at FIBA’s U19 World Cup.

Indians: Make it two consecutive road wins for Spokane. The Indians spanked Boise 13-6. … Around the Northwest League, Hillsboro has been on a roll and defeated visiting Everett and Eugene lost at Vancouver.

Shadow: The women dominated Washington Premier South Sound 4-0 yesterday.

Mariners: The M’s are basically in the same spot this season they were in last year. That one almost ended OK. That’s the thrust of our column this week. … We weren’t the only ones to notice the M’s eighth-inning defense. It also caught to eye of the Los Angeles Times writer and Tacoma's Bob Dutton. … The win helped Diaz exorcise some demons. And the rest of the young relievers. … Boog Powell is back in the bigs as the M’s deal with Nelson Cruz’s knee injury. … Speaking of Cruz, he is the Mariners’ lone All-Star representative. If his knee won't let him go, I’m guessing Robinson Cano will be called on to replace him. … Mike Trout is getting closer to returning for the Angels.

Seahawks: Marshawn Lynch is no longer a Seahawk, but he’s still a part of the Seattle community.

•••       

• A quick note. Tomorrow is the Fourth of July. Our nation’s birthday. A holiday. And I’m going to take it as well. Unless I wake up before the sun, there won’t be a post here. Since I’ve retired, Kim and I have a tradition of taking a long hike on the Fourth. With the temperature supposed to top out near 90, I want to get an early start. Go ahead and check anyway, but if the column isn’t up by 8, it won’t be here. Move on with your day. Until later … 

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