Commentary

Cliff Lee superb in Seattle debut, but ...

... punchless Mariners offense does little to help left-hander in 12-inning loss to Rangers

Originally Published: May 1, 2010
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

SEATTLE -- Beautiful game, Cliff. But next time, instead of seven scoreless innings, could you pitch more like nine? Or a dozen? Or maybe, considering the way the Mariners are hitting, 15 or 18 or 23?

What a thing. Seattle fans got both the night they've been anticipating for months -- a sublime Mariners debut by Cliff Lee on Felix Hernandez Bobblehead Night -- as well as less-popular promotions to which they've grown accustomed: bad at-bats, too frequent popups, costly strikeouts and double plays, and overall anemic offense.

After watching his new team lose to the Texas Rangers 2-0 in 12 innings Friday night, Lee must have gone home thinking, "I'm not in Philadelphia anymore."

[+] EnlargeCliff Lee
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonCliff Lee allowed three hits and struck out eight in seven scoreless innings Friday.

"To give the team a chance and not give up any runs, you have to be happy with that,'' Lee said. "I would rather have given up a couple runs and helped the team win, but whatever. It is what it is.''

I'll get back to Lee in-depth soon enough, but first I have to address Eric Byrnes' at-bat in the 11th inning. Now, I don't want to overreact and get all hyperbolic, but this may have been the worst at-bat in major league history. I'm serious. Seattle had the bases loaded and one out, and Byrnes violated an absolute cardinal rule by actually pulling his bat back on a squeeze bunt. No, really, he did. Players are taught from youth ball that on a squeeze, you have to do whatever you can to get the bat on the ball. Throw your bat, throw your body, but get the bat on the ball to protect the runner. Instead, Byrnes put his bat out to bunt and then pulled it back, hanging Ichiro Suzuki out to dry for a caught stealing at the plate.

How inexplicable was all this? Texas manager Ron Washington got ejected for arguing that the pitch should have been a strike because Byrnes had bunted at the ball. When home plate umpire Jim Wolf informed him that Byrnes pulled the bat back, Washington refused to believe it, saying he had never seen such a thing in all his years in baseball -- that he could not even fathom such a thing! -- and continued to argue. It was only when watching the replay later that Washington realized he was wrong, that Byrnes had indeed pulled the bat back.

Byrnes capped off the dreadful at-bat by looking at Strike 3 to end the inning, accounting for two outs without ever leaving the batter's box, which generally is not easy to do. And if all that sounds incredible, how about this? Byrnes left the clubhouse quickly after the game, riding his bike in the hallway past reporters and general manager Jack Zduriencik, looking more like a bike messenger than a major leaguer. Which he may not be soon, given that he is also hitting .107.

That Byrnes is one of just four bench players for Seattle demonstrates how desperately the Mariners need Lee. They've scored two runs or fewer in nine games and have hit only nine home runs, while the DH platoon of Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney is hitting .210 with six RBIs and one extra-base hit. None of that is going to get it done, even if Lee pitches every game as well as he did Friday.

Trading for Lee was the most praised of the many positive moves Zduriencik made over the winter, but Seattle fans had to wait awhile to finally see the prized pitcher. Lee underwent minor surgery on his foot early in the spring, then went on the disabled list with an abdominal strain soon after that. Fans had been so eagerly awaiting his debut that they burst into applause when he took the mound to start the game Friday.

With a mixture of smoke and mirrors -- he struck out Josh Hamilton in the first inning on a 78 mph off-speed pitch that followed a 93-mile fastball -- Lee retired the first 10 batters he faced, held the Rangers to three singles and struck out eight in seven innings. He threw an astounding 73 strikes in 98 pitches.

"He was as good as you could ask for,'' manager Don Wakamatsu said. "He was darn near perfect.''

Fellow Seattle starter Ryan Rowland-Smith was so impressed by Lee's performance that he closely watched each pitch live from the dugout and then went back to the clubhouse between innings to examine them again on videotape. He also frequently asked Lee questions about his approach to pitching as the game went along.

"I told him he was throwing like there was no one in the batter's box, like it was just a bullpen session,'' Rowland-Smith said. "I was just asking him about different stuff, about the psychological side more than anything. I'm psyched that he's around. I watched him pitch in Cleveland and Philadelphia, and now I've got him around to ask questions firsthand. It's awesome.''

Lee's helping Rowland-Smith develop is something the Mariners are excited about, as well. "For me, it's the impact he has on other pitchers on the staff,'' Wakamatsu said. "Guys like Ryan Rowland-Smith or Jason Vargas or Felix. Felix has had to be a stopper and has had to put the whole team on his shoulders. Now there's another guy who can do that, too.''

Hernandez and Lee give the Mariners an extraordinary 1-2 punch, probably the best in Seattle since Randy Johnson and whoever happened to be following him in the rotation at the time. Lee won the Cy Young award with Cleveland in 2008 and Hernandez finished second to Zack Greinke last year. They could be a formidable pair in the postseason, the sort of duo that could carry a team to the World Series (the Phillies' opponents from last fall could tell you about that).

But before any of that can happen, the Mariners' offense will have to get rolling. Getting shutouts from your starters is great, but it doesn't do you any good if you can't score any runs yourself.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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