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An autopsy of the Angels’ ninth-inning comeback against the Mariners

Did the Mariners play bad baseball? Did the Angels play good baseball? Was there a lot of dumb baseball mixed between? Yes.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Los Angeles Angels Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

My Dearest Mariners fans,

This is a cruel post. Do not think for a moment that I am unaware of this important fact. However, it is a fair post. It was less than a year ago that we were in this same spot, talking about an impossible Mariners comeback. This is the spiritual sequel to that game.

In this sequel, our hero wakes up drunk and disheveled, which lets the audience know that a lot has happened between the first movie and now.

Again, apologies. But there’s a part of me that knows Mariners fans have had it too easy lately, so it’s time to dig into the Angels’ seven-run comeback in the bottom of the ninth inning on Sunday.

The reason is simple: Baseball is defined as a series of meaningless events that occur between innings like this. Every time you’re watching the ninth inning of a game with a team down by six, there’s a large part of you that’s wondering why in the heck you’re wasting your time. There’s a much smaller part of you that realizes there’s still a chance Cliff Pennington could rope a 98-mph fastball into the gap the second time he bats in the inning.

This is a victory for that small, foolish, and dominant part of your sports brain. This is why you’ll waste hundreds and hundreds of hours in your life waiting for comebacks that never happen. And we need to play a game while performing the postmortem. Was this the Mariners playing bad baseball? Or was this baseball being a jerk?

Before rolling the tape and going batter by batter, I’m going to assume it’s both. It’s probably both. If you want to duck out, I understand.

Batter No. 1 - Albert Pujols (home run)

I have selected the new cover for my children’s book, Don’t Throw Albert Pujols a First-Pitch Fastball There, Dummy, in which I use a classic Goofus/Gallant setup to praise smart kids and excoriate dumb ones. This is the cover:

The camera angle makes that look more outside than it was. From Brooks Baseball, here’s what the pitch looked like from the catcher’s perspective:

However, it’s not fair to jump on Casey Fien for that pitch. He had a six-run lead. What, you want him to nibble? Throw a breaking ball? Risk getting behind in the at-bat because you’re scared that a museum exhibit was going to turn on it? The only thing worse than that pitch location was any location out of the one. That would have meant getting behind 1-0 and putting a runner on for free.

Fien should be commended for challenging the hitter. Let me just take a big sip out of this “Fien should be commended for challenging the hitter and not walking him” coffee mug and see how the rest of the inning went down ...

Bad baseball or baseball being a jerk?
I want it to be the latter because no pitcher should be reprimanded for a get-it-in fastball with a six-run lead, but ... well, there’s no getting around how Pujols-friendly that location was.

Ruling: Bad baseball

Batter No. 2 - Cliff Pennington (walk)

Pennington was a defensive replacement, because of course he was. He’s hit .209/.283/.293 in 382 at-bats over the last couple years, and those are numbers that help players retire early. If you were surprised he was on a major league roster, don’t be. If you had asked me before yesterday, I might have guessed that he was active from 1999 to 2007.

And on the fifth pitch of the at-bat, he hit the baseball so poorly, it went about 14 inches from home plate.

It was foul by this much:

These aren’t things the hitter or pitcher control, really. If this seems like beginner-baseball to you, I apologize, but after about 15,000 hours watching baseball in my lifetime, it still blows me away. Before every big hit, every huge baseball moment, there’s probably a batter screwing up and not doing what he wants to.

If you think about it, every foul ball is a batter screwing up and not doing what he wants to, he says, wide-eyed and dead serious, as smoke swirls around the dorm room.

So in a way, you don’t want to be too hard on Casey Fien because he almost did his job. Technically, he did do it. He got Pennington to hit the ball where he didn’t want to.

In another, more accurate and important, way, Fien walked Cliff Pennington with a five-run lead in the ninth inning.

Bad baseball or baseball being a jerk?

Ruling: Bad baseball

And how!

Batter No. 3 - C.J. Cron (single)

There’s a mound visit before this at-bat, in which Mel Stottlemyre Jr. probably growled something like, “You know that was Cliff Pennington, right?” The overall message likely had something to do with throwing strikes, perhaps with some swear words, or at least a grawlix mixed in.

So Fien threw a strike. Or, at least, he tried to. It was an inside curveball that might have been a ball, according to Brooks Baseball and PITCHf/x:

Looped over short for a single. Finally, we have an unambiguous one to give to the Mariners.

Bad baseball or baseball being a jerk?

Ruling: Baseball being a jerk

Two on, no outs, but the lead is still five. No big deal. Just can’t walk anyone else, ha ha.

Batter No. 4 - Ben Revere (BB)

You cannot walk Ben Revere to load the bases with a five-run lead. Of all batters, up to and including a few pitchers, this is the one active player who absolutely cannot be walked in this situation. Walking a player with six career home runs in 3,044 plate appearances is a mortal sin against the sport.

To be fair, the first pitch might have been the worst non-strike of the young season:

Alas, but it missed the target, which forced a catcher-stab.

That’s Carlos Ruiz behind the plate, which is an ironic name for the rookie, considering that it’s the same name as a long-time veteran catcher. Unless ... no, it can’t be.

After another borderline call for ball, Fien completely loses his feel and throws two pitches that aren’t even remotely close. He did it. He walked Ben Revere to load the bases with a five-run lead.

I can’t have been the first one to do this, but just in case ...

Bad baseball or baseball being a jerk?

Ruling: The worst baseball

Batter No. 5 - Danny Espinosa (ground out)

Edwin Diaz, a minotaur wearing human skin, is in the game now, and he’ll surely restore some order. A couple of batters might get lucky against him, but not three or four in a row, right?

Danny Espinosa grounded out on the second pitch, a 96-mph fastball that was just above the knees. Really, I’m in favor of Espinosa getting credit for a single in the box score, just for making contact. Moral victory.

This is baseball being a jerk, however, because Espinosa hit the ball so poorly, the Mariners couldn’t turn a double play, and it brought a run home. It makes me pine for an alternate timeline where baseball evolved to have a judge who could reverse the outcome of a play if the contact is crappy enough.

ANNOUNCER: And, yes, Judge Joe West is on the field, and he’s ruling that a double play. The crowd doesn’t like it, but that’s the right call.

I don’t see how that could possibly go wrong.

Bad baseball or baseball being a jerk?

Ruling: Baseball being a jerk

Batter No. 6 - Martin Maldonado (strikeout)

Maldonado took the first pitch, which was a 97-mph fastball roughly where Pujols’ home run pitch was. That was probably the pitch to swing at.

As is, Diaz did what he needed to do, which was get some quick outs. Maldonado struck out on a wicked fastball down in the strike zone, as one does against Edwin Diaz.

This was the fifth pitch of the at-bat, and PITCHf/x had it as being right on the corner:

All catchers stab throughout the season. Some catchers stab more than most. I have no idea which one Ruiz is, but it’s probably something to watch, Mariners fans.

(Also, I am completely aware that every last Mariners fan has already closed the tab, and I’m free to write incredibly nasty things about them. Ken Griffey, Jr. was overrated! Edgar Martinez shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame! Harold Reynolds is your fault!)

Bad baseball or baseball being a jerk?

Ruling: Perfectly normal baseball

Batter No. 7 - Yuñel Escobar (double)

Not every moment of a seven-run comeback will be fair. That’s the point, see. The Mariners are in a death spiral early in the season, and it feels like everything is going against them.

That’s because it is!

Escobar pounded the fastball right into the ground, which is most assuredly what he did not want to do. Good job, Edwin. That is some good pitching.


Not only is it a double, but it brings the tying run to the plate. Now Diaz can’t pump fastballs down the middle, daring hitters to make contact. Now there has to be nuance. Now there has to be precision.

Bad baseball or baseball being a jerk?

Ruling: Baseball being a jerk

Batter No. 8 - Kole Calhoun (walk)

And where there has to be nuance and precision, there just might be the tendency to grip a baseball a little tighter. Whatever you do, don’t look in the on-deck circle, because there’s absolutely no one in there, certainly not Mike Trout. I SAID DON’T LOOK, EDWIN, why would you look?

Diaz walked Calhoun on four pitches, and the first three pitches weren’t even close. The fourth pitch, well ...

And if you’re wondering about the framing ...

I’m not an expert on catching. I would also assume that catching Edwin Diaz is one of the hardest jobs in baseball. Don’t take three GIFs and turn them into a narrative. Carlos Ruiz might be a fine defensive catcher in his advanced age.

According to StatCorner, though, he’s been among the worst framers in baseball over the last four seasons. The next time you hear someone making fun of pitch-framing metrics that overestimate the value of a plus-framing catcher, remember this game. With a superior framer, the Mariners might not have blown a six-run lead in the ninth inning.

Still, the first three pitches were on Diaz, and he needed to throw a pitch down the middle there, not nibble on the corners.

Bad baseball or baseball being a jerk?

Ruling: Bad baseball

Batter No. 9 - Mike Trout (walk)

In which Mike Trout represents the winning run.

You would have done the same damned thing.

Bad baseball or baseball being a jerk?

Ruling: Good baseball, probably

Batter #No. 10 - Albert Pujols (single)

In on the fists at 97 mph. Pujols was late. This is the hit that tied the game.

Before we chalk this up to baseball being a jerk, though, let’s side-eye Danny Valencia, who was making the 29th start of his career at first base. The ball wasn’t hit that hard, was it?

Seems like a ball that should have been knocked down, at least, but that’s a subjective judgment.

If you’re wondering how many opposite-field grounders Pujols got hits with last year, FanGraphs has the answer.

So, again, we have Diaz doing what he wants to do, combined with a hitter screwing up because he wasn’t ready for it. At the same time, we have a fielder who took three steps and fell down, but didn’t do it in time to stop the ball from leaving the infield. What to do in this case?

How do you grade this one?

Bad baseball or baseball being a jerk?

Ruling: Baseball

Batter No. 11 - Cliff Pennington (double)

When a pitcher throws a first-pitch 98-mph fastball low in the strike zone to Cliff Pennington, he should feel like he’s done a Very Good Baseball Thing.

Pennington, of course, murdered the baseball.

Mitch Haniger’s route to the ball was more of a than a \, but I’m not sure how many right fielders in baseball catch that. Just like the note up there about not being too skeptical about catcher-framing metrics, maybe this is a play you can remember the next time you’re furrowing your brow at Jason Heyward’s perceived defensive value.

Regardless, Pennington ripped it, and it deserved to be a hit, even if Diaz made his pitch.

Bad baseball or baseball being a jerk?

Ruling: Baseball

Maybe the whole “baseball being a jerk” construction was unnecessary. Baseball is already in there. Calling it a jerk is being redundant. Baseball is the kind of game that leads to Cliff Pennington being covered in baby powder.

And it’s the kind of game that can lead to this collection of extremely Mariners faces:

This was the game the Mariners put on their credit card last June, and they’ve been ignoring the minimum payments for months. It was incredibly unfair to Edwin Diaz, who got two quick outs and made just a couple of mistakes. It was incredibly unfair to Mariners fans, who were probably the only people who bothered watching the ninth inning.

It was the kind of ninth inning most of us dream about over and over when our teams are in a seemingly impossible situation. We dream and hope and what-if our way through the entire ninth inning, even though it never happens.

And then one day it does. It’s what keeps us coming back. The Angels came back from six runs down in the ninth inning, and they did it with walks, poorly hit baseballs, crushed baseballs, sketchy defense on the other side, and everything in between.

It was a very normal inning, in other words. You just have to stretch your definition of “normal,” which baseball is very good at making you do.