Thursday, May 27, 2010

MARINERS: @Los Angeles Angels Series Preview (May 28-30)

If ever there was time for the Mariners to make strong strides in the AL West, if ever there was a time for them to stay competitive and have a shot at postseason play, this weekend is the time to do it. Facing normally-leading but currently-flailing Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for a three-game series, the Mariners have opportunity to start making up strong ground in-division.

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The Mariners are entering this series at the right time, with the offense picking up in recent games. The two-game series sweep of Detroit was highlighted by timely hitting with runners in scoring-position and pitching that held scores low to allow Mariners to come back late in the game.

Importantly, the Mariners also have their top two pitchers in Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez both pitching in the series. Lee posted a dominating performance two games ago, but ended up with the loss, going 8 innings and only allowing two runs in an offensively-lacking Mariners performance. His next start was far more lackluster, allowing 7 earned runs in 6.1 innings pitched. Offense took center stage that game, however, scoring 15 runs by the 5th inning.

Hernandez, however, has been in a funk of late. His last win was April 21st, and the starts in the interim have either lacked support, or have been poor. Twice in the beginning of May, he allowed 5 or more runs, and the two following starts saw narrow 5-6 losses. His last saw only one run scored by the Mariners. If the Mariners want to win this series, they need to start linking together hits to get Felix feeling confident that the offense can protect his quality pitching.

Lee faces a struggling Scott Kazmir, who is 3-4 in 8 starts with a 6.09 ERA. It provides an excellent opportunity for the hot-hitting Mariners to continue warming up and show the pitchers they’re out to start supporting them. Hernandez also has an excellent opportunity, facing 3-6, 4.40 ERA Joe Saunders.

In between the two will be Ian Snell, recent rotation-returner who gets the job by way of not pitching as badly as Ryan Rowland-Smith. His return from the pen showed promise, however. While receiving a loss, his battle against San Diego allowed only 1 earned run and 5 hits. Snell will have to be on his best pitching, as he faces arguably the Angels’ best pitcher, Jered Weaver.

One problem that has hit both teams is a dearth of batting. The Mariners have been cold almost the entire season, providing little offense for their strong pitching staff. They, however, have shown signs of improving. Their prior series versus Detroit showed timeliness at getting runners on and advancing them. The recent power surge of Mike Sweeney is also a pleasant surprise, who has become the unexpected team leader in home runs.

For the Angels, injuries and slumps have caused a lot of harm. Most notably, the large off-season signing of designated hitter Hideki Matsui has led to only a .238 batting average—though he has generated 24 RBIs and 6 home runs, numbers good enough for team leader on the Mariners.

Picking up the offensive slack is first baseman, Kendry Morales. He leads the team in average, RBIs, and home runs (.286, 10 and 34, respectively). Mike Napoli has seen extensive playing time due to an injury to starting-catcher Jeff Mathis. With Mathis’ impending return from the DL, Napoli may start seeing time at designated hitter, improving their lineup and putting Matsui’s role into question.

Both teams are below the .500 threshold, with the Angels sitting 4 games back of first-place Oakland, the Mariners 7.5. This series can serve as a lynchpin to regaining some interdivision competition. Or it can serve as the end of a season. If the Mariners want to avoid the latter, they need to win it, if not sweep. Anything less than that, and it may be time to accept that this is not their season to get into the playoffs.

Reach M. Wend at