The days leading up to the start of the regular season are odd. We’re like weird time travelers in a bad sci-fi movie, one foot sticking out of a singularity into the future, while the rest of us stands closer to the recent past and memory.
We know what came before us. We recall the moments of joy and failure, the win-loss record. Of course, our memories aren’t always reliable. The optimism of what might be, the fervent prayers of “But what if he did, though?” work an alchemy on our perception. That optimism chips away at our reasoning. It wasn’t that bad! His pitching was fine, it was the defense! He’ll stay healthy the whole year. We think we remember with clarity the peaks and valleys of the past, but really it’s hazy. Out of that haze villains and heroes emerge. Everything has been great or terrible before and will probably be terrible again, but damn it if we won’t find someone to blame or praise for it. Stack enough of those weird little time jumps together, and you have a franchise, always moving forward and jumping back, daring us to remember and dream in turn.
Trades and retirements offer a chance to pause for a moment. So can waiver claims. I wrote last week about Seattle closing the book on Jesus Montero. He was a disappointment, both in the player he became and the player he cost. Many will point to awful ice cream lows and suspensions to define his time in Seattle. But as I pictured him in a Blue Jays uniform, I couldn’t help remembering a different moment in the slipstream.
It might seem odd to look back on Felix Hernandez’s perfect game now. Gone is the anxiety that caused Lookout Landing to once defiantly sponsor a banner on Hernandez’s Baseball Reference Page declaring “Felix is ours, and you can’t have him.” A contract extension and a full no-trade clause took care of that, even if a rocky 2015 introduced new stresses. Perfect games, a heady subspecies of no-hitter, are framing in terms of the pitcher. But what about the other guys on the field? This great, franchise-defining afternoon was just four years ago, and apart from Felix only Kyle Seager, Charlie Furbush, Hisashi Iwakuma and Franklin Gutierrez remain of the 40-man roster. It was a big moment not long past, except its little tunnel through time feels forever ago.
None of the position players were very much use that day. Seager wasn’t yet fully Seager; most everyone else was decidedly themselves. According to Baseball Reference, with the exception of Jesus Montero and Brendan Ryan, none contributed a positive WPA. Heck, the Mariners only had eight offensive plays all game that contributed anything remotely positive to Felix’s gem. They had five hits. Hellickson lived up to his name. Felix was just playing a different kind of game that day.
The only run came in the third inning. Brendan Ryan singled to left field (4 percent WPA). Ryan had a number of impressive defensive plays, including throwing out B.J. Upton at first after the ball skipped past a diving Kyle Seager. The exact same play happened three years later during Hisashi Iwakuma’s no-hitter. The shortstop was Ketel Marte. Back in 2012, Dustin Ackley and Michael Saunders promptly popped out and lined out (-4 percent and -3 percent WPA, respectively).
That brought up our old friend, Montero. It’s a funny spot for him to occupy, in retrospect. At the time, it was already clear that his talents were better suited for something other than catching, but the bat seemed to be progressing. Going into August 15th, Montero’s slash line was .266/.309/.404 with 12 home runs, respectable numbers on another team and good enough for the Mariners for Dave Sims to call him “one of the hottest hitters the Mariners have” on the broadcast. They were driving a clunker, but we didn’t quite know it yet. His PED suspension was a year away. It still could have worked out. On the second pitch of the at-bat, Ryan broke for second and when Hellickson threw a wild pitch, he kept moving to third (2 percent WPA). Montero lined a single into left, and the Mariners picked up the only run of the ballgame (11 percent WPA). It represented the greatest single swing in win probability of the contest.
The rest of the field was populated with an odd cast of characters. Eric Thames’ most impressive looking play came the first out of the game, when Sam Fuld rode the fourth pitch of his at-bat deep to right. Thames passed through shadows and snagged the ball on the run; it was the Rays’ best chance for a hit that day and it was gone after the first out. Thames was traded to the Mariners on July 31, 2012. He was optioned to Tacoma the following spring and designated for assignment later that summer. He bounced around, to Baltimore and Houston, but hasn’t taken another MLB swing, although he enjoys a successful career in Korea.
Dustin Ackley’s place in the infield seems odd now; he played much of the rest of his Mariners career muddling through adequate left field defense. He’s now a man without an obvious position on the Yankees, but there he was at second, catching a hard lineout from Evan Longoria. He had a hit in the first, and played ably in the field. Like so many other Mariners games, he was just there.
Trayvon Robinson came to the Mariners as part of a three-team trade for Eric Bedard. On September 14, 2012, he was Yu Darvish’s 200th strikeout victim of the season. On November 20, 2012, he was traded to the Orioles. Two years later, he fell out of the Baseball Prospectus Annual. But on August 15, 2012, he caught three outs in left field, and hit a single in the second inning.
John Jaso called a hell of a game; he also hit a double in the bottom of the sixth. Now he has statement hair and plays first base. A lot of things change.
And then there is Michael Saunders. Saunders had an odd relationship with the Mariners. He was chronically hurt and perhaps underappreciated. He would be publicly castigated in 2014 for supposedly poor conditioning and traded. He was never what they expected but he was probably better than they admitted. And on the day of Felix’s perfect game he was… absent. There are no remarkable defensive moments to his credit. That’s not his fault; you can’t catch balls that aren’t hit your way. But his only notable at-bat was when he ground into a double play. Sometimes you have a shining, perfect game moment to overcome a sprinkler head. Sometimes you’re Michael Saunders.
There was a surprising amount of “perfect” talk on the broadcast that day. As early as the sixth, Dave Sims proclaimed, “He’s our guy, he’s the King, he’s Felix Hernandez, perfect through six.” Just an inning later, after Joe Maddon had been ejected for arguing balls and strikes, Sims exclaimed, “We’re getting into nitty gritty time folks! Felix perfect through seven! It’s 1-nothing, Mariners!” And then later: “HE STRUCK HIM OUT, STRIKES OUT THE SIDE, he’s three outs away from immortality.”
Felix struck out the sides in the sixth and eighth. The last out of the game was a called third strike that froze Sean Rodriguez. Felix worked his own magic that game. He registered 12 strikeouts. He mixed his pitches beautifully, starting with heat and ending with deception and finesse. There was a no doubt how dominant the performance was. Sure it was a day game, sure it was the final game in a series, sure the left side of the strike zone was a bit of mess. It didn’t particularly matter.
Montero occupies the in-between space. In the aggregate, the Mariners definitely lost his trade. They really, truly, profoundly, absolutely lost the trade. That trade was like Part III of The Godfather, or Fonzie prepared to jump a literal shark. But that’s the tricky thing about forgetting the time jump. The assessment that the trade was bad isn’t wrong. It’s just not the story of that day. But on the day of the perfect game, Pineda would have been no use. They didn’t need another ace. They needed one run.
Jesus Montero and Felix Hernandez and Kyle Seager and the seven other guys on the field that day all share this moment. They were brought together by trades and poor drafting and international signings and luck. They were occupied the field that day by virtue of being the best, or the best available option. And with the exception of Seager and Hernandez, they’ve all moved on. Mariners fans will face a sadder sort of departure for Seager and Hernandez. It’ll be slow, and gradual. It’ll be a decline we avoid talking about for too long, until it we can’t talk about anything else. Like Montero, and Ryan, and Jaso, and Robinson, and Thames, they’ll go eventually. Except when we step back into that singularity, and when we travel back. To a day when it was 79 degrees and sunny, and Jesus Montero could have been good, and the King was perfect.
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