SEATTLE – Lance McCullers threw a breaking ball right where he wanted it. Only one problem. Robinson Cano put it right where he wanted it, about eight rows up in the center-field seats.
Just like that, the Astros were down 1-0 to the Mariners in the first inning. McCullers retired the next hitter to end the inning.
Actually, he would retire 18 of the final 19 batters he faced, allowing only a fifth-inning walk while striking out 11 Seattle hitters in leading Houston to a 4-1 victory at Safeco Field.
“Those guys can really bang,’’ McCullers said of the Mariners. “That's a great hitting team, so maybe they bring out the best in me.”
McCullers is 6-2 with a 2.75 ERA in nine career starts against the Mariners, and 3-0 in his last four starts against Seattle, including 35 strikeouts in the last 28 innings.
“Lance was in command tonight,’’ said Astros catcher Brian McCann, who broke a 1-1 tie with a two-run homer off reliever Dan Altavilla in the sixth inning. “Lance kept them off balance and his breaking ball was tough to hit.”
Except for that one breaking ball in the first inning that Cano launched into the stands.
“I actually thought it was going to hit the dirt before he swung at it,’’ McCullers said. “But that’s Robbie. He’s one of the great hitters of our era. He barely swung at it and hit it 400 feet.”
The Astros (11-7) had lost five of their last six games entering Tuesday night and the Mariners (9-6) had won five of their last six.
This four-game series, now notched at 1-1, is important to the Mariners. It’s an early gauge on how they stack up against the defending World Series champs, a team that beat Seattle 14 out of 19 matchups last season.
Seattle pitcher Ariel Miranda, making his first start of the season, allowed only one run in five innings despite being in trouble most of the game. He pitched out of a base-loaded jam in two innings. The Astros stranded nine runners in the five innings Miranda pitched.
Astros manager A.J. Hinch was happy to see McCullers pitch well after giving up eight runs in one inning at Minnesota last week.
‘Tonight was a great display of pitching,’’ Hinch said of McCullers. “It was a dominant performance, especially the way he bounced back from the home run. The Mariners are a strong hitting team, so you have to create some of your own outs. Lance was a real pitcher tonight.”
SEATTLE – Mitch Haniger never expected to be the clean-up hitter three games into the 2018 season. And he won’t be the clean-up hitter when Nelson Cruz returns soon from a fluke ankle injury.
What Haniger will continue to be is one of the most reliable bats in the Seattle lineup, a talented right fielder who is living up to all the expectations the team has for him after 2017 gave a glimpse of what he could be.
Haniger launched a three-run homer Friday night off veteran reliever Chris Hatcher and gave the Mariners the lead in the seventh inning, helping propel them to a 7-4 victory over the Oakland Athletics at Safeco Field.
The Mariners are 7-4 for the season despite having four starters on the disabled list _ Cruz, catcher Mike Zunino, first baseman Ryon Healy and left fielder Ben Gamel.
Haniger finished with two hits and four RBI to up his average to .297 and give him 12 RBI in 11 games this season. It’s continuing what he started last year as a rookie before a gruesome injury in July slowed his progress.
Haniger was hit in the face by a 95-mph fastball from New York Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom. Haniger needed plastic surgery after suffering a nasal fracture, a concussion, a lacerated lip and severe facial swelling. He returned in less than a month and ended his rookie year with a .282 average, 16 homers and 47 RBI.
The Mariners envisioned big things this season for the 27-year-old outfielder, but not as a clean-up hitter. When Cruz slipped on a step and sprained his ankle during the second game of the year, Haniger has to step into that role temporarily. He didn’t change a thing.
“I don’t care where I hit,’’ Haniger said after Friday’s game. “I just stay within myself and keep the same approach. It’s not about where I’m hitting.’’
Haniger’s blast in the seventh was part of a five-run inning for the Mariners, including a two-run homer for Daniel Vogelbach, his first big-league home run.
Team officials retrieved the ball for Vogelbach. So who gets to keep the memento?
“Me for now,’’ Vogelbach said. “But I’ll probably give it to my mom and dad.”
Vogelbach had a sizzling spring training with seven homers and 15 RBI, enabling him to make the team over Mike Ford as the back-up for Healy. But Healy also went on the DL and Vogelbach was cast into the designated hitter role when Cruz was injured.
Vogelbach’s hot spring didn’t carry over to April, but his homer Friday could turn things around.
“It's everything you dream of,’’ Vogelbach said of his first home run. “Now I can just go play. It's definitely a big weight off my shoulders.”
The ability to bomb away at any moment of a game is something that makes the Seattle lineup a tough assignment for any pitcher. It’s also something that gives the Seattle pitchers added confidence, knowing the team can pick them up if they are having their best night.
Such was the case for starter Mike Leake, who gave up a two-run homer to Khris Davis in the first inning and had to battle his way out of trouble a couple of times when the A’s had two men on base with only one out.
“I like those situations sometimes,’’ Leake said. “It gets me going.”
Leake pitched six innings Friday and allowed three runs and seven hits. Mariners manager Scott Servais likes the way Leake never gives in, especially on a night like Friday when he didn’t have his best stuff.
“Mike's a really good competitor,’’ Servais said. “He knows exactly what he's doing. He knows the opponent and he knows his strengths. He will keep you in the ballgame.”
And when you have a reliever like Edwin Diaz, closing out games becomes easier as well. Diaz remains perfect after earning his fifth save Friday. Diaz has yet to give up a run in six outings and has 13 strikeouts in six innings pitched.
Despite all the injuries, the Mariners are playing impressive baseball and learning something about themselves.
“We have a really good vibe in the clubhouse right now,’’ Haniger said. “You can sense it.’’
Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid do not have a job in the NFL for one reason only: They refuse to give up their Constitutional rights.
Whether you agree or disagree with their stance on kneeling during the national anthem, the above statement is true.
It sure started a firestorm on Twitter went I sent that message out Thursday. Nothing seems to fire up people more than black athletes making a protest.
Many responses were something like this one:
No one is telling them to give up their rights. They have the right to their free speech and the teams have their right to not hire him. Being a player in the NFL is NOT one of their Constitutional rights.
Correct in the fact that teams have the right not to hire them. But they are asking them to give up their rights. The employer has the right to ask certain things of a potential employee, within the ramifications of the law.
But it is a little shocking considering this league employs men with criminal records, including domestic abuse. San Francisco 49ers linebacker Reuben Foster is charged with three felonies for allegedly punching his girlfriend in the head 10 times. As of now, he’s still a member of the team.
Former San Francisco 49ers safety Eric Reid (one of the better players at his position at almost anyone’s standards) appeared close to a deal this week with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Reportedly, Reid was asked if he would agree to stand during the anthem. He would not agree to it, so they told him to hit the road.
Adam Schefter of ESPN tweeted that Kaepernick was going to work out for the Seahawks this week, but Seattle postponed the trip when the quarterback declined to stop kneeling during the national anthem next season.
A later tweet by Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network stated the Seahawks didn’t ask Kaepernick to stop kneeling, per se. The team asked for his plan moving forward on how to handle everything and there was not a firm plan.
That’s a little vague, to say the least.
The point is these men have taken a stand for their beliefs. The NFL has taken a stand, unofficially saying those beliefs are unacceptable for employment.
No one has done anything wrong on either side, at least not legally wrong. Whether the players or the league have done anything ethically wrong, depends on what you believe.
The start of the 2018 NFL Draft will be all about the quarterbacks. At least four will be first-round picks – Josh Rosen of UCLA, Sam Darnold or USC, Josh Allen of Wyoming and Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma – and possibly all four in the top 10.
Two others – Lamar Jackson of Louisville and Mason Rudolph of Oklahoma State – also are first-round possibilities.
All eyes are on the QBs, but there are some intriguing defensive players who will make an immediate impact in the NFL. Here are three men that stand out:
The fan favorite: Shaquem Griffin of Central Florida
In case you haven’t heard, Griffin has only one hand. Here’s something else you probably haven’t heard: He’s a better player than 90 percent of the guys in this draft with two hands.
The only reason Griffin received a late invitation to the combine was pressure on social media from the NFL to give him a chance. Griffin made the most of it.
He was the star of the show in Indianapolis, consistently wowing everyone in attendance by doing things no one knew he could do.
For example, most people didn’t expect him to attempt the bench press, for obvious reasons. Griffin used a prosthetic attachment and proceeded to do an eye-popping 20 reps at 225 pounds.
He also ran a 4.38 40, the fastest time in combine history for a linebacker. And he outmaneuvered almost everyone else on his group on defensive drills and interceptions.
At 6-1, 225, Griffin is the twin brother of Shaquill Griffin, a third-round draft pick last year and a starting cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks. Shaquill is 30 pounds lighter, but they posted identical 40 times.
Shaquem, who had his left hand amputated at age 4 because of a congenital defect, played outside linebacker in college and was named the AAC Defensive Player of the Year in UCF’s undefeated season last year.
NFL’s coaches want to know if he can play safety as a pro, but why move him? Shaquem had 33 tackles for losses in his final two seasons at UCF, including 18 sacks.
The elephant in the room is whether is lack of a hand will hinder his ability to make tackles in the NFL. In 13 games last season, Griffin missed or failed to complete only four tackles in 79 attempts.
You don’t need two hands when you have as much heart as Griffin.
Best of the best: Vita Vea of Washington
No one in this draft, and only a few people ever, have the freakish physical attributes Vea possesses. At 6-4, 345, he is an unstoppable force on the defensive line.
It isn’t just his size, which is intimidating. Vea also has the quickness of a 3-4 alignment defensive end. Vea’s 40-time at the combine was 5.12, stunning for a man only one brick short of 350.
By comparison, Virginia Tech defensive tackle Tim Settle, who is 6-2, 330 and also expected to be an early draft pick, ran a 5.37. Stanford defensive tackle Harrison Phillips, 45 pounds lighter than Vea, ran a 5.21.
Vea’s combination of strength and speed enable him to play anywhere from nose tackle to a 5-technique defensive end. He also will break up running plays at the line of scrimmage with his powerful bull rush and his ability to take on two blockers without giving up ground.
His instincts and vision enable him to locate the ball carrier immediately and close on a play almost before it begins. The team that selects will see its linebackers suddenly become better tacklers because Vea will keep offensive linemen off them.
Most underrated player: Hercules Mata’afa of Washington State
Like Vea, Mata’afa was a disruptive defensive tackle in college. One big difference: Mata’afa is 90 pounds lighter.
That’s why people doubt he can get it done at the NFL level. They’re right to think he can’t play DT as a pro. They are dead wrong to think he can’t play somewhere else.
Mata’afa is an absolute buzzsaw of a player on every snap. He’s tenacious and never gives up on a play. Those traits will serve him well as he moved to a rush end or outside linebacker in the NFL. He also might play some snaps as a middle linebacker.
Wherever he lines up, he will make a defense better. The man had 22 sacks in three college seasons while playing against offensive linemen that were 50 pounds heavier. That tells you all your need to know.
Mata’afa is relentless in pursuit of a play, and his high-energy on the field is contagious for his teammates. Mata’afa is viewed as a mid-round selection. His effort makes up for his lack of his size.
The 2018 NFL Draft is less than three weeks away. You probably have seen mock draft 77.0 by now. You’ve become somewhat familiar with players you never heard of from a few schools you didn’t even know existed.
As non-events go in sports, the annual NFL selection process of available college prospects is as big as it gets.
Who will your favorite team select first? Who will be the first player picked? Who is the best quarterback in the draft? The NFL Draft has become a sport unto itself.
And regardless of who your “expert’’ source is on how this will play out, it’s all a guessing game. No one knows for sure which player is going where and when.
Nevertheless, I’ll make a few fearless predictions after reviewing piles of information and listening to more a few NFL experts. Today is a look at players on offense:
Best Player: Quenton Nelson of Notre Dame
Most people would say Penn State running back Shaquon Barkley, an exceptional athlete who deserves all the praise he receives. The Cleveland Browns should make Barkley one of their early first-round picks – either the first pick or the fourth.
But Nelson is a once-in-a-generation offensive lineman, possibly the best guard to come out of college since John Hannah 45 years ago. Yes, Nelson is that good.
At 6-4, 330, he dominates opponents with his strength, but also has the reflexes and quickness of a tight end. Nelson had an uncanny ability to see and understand what defensive fronts are trying to do and often picks up more than one rusher on the same play.
Best Quarterback: Josh Rosen of UCLA
Rosen is brilliant and outspoken about things that matter. He comes from a prominent family that is politically active. Those things tend to scare off some teams in light of the issues over pre-game protests the last couple of seasons.
Some NFL executives have questioned his dedication to the game and his desire to do whatever it takes to have a successful NFL career.
Anyone in that camp is way off the mark and any team wanting a quarterback that passes on Rosen will live to regret it. At 6-4, 220, no one in this draft better fits a pro-style offense than Rosen. His ability to zip a throw 30 yards downfield into a tight coverage is uncanny. He throws the ball accurately in any situation.
He not only can read the defense and understand coverages designed to fool most quarterbacks, he also can turn the table and fool defenders by going through his progressions and keeping his eyes off the intended target until the last second.
The one legitimate knock on Rosen is his lack of mobility. He’s not going to win games with his legs, but he’s going to win plenty with his arm and his head.
Quarterback to Avoid: Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma.
I made my dislike for Mayfield obvious long before he won the Heisman Trophy because of his childish behavior. No doubt he has the ability to get the job done as an NFL starter, but does he have the character attributes you want at the most important position on the field?
I wouldn’t use an early first-round pick, or any first-round pick, on a guy with questionable maturity. Drafting him in the first round means you expect him to be the team leader, making the right decisions on and off the field, and a person you will need to pay millions of dollars down the road. Mayfield isn’t worth the risk.
Overrated receiver: Calvin Ridley of Alabama
Ridley is expected to be the first wide receiver selected in the draft, but he has a few clear weaknesses. Going against press coverage in the NFL, a receiver either needs the strength to muscle past the cornerback or the quickness to get around him. Ridley (6-foot, 190) can’t do either one.
He’s plenty fast, running a 4.4 40 at the Combine, but speed and quickness are two different things.
Ridley has issues with initial contact and could struggle against bigger NFL corners. He also have issues at times trying to catch passes in traffic. Ridley has 20 drops on three seasons at Alabama.
Other First-Round Running Backs: Sony Michel of Georgia and Derrius Guice of LSU
The prevailing logic is don’t draft running backs in the first round unless they are all-world players like Barkley. The NFL is a passing game for the most part, so running backs aren’t worth a first-round investment.
I don’t necessarily agree with that theory in any year, but definitely not this draft. This is the best class of running backs in more than a decade.
No back in this draft has a more explosive burst to the line of scrimmage than Michel, which enables him to hit holes and get to the second level before most defensive linemen have engaged to fill the gap.
Once Michel gets in the open field, he has the speed to make a big play. At 5-11, 210, he also has the strength to breaks tackles, and he’s a surprisingly skilled pass blocker.
Guice (5-11, 220) has a fullback’s mentality in a running back’s body. He is a punishing runner, similar in style to Marshawn Lynch. Guice was overshadowed most of his college career by Leonard Fournette, but Guice has the talent and skills to be a game-changing back.