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Seattle Mariners 2011: Michael Pineda and 5 Reasons for Strong Start

The Seattle Mariners weren’t supposed to be two-and-a-half games out of first in the second week of June.

They were supposed to be in the cellar of the AL West, looking up at the A’s, Angels and defending AL champion Rangers.

But here they are on June 11th, two games over .500 and within striking distance of the Texas Rangers.

Here are five reasons why the Mariners strong start in 2011 is not a fluke.

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Justin Verlander No-Hitter: Is 2011 the Year of the Pitcher 2.0?

Down to his team’s final out, Rajai Davis stood in against Justin Verlander. Two balls, two strikes and the crowd is at its feet. It didn’t matter matter that their hometown Blue Jays were getting crushed 9-0, or that the opposing pitcher was a single strike away from a no-hitter—fans could recognize history when they saw it.

Davis swung through a breaking ball off the outside of the plate, and catcher Alex Avila raised his arms in celebration: the game was over. Verlander had cemented his place in history as one of only 28 pitchers to be un-hittable not once, but twice in his career.

Verlander was very nearly perfect—he walked only one batter, J.P. Arencibia, and that came in the eighth inning after a 12 pitch at-bat. 

Even though he was pitching into the ninth inning, the Tiger’s ace was no worse for the wear, his fastball touching 100 MPH in the final frame.

Justin Verlander turned in a performance to remember. The thing is, he’s not the only one.

Twins pitcher Francisco Liriano turned in a surprise no-no earlier this week in Chicago.

In just over a month, baseball has already seen two no-hitters, reminding us of the 2010 season that was widely acclaimed as the “year of the pitcher” because of the utter dominance of starting pitchers.

While a perfect game by Phillies ace Roy Halladay may not have been predicted, it was hardly surprising—the guy has been one of the premier starters in the majors for the better part of a decade.

But a perfecto by the A’s Dallas Braden, no-hitters by Matt Garza, Ubaldo Jimenez and Edwin Jackson, and the nearly perfect performance of Armando Galaraga were hardly foreseen.

Neither was Ubaldo’s run of nearly half a season with an ERA under 1.00. Before 2010, Jimenez had a career record of 31-28—not bad, but hardly overpowering.

Ten years ago, unremarkable hitters like Phil Nevin and Richard Hidalgo hit over 40 home runs in a season, a plateau normally reserved for superstars like Barry Bonds, Lance Berkman or Ken Griffey Jr.

Now, completely forgettable pitchers like Liriano are being mentioned in the same breath as truly elite hurlers like Justin Verlander.

This season is definitely shaping up to be year of the pitcher version 2.0.

It is a league-wide phenomenon. In the year 2000, teams were scoring upward of five runs a game (5.14) and hitting .270 on average. So far in 2011, the average has been 4.22 runs per game, a drop of nearly 20 percent, and a batting average of .249.

Those numbers are even lower than those from 2010, when teams scored an average of 4.38 runs per game and hit .257

39 pitchers have an ERA at 3.00 or under as of May 6. Yes, it’s only been a month of the season. But consider that in 2001, only two pitchers, Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson, had ERAs under 3.00 for the season. 

Striking difference?

It could be that April is just a bad hitting month. We saw Albert Pujols hit under .200 for an uncharacteristically long time, and there are still plenty of hitters sitting on the interstate this late in the season. 

But one thing’s for sure: Verlander’s no-hitter will not be the last one thrown this year. After over a decade of watching home runs smashed against them at an alarming rate, the pitchers have the upper hand, and they aren’t afraid to take advantage of it.

The 2010 campaign was not a fluke; 2011 will prove that. 

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San Francisco Giants: Is Cody Ross’ Injury a Blessing in Disguise?

An injury to a starter before the season even starts is never a good sign.

However, the 2011 San Francisco Giants are one of the few teams this year that can absorb the blow.

Blessed with incredible outfield depth and player versatility, there is no reason to believe that the current personnel can’t hold down the fort for the first two weeks of the season.

Assuming Cody Ross returns in three weeks as predicted, the Giants may actually benefit from his temporary absence.

Right now, the Giants have options for starting right fielders—in reality, an absurd number of options. Aubrey Huff, Mark DeRosa, Andres Torres, Aaron Rowand or Nate Schierholtz could all man the position.

Travis Ishikawa has been playing left field in spring training and Brandon Belt has experience in the outfield, so they theoretically could be in contention as well for the spot.

However, it is more likely that they would take over first or left for Huff or DeRosa should he slide to the other corner.

Regardless of who actually plays right, somebody who was going to be playing left bench will now be on the field. Rowand, Ishikawa, Schierholtz, DeRosa and Belt, who are all currently without a starting spot, get another shot, this time in real big-league games.

Bruce Bochy already seems to pride himself on the way he can fit the same 13 players in the same eight positions in as many variations as possible, so he should have no problem getting all his bench players at-bats.

Most likely, Belt will not be in the mix. Although he certainly has the skills, his presence on Opening Day would be an economic burden for the franchise. If he plays only three weeks in the minor leagues, the organization can delay his option for free agency by a full year, securing him until through at least the 2017 season, at which point he would be eligible for free agency.

If Belt begins the year in Fresno, the Giants also solve another problem: Rowand, Schierholtz and Ishikawa all can have spots on the 25-man roster. Both Ishikawa and Schierholtz are out of minor-league options, meaning that if one did not make the roster, he would have to be released, unless traded before March 31, the deadline to reduce rosters to 25 players.

Even in a tough division like the NL West, the loss of one player for a couple weeks will not derail a team’s playoff hopes, especially in April. As a result, the extra playing time for bench players has minimal risk and can only bode well for all parties involved.

If Schierholtz or Ishikawa utterly fails to produce when given a spot in the lineup, the organization can release him to make space for Ross when he recovers from his injury, which they may have had to do anyway had Ross not been injured. 

And if one of them, or DeRosa or Rowand, goes on a tear to start the year, the Giants would have gained an asset they otherwise would not have. They could either be looking at this year’s Andres Torres or simply have a player with enhanced trade value.

They already have plenty of outfielders; if one off the bench can get himself traded, then the Giants gain a prospect for absolutely no cost.

Either way, the Giants have only something to gain.

As these very same Giants saw last year, players step up from obscure corners of the roster to make an impact. Why not see if some other guys take advantage of their chance this year?

The injury to Ross is definitely a concern. The Giants have much less hope of repeating without him. But players get hurt and miss time; it’s part of the game. As long as he is out only three weeks as the doctors think he will be, there’s nothing to worry about.

Luckily, the Giants can turn this setback into an opportunity. Ross’ absence can temporarily take away the need to cut a player and allow some fringe players a chance to grab hold of the spotlight.

Baseball is a funny game; crazy things can happen.

That couldn’t be more true than with these San Francisco Giants.

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San Francisco Giants 2011 Opening Day Roster: The Last Bench Spot

As Opening Day draws nearer, major league rosters are beginning to take  definite shape. Clubs have evaluated the talent within their systems, and have made the easy decisions. Hopeful youngsters have been told that they need at least one more year to mature, and aging vets hoping for one last shot have been sent home. Now is the time for the tough choices: who is the last player to get cut?

For the San Francisco Giants, there is contention for spots both on the bench and in the bullpen. Jeff Suppan, Ryan Vogelsong and Dan Runzler are all making their respective cases for a spot alongside established veterans Brian Wilson, Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, Ramon Ramirez and Santiago Casilla.

Position players Emanuel Burriss and Brandon Belt are on the outside looking in, wondering how they can force their way into an already crowded infield that houses Mike Fontenot and Mark DeRosa off the bench.

Eli Whiteside and Pat Burrell have established roles on the squad, and will without a doubt return for 2011. Aaron Rowand is almost assured a roster spot because of his enormous contract, leaving Nate Schierholtz and Travis Ishikawa fighting for the fifth and final bench spot. Here are three reasons why it does not matter which of the two gets cut.

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