Young Studs

Do the M's have the horses?

One of the promotional throwaways offered to Seattle Mariners fans earlier this year was a terry-cloth logo item some identified as "an official team crying towel." Such is the prevailing emotion when a club is 11 games on the wrong side of .500. Just a fortnight ago, in fact, we were fretting here on behalf of M's fans and management about the lack of production at shortstop, second base, and catcher. There also was the whimpering suspicion that starting-pitching problems would consign the franchise to a losing 2005 campaign.

Since then, eyes have dried with the arrival of a few heroes, mainly a galloping stallion named Morse. Some call the statuesque shortstop "Cal" or "Alex," possibly because Mike "the Horse" Morse, stands 19 hands high and carries himself like a yearling Ripken or A-Rod. Through the Father's Day game on Sunday, June 19, an 11-5 series-sweeping besting of the New York Mets, the 23-year-old was hitting .407 and starting to play his position like a big-leaguer instead of the beleaguered double-A guy he resembled his first few games.

The next steed to come to stable was more familiar, Jose Lopez having grazed Safeco Field at shortstop last season. Lately he's playing second base as though his future is now. He and Morse made stylish putouts to start Sunday's game, and one wondered whether benched second baseman Bret Boone would ever get his job back.

The third nag, Pat Borders, has been hot-walked toward the door of baseball's glue factory for 10 years now, but he still plays like a colt. Borders' main value is his ability to handle pitchers and call a game. Proof? Through June 16, his "catcher's earned-run average" was just 2.82, versus 4.58 for the others who have caught for the M's this year.

But Morse is the one to watch. He isn't afraid to lay off borderline pitches, and he's (dare we say) Edgar Martinez–like in his willingness to hit it where the pitch dictates. During the second inning, with two outs and nobody on, Morse sliced an outside-corner pitch gently into right field, where most of his initial major-league hits (including his late-inning double) have gone. The youngster was ill-advisedly sent to the plate as he rounded third on a Rena Rivera double, but a hard slide jarred the ball loose and the M's led 3-1. An inning later, Lopez bounced one into left field, scoring a hobbling Adrian Beltre from third. Center fielder Jeremy Reed, the other prized rookie, then slipped a soft liner into left, scoring two. Gil Meche got his seventh victory as Morse and Lopez each had two hits.

The win left the ascending team at 31-36, leading some to wonder what the record would be if youth had been served earlier. Baseball is partly about welcoming young talent and acknowledging the passing of an older player, each in his own time. No one will say the struggling Boone is out to pasture at age 36, but he obviously isn't earning his $9 million. Anybody getting misty about losing Boone, let me know. I've still got that crying towel in the original packaging.

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