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Wakamatsu: Better than Lou? Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Posted by mrgenre in Mariners.
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Reuters

Photo by Reuters

The season is over and the M’s managed to win a miraculous 85 games.  Much of that success has been attributed to a tickling Griffey (and a giggling Ichiro) and Sweeney as clubhouse leaders.  Griffey’s Spring Training heckling of the media as they attacked Ichiro about rumors of so-called “selfish play” was a good start.  Sweeney’s one-on-one time with young players was even better, but Wakamatsu’s leadership was more than just icing on the cake.  For the first time since “Sweet Lou” a manager’s name is on the tongue of every M’s fan, and most of us didn’t even know who this guy was when Zduriencik hired him.

So what did Wak do this year that was so fantastic?  What exactly did he do to turn things around from an incredible 101 losses in 2008?  He did plenty.

Probably the most media-rampant story was his ability to “call out” ace King Felix for a poor performance on May 19th, where he gave up 11 hits and 6 runs in less than 6 innings.  Let’s review those quotes.

Felix: “I think it was a good game…  I made good pitches, but balls went into the holes. It was unbelievable. I made great pitches…  I was trying to hold the runners, but they know how to steal bases… I just go out there and do the best I can.

Wak: “I have said all along that our team evolves around pitching and defense and wasn’t good at either at the start of the game… Felix wasn’t sharp. Sometimes you have to ask guys to step up and I didn’t think he stepped up today… Anaheim is a good club, and they have talented players,but it’s an embarrassment to allow them to steal five bags off us.”

Ouch.  Many of us thought that was a bit harsh at the time (even though he had already been slacking all spring coming off his WBC appearance), and Felix was clearly perturbed with his manager, avoiding him for much of the period following those statements.  But Felix eventually stepped up.  Whether it was out of anger or because he saw the light we can’t be sure, but Felix pitched incredibly for the rest of the season, winning 16 of 18 games with a 1.98 ERA.  Wak clearly made the right call.

His next move would be to call out Yuniesky Betancourt, who eventually went on to paralyze an already astounding Royals team.  Betancourt had already frustrated a couple managers before Wak came along by playing lazily, making errors, not hitting and not putting in any extra work off the field.  Wak sat him down in depth in on May 13th, and then sat him down literally for the game, opting to let Ronny Cedeno get some playing time.  Late May came around and Betancourt seemed to be taking something away from a scattering of days off.  He was bunting, and finally showing (some) patience at the plate, although his defense and work behind the scenes hadn’t improved at all.

June continued with this trend, and on June 18th, I gave up on Yuni, even if Wak hadn’t.  His collision with Endy Chavez that ended the left fielder’s season (and possibly tenure with the Mariners) was unforgivable, even if everyone involved insisted it was an accident.  A few short days later, Yuni was placed on the DL with a hammy injury and then not much later, we traded him to Kansas City, eventually replacing him with Jack Wilson.  From the outside, it’s not even certain Wak had a significant role in all this, but his patience with Yuni (because of his incredible potential) despite his insistence that there is eventually a “saturation point” with poor play and discipline is to be commended.  I’m certain he made the tough decision inside the clubhouse, sending Yuni to KC (who took him on a recommendation by former Mariner utility Willie Bloomquist).  From what I understand, even a teammate putting himself on the line has not been enough to turn around Yuni’s discipline both on and off the field.  Bless you Wak, for making an example of Yuni, and supporting your team by subtraction.

The M’s went from 101 losses to just 77 this year, but does that make Wak better than Lou?  They’re complete opposites.  Lou routinely got himself thrown out of games.  Wak hasn’t gotten tossed once (and only one Mariner did all season long with that example).  Lou liked to lock in a lineup and use his starters all game long.  Wak prefers to switch things up constantly (or at least spent most of the season refining his eventual lineup) and hates using pinch hitters if he can avoid it.  Lou was loud and boisterous, pushing his vets hard and spending most of his time handling the all-stars on his team.  Wak cultivated a personal relationship with everyone on his squad, and broke down any barriers between vets and rookies.  Lou’s clubhouse was emotional and hard-headed.  Wak’s clubhouse was disciplined and stoic, but always happy to line the dugout rail, rooting for their team; emotions were reserved for celebrations and 1-run ballgames and there was never much anger, just lots of smiles.

It will be tough to say whether or not Wak will ever live up to Lou’s 10 years of playoff appearances and record-breaking seasons, but I will say this.  I’ve had more fun watching this squad win and celebrate than I ever did watching Lou lead us to victory… although, 95 will never be forgotten.  If Wak can give us just one playoff appearance during his time as our leader, Lou will be relegated to forgotten legacy.  Thanks for a fantastic 2009, Don, and keep up the good work!

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