Sports

BASEBALL: Mariners ponder infield possibilities

ANAHEIM, Calif. – As they continue to ponder their future, the Seattle Mariners on Saturday played a version of ‘Who’s On First?’

Their answer was Jose Lopez.

It certainly didn’t help against the Los Angeles Angels, who not only beat the Mainers, 5-2, but saw closer Francisco Rodriguez make baseball history by saving his 58th game of the season.

So the Angels celebrated, and the Mariners experimented with their infield.

Manager Jim Riggleman and general manager Lee Pelekoudas have been talking over the past several weeks about what options there might be to expanding the possibilities of their current roster.

It’s a way of looking ahead to spring training 2009, as opposed to doing nothing at the end of a lost season.

Yes, the Mariners could look back at Richie Sexson and Jose Vidro, or bemoan Brad Wilkerson or the Erik Bedard trade – but none of that would be much help in the retooling of the franchise.

Instead, they’re looking hard at young pitchers such as Ryan Feierabend, a young second baseman in Luis Valbuena and – at first base – the vagabond infielder, Lopez.

Though he’s spent the past three seasons as a full-time second baseman, Lopez came up as a shortstop but clearly didn’t have the range for that position. He played a little third base but didn’t, at the time, have much power.

And now, first base? Why not.

Just as Sexson and Vidro weren’t the answer for Seattle, Miguel Cairo and Bryan LaHair aren’t the long-term answer at first base. Cairo is a journeyman infielder who’s perfect as a reserve, but doesn’t have the bat to play regularly.

LaHair, meanwhile, is a 26-year-old without much power – and in 121 at-bats this season, hasn’t been productive, either.

Batting .248, LaHair has two home runs and six RBI.

Trying Lopez at first isn’t necessarily a permanent move. It’s more like trying something different, to see what other options it opens up for Seattle if Lopez plays and hits well at first.

There’s one problem: Lopez doesn’t like the idea.

“I’ll do what they ask me to do this year to help the team out,” Lopez said. “But I don’t want to change positions.”

Lopez has had a marvelous offensive season – .292 with 14 home runs and 80 RBI – and while he’s become a better defensive player, he’s not a Gold Glove second baseman.

If he can play first base, it would give the Mariners a bit more wiggle room as they look to improve. They have more young middle infielders in their farm system – rookie Valbuena for instance – than promising first basemen.

And if the Mariners want to trade – and they do – it would give them the option of acquiring a second baseman or a first baseman, knowing Lopez could play both.

On Saturday, Lopez couldn’t have asked for more work at first. He was involved in hard ground balls, lots of throws and even a couple of pickoff plays. He committed his first error at the position in the second inning, dropping a throw from third baseman Adrian Beltre, but otherwise played well.

At the plate, he walked and singled.

How’d it go at first base?

“I used a Miguel Batista glove,” Lopez said, “and on the two pickoff plays with Ryan (Feierabend), I was as surprised as anyone when he made them. The toughest play for me was when there was a single to right field with a man on second.”

Why was that tough for a first baseman?

“I had no idea where to go,” Lopez said. “I just sort of stood there. I couldn’t remember where I should have gone.”

As for the Mariners, they lost again – their third in a row to the Angels.

Seattle grabbed a 2-0 first inning lead, then never got around to scoring again.

When Feierabend allowed four runs in five innings, that Mariners first was rendered moot. It wasn’t as if Feierabend pitched terribly, and it wasn’t as if the Mariners didn’t have their chances.

They simply couldn’t deliver when they needed it the most.

Their chief problem on the mound was outfielder Juan Rivera, who has battled injuries all season and began the night batting .231.

Then he homered, and doubled three times. He drove in three runs and scored twice. In the eighth inning he strained a hip flexor on his third double – his own fault for hitting the ball so far that he couldn’t stop at first base.

After Beltre and Yuniesky Betancourt drove in their first-inning runs, the Mariners offense went awfully quiet. They managed hits, but only one other time was there more than runner in an inning.

At that, the Mariners entered the ninth inning down by three runs and got to face Rodriguez, looking to break Bobby Thigpen’s big league record for saves in a season.

Rodriguez did that, saving his 58th game of the year.

The Mariners have done their part. In 14 games between the Angels and Mariners this season, Seattle has lost 10 times – Rodriguez has seven saves.

Now, he belongs to the ages. And the Mariners? They’re trying out another new-look infield.

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