Russell Branyan, gone from the Mariners' lineup for the better part of a year, returned Tuesday (June 29) and seemed to fit right in with his teammates, dunking a funky first-inning single onto a vacant space in the left-field shallows of Yankee Stadium.
The ball landed a hundred feet or so shy of where Branyan is accustomed to leaving his fly balls. The first-sacker had 31 home runs for Seattle last season, playing just five months. This year, with Cleveland prior to last weekend'ês trade, he had 10 dingers without playing the first month of the season.
The explanation for bringing him back has to do with the notion that the presence in the lineup of a guy who can hit it on a fly farther than 150 feet might just take the pressure off the other M's position players, who have been 'êtrying too hard,'ê as team execs have often said.
They've been trying, all right: trying fans' patience, mainly, by displaying some of the softest offense in baseball.
Maybe the trying-too-hard theory has merit. After Branyan's first-inning base hit in the three spot of the line-up, five-hole guy Jose Lopez doubled and was driven in with an opposite-field single by Franklin Gutierrez. The center-fielder was summarily tossed out during an ill-advised try at stealing second. But Seattle's three hits and a run in the first two innings was about what team followers have been expecting the club to accumulate for an entire game, extra innings included.
The M's futility at the plate had seemed to match that of opposing teams trying to coax walks out of the excellent left-hander Cliff Lee, 7-3 after an unheard-of third-straight complete-game performance. The probable soon-to-be-former Mariner (he has perhaps the best trade value in baseball) finally gave up his first walk in 145 batters when, during the second inning, Jorge Posada sweated out a base on balls.
But despite Lee'ês mastery of opponents all season (he may be the American League starter in the All-star game July 13), Branyan was the big story Tuesday. Since it was revealed that he was reacquired by general manager Jack Zduriencik, followers of Mariner follies have been shrugging shoulders and slapping foreheads trying to go figure the move.
True: Jack Z merely gave up a couple of minor-league prospects. But why, many have asked, bring back Russell the Muscle when the collective M's 98-pound weakling long since has played its way out of the playoffs for the ninth straight year?
There's a much better question: Why didn't the team keep Branyan to begin with? He plays solid first base. All his 2009 offensive numbers were exceptional by M's standards.
Zduriencik et al may have figured that '09, Branyan'ês first season as an everyday player, was a fluke. But if that's what they thought, wouldn't that have amounted to a repudiation of picking him up in the first place?
Now Branyan's been picked up in the second place — and by a team entrenched in last place. Many who follow the M's no doubt hope the notion of Branyan's presence loosening up his teammates will result in better performance (if not playoff potential) for the second half of the season.
But there's always another possibility. Maybe Branyan instead will emulate the dead-bat play of others in the "offense." Tuesday, as his new-old team was humiliating the hated, major-league-leading Yankees 7-4, The Muscle had a tap back to the pitcher, a sixth-inning whiff, and a seventh-inning infield pop-up to go with his dump-off single. His teammates, meanwhile, had a dinger and four doubles among their dozen hits.
True to Zduriencik's wishes, then, the "new" M's indeed played like the old Branyan. Alas, on this night the "new" Branyan played like the old M's.