Frustrated Mariners fans, in angry calls and e-mails to media and talk shows, have focused much of their anxiety on Adrian Beltre.
They have seen the 27-year-old third baseman has fallen off from his fab form of 2004 with the Dodgers, and decided he was juiced.
When the subject of steroids was broached early this week, a taint never attached to him before, Beltre reacted with a smile — and what seemed like genuine surprise.
"I have never heard that, but I can tell you it never happened," he said. "I'm scared of that stuff. I don't even take pills. Why would I do that? First, it's bad, bad for you. No one knows what can happen later in life. Then, the year they must be looking at, they were testing that year."
That would be 2004, when Beltre reached totals that now he may wish he could forget, but for the probability they are seared into his soul, .334 with 48 homers and 121 runs batted in.
Skeptics hark back to those numbers as if Beltre were obligated to reproduce them each year, instead of the modest .265-18-73 averages over his preceding five full seasons before the 2004 breakout.
A major-league scout who has focused on California teams for years scoffed at the idea of Beltre on steroids.
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Starting pitchers: M's LH Jamie Moyer (2-5) vs.
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"We've all watched him for years, watched him grow and develop," he said. "He's just too good a kid, always has been. He's too intelligent for that. He just had a great year that year, and we all thought it was legit."
A physician who has worked with Beltre in the course of his career said, "He never has shown any evidence of steroid use, certainly not from a medical standpoint."
Angry fans point to the loss of weight, 12 pounds this past offseason, and what so far this year has been warning-track power.
When it was noted to him that his winter conditioning program could look like proof he had been on steroids and was now off them, Beltre smiled and shook his head.
"My idea was to do something different than last season, to be in the best shape I could be, better for myself and for the team," he said. "Honestly, I can see why people might think that. But one thing is clear in my mind, I am innocent of that."
On the shots to the track, manager Mike Hargrove said those are mostly a product of Beltre's overall hitting woes.
"He's just tight, trying to break out of this, and like a few of our guys, Adrian's getting caught in-between in a lot of at-bats," he said. "Sometimes he takes a huge rip, then he'll back off and feel for the pitch. The net result is that balls don't go as far."
Hargrove said the proof Beltre is strong as ever is seen every day in batting practice. "He launches, hits 'em as far as ever. Because he's relaxed and loose. He's got to get to that point in games and you'll see a big difference."
In getting loose, relaxing, Beltre is virtually battling his own nature. He simply feels everything too much, last year the pressure of coming in as a savior, this year the pressure of simply not doing that last year or to this point now.
"I am too sensitive, and I know that's not good," Beltre said. "I think too much about what I'm going through. I feel the pressure.
"I came here to do something, to help this team turn it around, and instead I've been part of the problem."
While he ended up decently last year, .255 with 19 homers and 87 RBI, he got off to a horrendous start this year and while he has shown pieces of production — a current six-game hitting streak — he still has only two homers and 16 RBI as the season has passed the one-third point.
Those who saw Beltre in 2004, say he drove the ball to the right side a lot more. He knows this, but he is not consciously trying to re-create that stroke.
"I did go to right field a lot that year," he acknowledged. "But it wasn't from thinking I will hit the ball to right. It's just where I was pitched. I just followed the old principle of see the ball, hit the ball.
"As much as I want to come out of this, as much as I've worked to come out of it, I can't start deciding to hit to the right side.
"The last three weeks I've been feeling good. We'll see what it leads to."
Last year, Beltre was inconsistent, hitting .258 in April, then plunging to .216 in May, up to .321 in June and so on.
"In a way it's a little different this year, although it looks pretty much the same," he said. "Being through last year hasn't made this any easier."
Putting it down to a different league doesn't come into it and never did.
"It would have been an excuse last year, and I don't like excuses," he said. "It's baseball, and this year I know the league better. So that doesn't come in this time at all."
Of course, he is hardly alone. Richie Sexson, whose numbers were .205-6-29, also has not been his usual productive self.
"Yeah, we do some talking about it. You feel it," Beltre said. " ... Right now, it seems everything we do, we do wrong. Especially in the middle of the lineup. It keeps happening until it doesn't happen any more. That's baseball."
With the team struggling to score, the problems rarely seem to subside.
"Every at-bat, especially with men on base, you get to thinking you can fix everything with one swing. That's when you try to do too much," Beltre said. "You know it never happens that way, but you find yourself doing it anyway.
"We've only had one, two guys doing the job. If it was Richie and me doing the job it might be different. But let's just say that if Richie and I did what we're supposed to, with the other guys doing as well as they are, we'd be in first place. Definitely."
First place for the team might seem as far away as a .300 batting average for Beltre. He knows how much baseball is a daily grind, how the mind as much a part as the talent in dealing with it.
He regards himself a grinder. He comes to play, thus his reluctance to leave third base, no matter how much his hamstring may need a break from the turf or his mind a rest from the churning.
"I want to be successful for the fans, but as much for my own pride," he said. "I know what I came here for and I want to do it.
"I have too much pride for this. No one but me knows how badly I want to show what I am, a good player, a clutch player, a player his team can count on."
Bob Finnigan: 206-464-8276 or email@example.com
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