As we dip our toes into August, things are starting to come into focus. Whereas a month ago, you could argue each and every team in the A.L. had a chance at the Wild Card, now you can start to write some teams off. The White Sox, the Tigers, the A’s, and I daresay even the Blue Jays and the Rangers, particularly with their trading of Yu Darvish to the Dodgers. And, not far behind them, you’ve got teams like the Angels, Twins, and maybe even the Orioles, who just need another mediocre couple of weeks before you figure they throw in the towel and start playing their younger guys.
At that point, it’s almost easier to count the teams in the race. The Astros, obviously. With the Yankees winning the Sonny Gray sweepstakes, you have to like their chances. The Red Sox will give them a run, of course. In the Central, you’ve got the surging Royals and the steady Indians. And, right there, tied with the Mariners, you’ve got the Rays at 54-53 with two full months to go. We’re both of us 2.5 games behind the Royals for that second Wild Card spot; with the July 31st Trade Deadline come and gone, now it’s time to get to work.
As you know, I’m not very bullish on the Mariners’ chances. Obviously, Paxton is one of the best pitchers in baseball right now, but after that it’s a wasteland. Felix is on the decline (5.1 innings of 4-run ball last night; he was fortunate the offense and bullpen bailed him out — how many times could we have said THAT over the course of his career?), Erasmo Ramirez of all people is slated to take the hill tonight. Then, we’ve got the poo-poo platter of Ariel Miranda and Yovani Gallardo who will REALLY have to start picking up the slack the rest of the way if this team wants a shot at the post-season.
I dunno, I just can’t see it. It would be a miracle of miracles. The writing is already on the wall: we’re going to look back on this season and realize we were out of it the day Drew Smyly injured his throwing arm. Could we have withstood the decline of Felix, the injury of Iwakuma, and the disaster that’s been Gallardo? Yes, yes, and yes; but it all hinged on getting a big bounceback season out of Smyly, and that absolutely did not happen. If Smyly could’ve been 80% of what Paxton has been, combined with a fine season from Miranda, a bulldog season out of Felix, and whatever you could get out of the fifth starter carousel, MAYBE you could talk me into being confident in this team as it’s currently constructed. But, the day they let the deadline pass without going out and getting a top shelf starter is the day they gave up on the season.
Don’t get me wrong, I love what David Phelps brings to this bullpen. But, what use does this team have for an Erasmo Ramirez when it’s already got 4-5 of them in the organization? What use does this team have for a Marco Gonzales when, again, it’s already got 4-5 of them in the organization? These are half measures. It’s making it look like you’ve done something when you’ve really done nothing at all. These guys could’ve been gotten in the offseason just as easily, but instead they were acquired now; why? To give the illusion that the team is trying to Win Now, when in reality this team – at the Major League level – is no better than it was before, and it could be argued they’re actually worse. The lynchpin, of course, is Gonzales. He’s “Major League Ready” and figures to be called up anytime now; if he comes up and does what he’s never done before (pitches well at the highest level), then I’ll happily eat all the crow you can shovel onto my plate. But, it strikes me that we’ve heard this tune before.
Andrew Moore was Major League Ready. Sam Gaviglio was Major League Ready. Christian Bergman was Major League Ready. Chris Heston was Major League Ready. Chase De Jong was Major League Ready. Dillon Overton was Major League Ready. Rob Whalen was Major League Ready. Where are they right now?
Like I said, it’s going to take some kind of miracle. A big part of that would involve the Mariners winning more close games than they lose. Like, A LOT more. Like, an unsustainable amount of close games! So far, they’re 16-10 in 1-run games, and 5-5 in extra innings games. That needs to improve, bigly. Especially against the teams ahead of us in the standings.
Last night wasn’t a 1-run game, but the Mariners still found a way to notch a save and come from behind. Down 4-0 after two innings, it looked bleak. Thankfully, the Mariners were able to take advantage of a whopping 4 errors and 2 balks, as the Rangers look like one of the sloppiest teams I’ve ever seen. By the time Cole Hamels finished his six innings, the game was tied, and for a while there it looked like this game was destined for extras.
Scrabble was able to get out of a Felix jam in the sixth inning. All five of Phelps’ outs were via the strikeout. And meanwhile, this side-arming lefty reliever for the Rangers, Alex Claudio, was wiggling his way off the hook for over 2 innings of work, on a remarkably low number of pitches.
Scott Servais did something interesting in the last few days with the lineup; he’s finally gotten comfortable with Ben Gamel as an everyday hitter, even against left-handed starters. So much so, in fact, that we’ve seen Gamel lead off the last few days, with Jean Segura batting second. They’re both having phenomenal offensive seasons from a batting average standpoint, so they’re really pretty interchangeable at the top of the order. But, it’s a dynamic shift where the Mariners are L-R-L-R-L-R through the first six hitters in the order. Against teams with good lefty bullpen arms, this presents a conundrum: do you swap your relievers out after each at-bat, or do you trust your lefty arm to pitch against, say, Jean Segura or Nelson Cruz?
Well, as we found out last night, with Claudio on the mound, the Rangers opted to pitch around those guys, intentionally walking Cruz twice and Segura once. That put the onus on our left-handed hitters to get the job done.
It looked like it was going to work, too! Claudio got out of a jam in the seventh when Seager hit into an inning-ending fielder’s choice with runners on the corners. He worked a very quick and efficient eighth inning to keep his pitch count low. And, he ALMOST got through the ninth by using similar tactics as he did in the seventh. Had he succeeded, the Rangers would’ve been in good shape heading into extras, while the Mariners would’ve used a couple of their best bullets in all likelihood just to get there.
The top of the ninth kicked off with a Chooch Ruiz single to right. He was lifted for a pinch runner in Jarrod Dyson, who was cut down on a fielder’s choice when Gamel hit what looked to be a rally-killing double play. However, the throw to first got past the bag and Gamel was able to reach second base with one out. Segura drew the intentional walk, and both runners were balked over thanks to Claudio’s funky pre-pitch arm waggling. Against lefty Cano, Claudio had been successful two innings prior, inducing a ground ball. He busted him inside again, but Cano was able to stay on it and lined it over the right fielder’s head. A perfect bounce to Shin Soo Choo allowed him to throw Cano out at second, but the damage was done. The Mariners had a 6-4 lead and Edwin Diaz threw fire in the bottom half to close it out in regulation.
I’ll admit, it was an encouraging end to the month of July. The Mariners went 14-12 to secure their second consecutive winning month. Now it’s time to really turn it up a notch.