The Mariners Probably Should’ve Been Swept By The Astros

There’s an obvious narrative going around that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. It goes as follows: the Mariners were one of the hottest teams in the league – having won four in a row over their immediate divisional rivals ahead of them in the standings – then they traded their apparent Heart & Soul of the team, Kendall Graveman, and all of a sudden are now in the tank, having lost two straight. It’s further punctuated by the fact that their last victory was an amazing come-from-behind affair where the M’s were down 7-0 before coming all the way back in dramatic fashion to win 11-8 (where, again, Graveman got the win and played a role in getting us to the point where we took the lead).

But, you know what I see when I look at this series against the Astros? I see three games the Mariners should’ve lost, and we were lucky to get the win we got.

Coming back from a 7-run deficit is as flukey as it gets. That was followed immediately by a game where we gave up a 3-spot in the top of the first and eventually found ourselves down 8-2 before coming back to lose 8-6. And then, of course, the finale saw us lose 11-4 in a game we were never even competitive in.

I mean, you can argue the wind was taken out of the team’s sails by the disappointment of seeing Graveman go to the opposing team’s clubhouse, but I think that notion is thwarted because on the very same day as the trade, you still saw this team scratch and claw to get 4 runs in the final 4 innings to make it interesting.

No, what this series featured was a clinic in disappointing Mariners starting pitching.

Monday was a disaster from the jump, as Darren McCaughan was making his Major League starting debut (recall he had pitched in the week prior, coming in after Keynan Middleton shit the bed as the Opener). McCaughan followed up his five no-hit innings by giving up 6 runs in the first in this one, ultimately managing to last 4 innings, giving up 7 runs, before being almost immediately sent back down to the minors. In case you were wondering why the Mariners traded for mediocre starter Tyler Anderson, this is why. This and all the previous Bullpen Days, where the Mariners amassed a whopping 1-8 record.

The Mariners started mounting their comeback in the bottom of the fourth, immediately after the Astros scored their 7th run, with a Cal Raleigh 3-run double. The Astros got one back in the top of the fifth to make it 8-3, but Kyle Seager hit a 3-run homer in the bottom half to cut it to 8-6. Then, Shed Long hit an RBI single in the bottom of the sixth to make it a 1-run game, and you know what the Mariners do in 1-run games!

Well, usually it’s “win them”, but this time they turned it into a 3-run victory thanks to a grand slam by Dylan Moore in the bottom of the 8th inning.

To set the stage, Middleton pitched in this one as well, giving up that 8th Astros run. But, the bullpen was nails from there. Erik Swanson pitched two scoreless innings. Kendall Graveman came in for the 8th – Mariners down a run – and kept the score where it was. He doesn’t often come in when the M’s are trailing, but there was blood in the water and Scott Servais was pulling out all the stops.

Anyway, France singled to lead off the bottom of the 8th, but then two quick outs followed. Things looked grim. Jarred Kelenic – who really hasn’t been a whole lot better since being called back up – managed to work a walk. Tom Murphy – the third catcher used in this one – pinch hit for Shed Long and also walked, to load the bases. That brought up Moore, who jacked a high fastball (“fastball” in quotes, because this guy didn’t have much velo) to the upper deck in left field, knowing he had it all the way.

Fireworks continued from there, as the Astros reliever pretty clearly went headhunting for the very next batter, in this case J.P. Crawford. The pitcher would be ejected, after some choice curse words and yelling from Servais. Crawford would immediately be picked off at first, before the next reliever – now a Mariner, Joe Smith – even threw a pitch.

Paul Sewald – presumably our closer going forward – got the final three outs of the game to send everyone home happy.

That, my friends, was the environment everyone was walking into the next day, when the Graveman trade was announced. And, like clockwork, Chris Flexen showed up with a rare clunker: 4 innings, 7 runs. Nope, this wasn’t a rerun of the night before, he was literally as bad as a guy who got demoted to AAA the very same day. Hector Santiago returned from his suspension to throw 2 innings of 1-run ball, and the rest of the bullpen was scoreless from there (including Joe Smith throwing a clean inning), but 8 runs is clearly too much. You can’t expect an 11-run outburst every fucking day.

Nevertheless, Seager had a 2-run homer in the first, Kelenic had a 2-run single in the sixth, and newcomer Abraham Toro hit a 2-run homer in the ninth. You’d love to be undefeated in games where you score 6 runs, but unfortunately that’s baseball for you.

Yusei Kikuchi wasn’t QUITE as bad yesterday, but he only went 5 innings, giving up 4 runs (3 earned). On top of that, the bullpen was atrocious, as it will be from time to time, giving up 7 runs the rest of the way.

There was another Seager homer, another Toro homer, and a Kelenic bases loaded walk to give us our 4 runs. But, obviously, not enough.

Some bright spots include Seager being hot, and Toro hitting his fourth homer in four games (two with the Astros, two with the Mariners). Toro being good and shoring up the second base spot would be a great fix for the team’s chemistry woes at the moment. Him eventually taking over the starting third base job in 2022 and beyond would make this Graveman trade one of the all-time greats. So, you know, maybe stop pissing all over yourselves to dump on it.

Today’s an off-day before tomorrow’s trade deadline, so I expect to see lots of moves happening soon. Some of the rumors are CRAZY, so it’ll be really interesting to see how far Mariners management goes in trying to Win Now.

Is This Happening? Mariners Took 3 of 4 From Athletics

Last week, when I talked about the Mariners being in contention if they go 5-2 against the Athletics and Astros, I know there’s a number of ways to get to 5-2, but what I specifically had in mind was a 3-1 series win against the A’s and a 2-1 series win against the Astros. Just keep winning series, regardless of whether the teams are great or terrible.

Well, it’s four days later and here we are with a 3-1 series win against the A’s. It could all come crumbling down against a hot Astros team, but for now I’m encouraged.

What this series showed me is that the Mariners are just as good as the Athletics. That’s not insignificant, because Fangraphs still gives the A’s a 41.3% chance of making the playoffs, while the Mariners sit at an abysmal 4.9% (below even the Angels, who are somehow at 9.1%). This is in spite of the fact that the Mariners currently sit 1.5 games behind the A’s (and 4 games ahead of the Angels).

Of course, “as good as” isn’t the same as better. Even though the Mariners won the series – and lead the season series 6 games to 4 – I wouldn’t go out on a limb and say we’re better than the A’s just yet. The Mariners have their issues, and still seem like they’re inordinately lucky, but I refuse to say it’s ALL luck. The Mariners have talent, and they’re extremely strong in a number of key areas (bullpen being the top of the list), and I don’t see that going away anytime soon.

This series got off to a rough start last Thursday, though, as Sean Manaea eats the Mariners for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. 7 innings, 1 run (solo homer by Tom Murphy in the 7th), 13 strikeouts. Just outstanding. Over his two appearances against the M’s this year, he’s thrown 16 innings, given up 1 run on 7 hits and 5 walks, while striking out 21. If I never see him mash the living daylights out of the Mariners again, it’ll be too soon.

Chris Flexen was game for a bit, but ultimately gave up 2 runs in 5.1 innings of work. The bullpen did their best, but Rafael Montero once again sucked any joy out of this one, giving up 2 runs in 1 inning of work. That – FINALLY – earned him his walking papers; get a load of this run over his last 8 appearances: 11 innings, 17 runs, 25 hits, 4 walks, 11 strikeouts. That’s an epically atrocious stretch, but that was already on top of a vastly mediocre season. I mean, it’s never a good sign when a team trades for you to be its closer and you blow three saves in the first two weeks of the season. He’s been dubbed the unluckiest pitcher in baseball, but at some point you have to create your own luck, don’t you? By not being totally and completely inept? I have no doubt whatsoever that Rafael Montero will be picked up by another team and immediately reverse his fortunes. If not the rest of this year, then definitely in 2022 (and possibly beyond). At which point, I will be annoyed, but not surprised.

With that unpleasantness behind us, the Mariners started kicking asses and taking names.

Friday night saw the return of Yusei Kikuchi and his Quality Starts: 6 innings, 3 runs, 12 strikeouts. It was a shame he had to leave with a no decision, because he was dealing in this one. But, at the same time, it was frustrating to see him blow a 3-0 lead.

Cal Raleigh hit his first career Major League home run, 444 feet to right center, to put us up 2-0. Luis Torrens immediately followed with a solo homer (all in the 2nd inning), to keep his string of hotness going. With this Mariners team, giving us a tie game heading into the 7th is everything you could ask for. Both starters were out of the game by that point, and I’ll put our bullpen up against anyone’s. Indeed, the combo of Erik Swanson, Paul Sewald, and Kendall Graveman shut it down from there. While, the A’s gagged this away in hilarious fashion.

With two outs in the bottom of the 7th, Dylan Moore reached on an infield single. He stole second base pretty easily (against a left-handed pitcher, no less), before advancing all the way home on two separate wild pitches. That was it! 4-3 Mariners win!

Saturday’s game showed you how much the Mariners wanted this one. The whole weekend really had a playoff vibe, from the way the teams played, to the way the managers managed, to how into it the fans were in the stands. I had high hopes for Logan Gilbert – making his third start against the A’s in his young career – but he struggled wildly, unable to get out of the third inning after throwing 40-something pitches in that frame alone. Yet, when it was said and done, after three full innings, the Mariners were only down 3-2.

Mitch Haniger was a man possessed in this one, as he hit two home runs and was a few feet away from hitting a third (settling for a double off the wall). Indeed, he scored three of our first four runs and staked us to a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the fifth.

That looked like it might’ve been enough, but Drew Steckenrider gave up a hard-luck solo homer around the right field foul pole to a backup catcher going the other way in the 7th inning to tie it back up. That’s one of those bad omens you’d see countless times by the Mariners that would totally derail everything. Indeed, my instincts as a Mariners fan kicked in and I was convinced we’d lose it late.

But, the bullpen kept the game tied into the bottom of the 9th, where Luis Torrens led off with a single against the Athletics’ closer. Kelenic walked to move the pinch runner to second. Then, after a Shed Long strikeout, Jake Bauers walked to load the bases. After a J.P. Crawford fielder’s choice – with the infield drawn in – got the runner out at home, that set up Haniger to be the hero once again.

Except: surprise! The hero was, I shit you not, another wild pitch! Kelenic was able to easily scamper home and give us the walk-off 5-4 victory. Two games in a row where the winning run was scored late on a wild pitch; what are the odds?!

I was busy on Sunday and missed the finale; it sounds like I missed a great one! Marco Gonzales was on the hill – better the A’s than having him face the Astros, I’ll tell you that much – and he was okay. 5.2 innings, 2 runs. You’re really not asking him for much more than that, given the season he’s had so far.

Thankfully, the hitters didn’t hang him out to dry, putting up 4 runs in the bottom of the third to take a 4-2 lead to the bullpens. Seager, Torrens, and Murphy were the offensive heroes in this one, giving the Mariners just enough. Casey Sadler returned from the IL over the weekend – he was the guy taking Montero’s spot on the roster – and was dominant on Saturday, before getting touched up for a solo homer on Sunday. That was it, though, as the bullpen once again was phenomenal.

Tough break on this Astros series though, needing Darren McCaughan to make the spot start later today. It’s kind of difficult to see us winning this one, which would require us to win the next two games in a row to win the series. Not impossible, of course, but you always hate to lose that first game of a series. It doesn’t always turn out so amazingly – like it did against the A’s.

Then, after an off-day on Thursday, the Mariners embark on a massive 10-game road trip to Texas, Tampa, and New York. I know the Rangers are awful – and we get to see them a lot in the next month – but the Rays and Yankees are elite, and should pose significant tests. Are the Mariners REALLY a playoff team? Well, how we fare against the Astros, Rays, and Yankees will go a long way in determining if we are or not.

The Mariners Split Again With The Rockies

Two-game series in baseball are inherently unsatisfying. Splitting a two-game series, therefore, is unsatisfying to the tenth power (don’t ask me how the math works, I’m just the CEO here). The first game was outstanding! The second game left a bitter and confusing taste in my mouth. Without further ado.

Marco Gonzales has been a collosal disappointment in 2021, and until I hear definitively otherwise, I’m going to believe it’s because he’s secretly injured and trying to power through with mediocre stuff. Like, I’m going to need to see MRI reports, bone scans, blood test results, the works. He’s injured, is my firm belief and I’m sticking to it. See, his stuff is relatively close to what it’s been, but he’s clearly lost a bit off of his fastball. But, what’s really concerning is his command. Too many pitches are catching the heart of the plate, and as a result are either getting mashed or just missed getting mashed. I think it’s more the lack of command that his alleged injury is affecting. He’s trying to gut through the pain, which means he’s losing focus on where the pitches should be going. That’s my theory! Prove me wrong.

Anyway, Gonzo used smoke and mirrors to get through 5 innings, giving up 2 runs. His pitch count was in the 80’s, so under normal (healthy) circumstances, there would’ve been no question that the erstwhile Mariners ace would’ve gone out for one more frame. But, he was already starting to get hit around pretty good in his last couple innings, so it was beyond appropriate to pull him.

It also didn’t hurt that the M’s put up a 4-spot in the top of the sixth to give Marco a 4-2 lead. Cal Raleigh had his coming out party in this one, recording his first Major League hit (a bloop single to center), his first Major League RBI (a 2-run double in the aforementioned sixth inning), while walking once and scoring a run. Dylan Moore capped the scoring in the sixth with a 2-run homer. And Ty France hit a 2-run double in the seventh to add to the fun.

The only black spot on the bullpen’s ledger was a 2-run home run by C.J. Cron off of Paul Sewald in the eighth. Otherwise, Kendall Graveman had little trouble getting his 9th save of the season.

The game on Wednesday was yet another bullpen start that the Mariners lost. What is our record in Bullpen Day games? One of these days I’m going to go through the schedule and try to find out.

Literally everything was stupid and annoying about this one, starting with Keynan Middleton getting the “start”, going 1 inning, and giving up 5 runs on 5 hits and a walk. It’s especially galling because we’d called up Darren McCaughan from Tacoma to fill the bulk of the game’s innings. I hate the Opener in baseball. I think it’s fucking stupid and backfires more often than it is supposed to help. The idea seems based in logic – you get a hard-throwing “good” reliever in there to take out the first 3-4 batters (usually a team’s best hitters), then you give a mediocre starter a soft landing by having to face those batters fewer times over the course of his outing – but it rarely seems to work out as intended. Maybe because a reliever in a starting role gets in his head about it, maybe because the opposing team is more geared up to face the super hard stuff early in games. I don’t know! What I do know is that in this game, Middleton faced all 9 of Colorado’s batters. Meaning that when McCaughan entered the game, he had to start with the top of the lineup regardless.

What’s worst of all is that McCaughan was great! He threw five no-hit innings, giving up 1 run on 3 walks (technically, it was 2 walks and two sacrifices in the fourth inning, but he did give up 3 walks in total) and 0 strikeouts. No one is saying McCaughan is an immediate solution to our starting rotation woes, but as a spot starter, you could do worse. Indeed, the Mariners have done worse this year. A lot worse. In this very game no less!

Seager, Torrens, and Haniger all hit solo homers in this one, as we lost by a respectable 6-3 margin. Oddly enough, you could argue all three of these guys are on the trading block as we head into the July 31st trade deadline. I’m sure we’ll have more to say on the matter next week, but just keep an eye out for those guys.

All right, here we go! Are you ready for this? Four home games against the Athletics, followed by three home games against the Astros. The two teams ahead of us in the American League West standings, and the team (A’s) directly ahead of us in the Wild Card standings. It’s crazy that these games hit just as we’re sliding into the trade deadline, because these next seven games could really make or break our season. If we go 5-2 or better, I think you have to admit the Mariners are officially in contention for a playoff spot. If we go 3-4 or worse, I think it’s probably safe to say the Mariners are who we thought they were.

Not for nothing, but if the Mariners go 4-3, the season automatically shuts down and the World Series is canceled. I don’t make the rules! I’m just your humble servant reporting the news.

In prior years, this is always when the Mariners have face-planted. But, 2021 feels different somehow. I dunno, it could be an interesting next seven days.

The Mariners Open Up The Second Half With A Series Win Over The Angels

I was heartened to see the Mariners did the sensible thing and went with their three best starting pitchers to open up the second half stretch run. With the All Star Break giving the team a few days off, they easily could’ve rejiggered the rotation however they wanted, including making last Friday a de facto Opening Day 2.0 (or Opening Day 3.0 if you count when the state started allowing full capacity seating again) and brought out Marco Gonzales as the ostensible “ace” of the staff. Instead, he’s been bumped to the 4-hole in the rotation, missing the Angels entirely as he gets his turn in Colorado.

Scott Servais gets overlooked quite a bit when we talk about the success of the Seattle Mariners, both this season and over his tenure with the team. He also gets an inordinate amount of blame when shit goes wrong, particularly whenever the bullpen melts down late in various demoralizing losses. In essence, how the bullpen does seems to be the only indicator as to whether or not a manager is good … at least, if you read which way the tea leaves are blowing on Twitter.

Managers are more than bullpen decisions. Granted, they make those choices too; they have to use their best judgment to determine whether or not a guy “has it” on a particular night. But, a lot of even THOSE decisions are made for them by the stats department. Guys have certain strengths and weaknesses and if you’re in a position to win a ballgame, you put the pitchers in there who figure to fare best based on the myriad numbers that have been crunched.

It’s not Servais’ fault if a guy has an off-night though. It’s not his fault if his bullpen is terrible, just as it’s not his good grace if a bullpen is amazing. I would argue, compared to the managers we’ve seen over the last 10-15 years, Servais has shown the best judgment in not sticking with bad relievers for too long. Even when you glom onto the latest thorn in our side, Rafael Montero, you can see he lost his closer’s job almost immediately this year. He’s pretty much been converted to a long relief role in blowouts at this point, to see if the team can salvage some value or production out of him. His stuff still has potential, and he must be willing to work with the coaches in improving his game, otherwise if he was difficult I think he’d already be gone.

But, if you take a step back from obsessing over one guy, and look at the team globally, what Servais and his staff have been able to do with this group of guys is pretty remarkable. The Mariners are 50-44. They have no right to be this good, with a group of players this mediocre, and with a run differential of -51. You can write this off as a fluke, but this also isn’t the first time a Scott Servais-managed team has had a winning record with a negative run differential. This isn’t the first time he’s maximized the talent of his team and squeezed out as many wins as possible. He seems to be adept at getting a lot out of a little, which leaves me excited to see what he could do with a team loaded with talent.

That gets me back to his decision to go Flexen/Kikuchi/Gilbert over the weekend. He’s loyal to his guys, to a point, but he’s not going to force an issue just to make guys happy. He’s going to lead, by making the hard choices and potentially pissing off a guy like Marco Gonzales. Too many former Mariners managers would’ve stubbornly stuck with Marco, saying, “He’s my guy” and getting rightly roasted as a result. But, where are the accolades when Servais makes the smart decisions like this? Well, they come from me, on a blog hardly anyone reads.

I like Servais. I hope he stays here a good, long time. I hope he gets to see this rebuild to fruition. I hope we get to see what he’s capable of when the Mariners are ready to start winning 100 games per season.

***

As I mentioned, Chris Flexen got the start on Friday. He kept the good times rolling by going 7 innings, giving up 1 run. Thankfully, the M’s were able to rack up a 6-1 lead by the time he left the game, because the defense and bullpen just didn’t have it in this one. We nevertheless were able to hang on for a 6-5 victory, but it was a nailbiter at the end.

Kendall Graveman has been a concern for us of late, since he returned from the COVID-IL with a case of being an anti-vax idiot (allegedly). I wouldn’t put a lot of the blame on him in this one, since all three of his runs were unearned (thanks to two errors), but he’s also shown to be much more hittable of late. Even though, spread out over the entire season, Graveman has been our best reliever, it was heartening to see Servais pull him with one out remaining in the bottom of the ninth, to go with the hot hand of Paul Sewald, who was able to shut the door.

Jarred Kelenic got called back up to the Mariners in this one. How far we’ve fallen that he’s not the biggest story on this blog at the moment. But, he broke his 0-for-Forever streak with a hit on Friday, so good for him. He also found himself batting 7th in the lineup, which is probably where he should’ve been all along, so go ahead and count that as a knock on Servais (I would say, in general, his lineup construction has been fine, though there are baffling moments sprinkled in, as there are with all managers).

The offensive heroes on Friday were the guys we’ve come to expect to lead the way: Haniger, France, and Seager. They combined to go 7 for 12 with 5 RBI, 5 runs scored, including homers by Seager and Haniger, and a double by Haniger to boot. Dylan Moore also had a couple hits to chip in.

Saturday was worrying, because it was the second sub-par outing in a row for Yusei Kikuchi. Ever since he made the All Star squad, he’s fallen apart. It was easy to explain-away the game against the Yankees (who tend to mash lefties), but giving up 7 runs in 5 innings to the Angels makes this the start of a trend. A trend, quite frankly, I don’t like! Let’s hope he turns it back around sooner rather than later.

The other two runs were given up by, you guessed it, Rafael Montero in his one inning of work. Again, what can you do with this guy besides release him at this point? I feel like he has until Hector Santiago’s suspension is up, then he’s most likely gone. He’s pitched in 39 games this season. He’s performed well on occasion, but he’s given up at least one run in 19 of those games. That’s an INSANELY high percentage of games where he’s failed (I would argue it’s a failure whenever a reliever gives up even one run; blanket statement, and probably unfair, I know). 11 of those games he’s given up 2 or more runs, which is astronomically bad. And he’s not trending in the good direction; he’s given up 2-3 runs in 6 of his last 7 appearances (since he had those remarkable back-to-back 10th inning shutdown performances against the Rays). Rafael Montero, we hardly knew ye.

The Mariners lost 9-4 on Saturday, though, so it’s hard to be too mad at Montero. Maybe he slips through the cracks; we’ll see. There are certainly enough blowout opportunities to sneak him to the finish line with this team.

Haniger had a homer and 4 RBI in this one. Kelenic had his second hit since being called back up. Dylan Moore had two more hits. As did Ty France. J.P. Crawford had three hits!

The rubber match was thrilling for a number of reasons. Logan Gilbert pitched into the sixth inning again (5.2 innings, 2 runs on 4 hits & 2 walks, with 9 strikeouts), and the bullpen did its job until the very end. Things got a little hairy in the ninth, after an Ohtani homer off of Sewald, but the M’s were up by a lot and things weren’t really in doubt. A 7-4 win and yet another series for the good guys.

Kelenic has a 3-game hit streak, everyone! France is red hot (had 3 hits – including a homer – with 2 runs and 3 RBI), Luis Torrens had another dinger. And Mitch Haniger scored 3 runs to be highly involved.

The Mariners keep plugging away. This is really a fun team! I can’t say I’m loving EVERY minute of the experience, but the good days outnumber the bad ones, and I think that’s all you can really ask from this team.