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Table Setter: Díaz and Haniger need help to get Mariners in playoffs

Even with Edwin Díaz's 50 saves, the Mariners are still trying to climb back into a playoff spot. (AP)

In some ways, it was a great weekend for the Seattle Mariners.

Mariners LHP Gonzales to DL with neck strain; OF Heredia recalled

They won a road series against a division-leading team and closer Edwin Díaz both broke the team record for saves and recorded save No. 50 on the season.

But on the flip side, the three teams they’re chasing in the playoff race all won each of their games over the weekend, so the M’s only lost ground despite taking two of three in Arizona.

The Mariners, now 74-57 and 4 1/2 behind Oakland for the American League’s final playoff spot, start a quick two-game set in San Diego on Tuesday night. Here are three things to keep in mind this week.

This rotation is very worrisome.

Starting pitching was a big part of the Mariners’ impressive run through May and June. That’s when James Paxton and Wade LeBlanc were back-to-back in the rotation giving opposing teams fits, one day blazing fastballs up in the zone in the upper 90s, the next confounding hitters with junk that would make former Cleveland Indians great Eddie Harris proud. Mike Leake was going six innings nearly every time his turn on the bump came up, Marco Gonzales was finding his groove, and even Félix Hernández had a good run in there.

Well, we’re almost to September, and that group of starting pitchers has seen better days.

Gonzales, coming off four straight losses, just hit the disabled list with a cervical (neck) strain. He joins Paxton on the DL, who should be back this week but won’t be fully stretched out after two weeks down due to taking a hot shot off his forearm. Leake had been absolutely great for the last month but had to miss a start due to illness and then fell victim to a five-run inning in a loss Sunday. And while Erasmo Ramírez has looked good since returning from a lengthy DL stint, the guy he initially replaced in the rotation because of a lack of effectiveness (Félix) ended up right back in it due to necessity. Oh, and with Gonzales out now, the Mariners need to find a fifth starter … and he has to start Wednesday.

None of this is ideal when you’re trying to chase down a division rival in a playoff race in the final month of season, and it puts the onus on the offense to do the dirty work to bring home some wins. Which is only fair, considering how much the offense relied on the starting pitching at other times this year, hence why the Mariners are 17 games over .500 with a minus-42 run differential.

Mitch Haniger has been a great leadoff man, but he could use some help.

In 16 games as Seattle’s leadoff hitter, Mitch Haniger has a .377 average with a 1.123 OPS, four homers, 15 runs scored, 11 RBIs and a pretty incredible nine doubles. He sure makes a lot of sense in that spot – he gets on base, can run a little and can start a rally. It’s a lot like what the Astros have done before with slugger George Springer hitting first, and it’s going to be awfully hard for Scott Servais to bat Haniger anywhere else in the order at this point.

Oh, if only the Mariners could do anything with runners on base right now.

Despite Haniger’s output since moving to leadoff, the Mariners’ offense has continued to scuffle. The initial boost from the lineup shuffle did play a part in a big sweep in Houston earlier this month, but since those four wins, Seattle is 5-7 and falling in the standings. There have been big innings here and there, a few late-inning comebacks, but also a lot of frustrating games where the Mariners maybe score a run or two early, maybe don’t, and don’t have enough offensive firepower to climb out of the hole in the eighth and ninth.

The main problem is consistency. It just isn’t there, and it really hasn’t been all season at the plate for Seattle. The closest thing was the remarkable run in close games earlier this summer, and that was more due to the pitching staff keeping games manageable enough for the offense to come back late or in extra innings. Now that the starting pitching isn’t there, it’s imperative for the offense to deliver the lead to the bullpen, the one true strength the Mariners still have.

Just … Edwin Díaz.

There’s no question anymore. If the Mariners somehow storm back and end their 17-year playoff drought, Edwin Díaz is the team’s MVP. I mean, he will be regardless of whether they make the postseason, but it will sure mean a heck of a lot more if they play into October (and it would put him in the American league Cy Young and MVP conversations).

He became the first pitcher in Mariners history to reach 50 saves in a season and moved into sole possession of second place on the team’s career saves leaderboard on Saturday. The MLB single-season record of 62 saves is a very real possibility, too.

And he’s still just 24 years old.

The Mariners got it right with Díaz. A little over two years ago, he was just another Double-A starter who threw hard. Then the Mariners made him a reliever, within a few months he skipped Triple-A and went straight to the big leagues, and a few months after that he was Seattle’s closer. He has held that job ever since – except for a short time in the middle of the last season – and now he’s an All-Star, surely the AL’s Reliever of the Year, and the Mariners’ third homegrown star of the decade (joining Kyle Seager and James Paxton).

No matter how this season ends, the good news is that next year the Mariners will still have a young core of emerging stars in Haniger, Jean Segura, and most importantly, Edwin Díaz.