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Table Setter: How did the Mariners get here? Pitching, Moore and some help

Marco Gonzales leads MLB starters in strikeouts to walk ration -- by a lot. (Getty)

Welcome back to meaningful September baseball, Mariners fans.

Groz: Can impossible happen for M’s in this improbable year?

That’s right – the young, exciting but rebuilding Seattle Mariners fooled around and fell into the playoff race. Even though they’re still three games under .500 at 19-22, they’re only two games back of the Houston Astros (21-20) for the second of two playoff spots allotted to the American League West in this year’s revamped 16-team MLB playoffs. Oh, and the second of two wild card spots in the AL? Yeah, Seattle is only two back of the Yankees (also 21-20) there, too.

To be fair, it hasn’t been that long since the Mariners have played games with meaning in September. After all, just before the rebuild began in the 2018-19 offseason, they finished 89-73. And don’t forget the 2016 and 2014 teams that came pretty close to the postseason, either. The big difference is those teams were led by veterans and expected to be in the race, while this one – well, this one is a very different story. Plus, despite the three Mariners teams contending in recent years, the longest playoff drought in North American major league sports is on the verge of officially turning 19 years old.

So you may ask yourself, how did the Mariners get here? And is this really their beautiful house? Let’s set some things straight (consider this column less a table setter and more a straight-setter).

So it turns out this rotation can pitch.

I’ll just leave this here.

Yeah, those are some pretty incredible numbers. In a normal 162-game season, a single turn through the rotation plus an extra game doesn’t amount to much. This year it’s legitimately 10% of the schedule, and it’s obviously a great sign for Seattle because it means each of their starters are coming off a great outing.

At the top of the list is Marco Gonzales, who has truly looked like an ace in his last two starts. First was a complete game in Anaheim to close out the Mariners’ last road trip (a game in which he owned Mike Trout, by the way), and he came back with a stellar seven-inning outing Monday, allowing two runs while striking out seven and walking none.

Gonzales really looks like a pitcher who not only knows his game inside and out but is at the top of his ability to execute it on the mound. How else can you explain his 11.5 strikeouts to walk ratio, which is not only an impressively high number but one that leads the entire majors by nearly four strikeouts? He also has a 3.02 ERA and 0.87 WHIP – complete and utter All-Star-caliber stuff.

While Gonzales is at the top of his game, it’s not too big of surprise that the crafty lefty can have a stretch like this. The real big news is what the unproven members of Seattle’s rotation, which would be everybody else, have done of late. Justin Dunn has thrown a quality start in four of his last five outings, two of which were scoreless six-inning appearances. Justus Sheffield has also had a quality start in four of his last five outings, including his last, which saw him go a career-high seven innings. And Yusei Kikuchi had a really promising showing last Friday in a win over Texas that saw him limit the Rangers to two hits and no walks.

Those four players are a huge part of the future of Seattle’s starting rotation, and they all have either put it together (in the case of Gonzales) or are showing clear signs of what it will be like when they do. That’s as big of a factor why they’re in the playoff race now as anything.

Dylan Moore: The super utility player of the Mariners’ dreams

It’s been no secret since Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais arrived in Seattle that the Mariners have wanted to get somebody to fill a Ben Zobrist-like role on their team, possessing a bat that warrants inclusion in the everyday lineup and a glove flexible enough to play a myriad of positions in the field. The search has gone on for a long time, but maybe – just maybe – Dylan Moore is the man for the job.

Moore was enjoying a great season before he had to go on the injured list, but he rejoined the active roster late last week and not only picked up where he left off but has probably been even better. In 21 games prior to his right wrist sprain, he slashed .282/.364/.538 (.902 OPS) with five home runs, five doubles, 10 RBIs and six stolen bases. In three starts and an additional appearance since returning, he’s 5 for 14 with a homer, two doubles, four RBIs, a walk and two more steals. Though he’s played in just 25 of Seattle’s 41 games (and started only 23), he leads the team in OPS (.934), slugging (.565) and steals (eight), ranks third in homers (six) and is tied for second in doubles (seven).

Like Austin Nola, Moore was a diamond in the rough unearthed by the Mariners, coming to the franchise before the 2019 season as a minor league free agent. He did well after making his MLB debut with the team in 2019, but now at 28 years old he’s showing something nobody could have expected.

This isn’t just a Taylor Motter-esque short hot streak. Moore more or less made it through an entire season as a utility man for Seattle last year, and now he’s not just surviving but actually thriving at the plate. And considering he is plenty proficient at most spots in the field, having played every position except catcher since last season, there is real excitement about what Moore could mean for the team’s future – whether that’s as someone whose bat can stay in the lineup every day while playing all over the field, or as a viable trade chip in the offseason. I think the former is more likely that the latter, for the record – at least until he gets another season to prove this is more than a fluke.

Reality check

Alright, if we’re really going to talk about how the Mariners got here, it’s unfortunately going to require a reality check.

First, the silver linings. The starters are pitching great! The Mariners are playing excellent defense! They run the bases really, really well! And the lineup looks pretty formidable these days!

But we gotta talk about the strength of schedule, because it doesn’t paint the prettiest of pictures.

The Mariners have 19 wins on the season, and on Monday they wrapped up a four-game sweep of the Texas Rangers. They’ve dominated Texas this year, a team that has scuffled to a 13-27 record. As a result, Seattle is 8-2 against the Rangers, accounting for over 42 percent of their wins. Seattle has another five wins (in 10 games) coming against the Angels, who are 17-25. That leaves just six wins coming against the rest of the competition. It is what it is, and it’s most certainly not the best sign about their chances going forward.

Seattle is chasing Houston in the division, and the Astros have won all but one of their seven contests against each other this year. A final three-game set between the two teams still looms, too. The AL West-leading A’s, meanwhile, have won three of four against the Mariners, and there are six games to go in that season series. And while the M’s took two of three in San Diego, the Padres are still very good and will be in Seattle for a second three-game set in a little over a week.

Have fun while The Groz’s Dare to Dream Express is on the tracks. If you want a silver lining, the 1995 team will have some serious company for the best final month of a Mariners season if this one leads into the playoffs.

Follow 710Sports.com’s Brent Stecker on Twitter.

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