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Mariners Table Setter: Kendall Graveman and the right way to use your best reliever

Kendall Graveman shut down the heart of the Angels' order in the Mainers' win Sunday. (Getty)

It may be a new month, but the Mariners are still more than just hanging around.

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Even with an ugly loss Saturday to the Angels, Seattle took care of business and won two of three against the talented American League West rival, and they will start a three-game series against the Baltimore Orioles on Monday night with a 16-13 record that puts them just on game behind the Oakland Athletics for first place in the division.

Let’s take a look at a few things to set the table for this week of Mariners baseball.

1. The Mariners’ use of Kendall Graveman has been great.

On Sunday, the Mariners were clinging to a two-run lead with the game on the line. The “inevitable” Mike Trout was due to lead off, followed by two-time Silver Slugger Anthony Rendon and emerging slugger Jared Walsh, who had gone 4 for 4 with two home runs the day before.

Naturally, Mariners manager Scott Servais went to his best bullpen arm in this situation, calling for Kendall Graveman to face the heart of the Angels’ order.

The thing is, this wasn’t the ninth inning. Graveman wasn’t in there to close, but he was in there to face the best the Angels would have to offer from that point in the rest of the game. Servais decided he should deploy Graveman in the eighth inning, and Graveman proved him right.

First, he sawed off Trout with a punishing 99 mph two-seamer, ensuring the three-time MVP and owner of an absurd .413/.515/.775 slash line would go hitless on the day. And though Rendon got the better of him in an entertaining nine-pitch battle with a single to center, Graveman buried the best the Angels had to offer by using a 90 mph changeup on a 2-1 count to get Walsh to hit into a double play.

That made for smooth sailing in the ninth for closer Rafael Montero, who needed just seven pitches against Los Angels’ 7-8-9 hitters to put a bow on the Mariners’ win.

Now, I know for a lot of people, closer is synonymous for a team’s best reliever. But in this day and age, it doesn’t have to be, and probably shouldn’t be.

Graveman is proving to be an incredible weapon for the Mariners, pitching at an absolute All-Star level thanks to an arsenal of high-velocity pitches that move either left, right or down. He still has a spotless ERA in 10 appearances this season, has allowed just two hits and no walks for a 0.43 WHIP, and has racked up 12 strikeouts along the way. He also has earned a win, three saves and three holds. And while those last three stats can be misleading, I do think they hammer home how valuable Graveman can be if he’s not locked into the ninth inning.

Servais has shown that he will employ Graveman against the biggest threat the Mariners face in the latter third of a game, whether that comes in the ninth inning or earlier, and it’s paying dividends. Of his 10 outings, he’s protected an M’s lead six times and kept the score where it was another time to make sure the offense had a chance to take the lead and steal a win.

If the Mariners do get themselves into contention late in the season, having somebody that can get you important outs when you really them against a great team like Graveman did on April 19 against the Dodgers is going to make a huge difference.

2. Hitters don’t always hit.

Ty France has been maybe the Mariners’ best hitter since he came to team late last season in a trade from San Diego, and he’s earned himself a reputation as they guy who “just hits” for a reason. But as his last week attests, pitchers in the big leagues are very hard to succeed against and every batter has their periods of struggle. It’s also a lesson that while France has largely been good at the plate in 52 games with the Mariners, it’s always worthwhile to be cautiously optimistic about a young player who has a fast start in a small sample.

France posted a .302/.362/.453 slash line in 23 games with Seattle in 2020, and he was even better in his first 23 games of this year, slashing .325/.412/.530 with three homers and eight doubles. But in the six games since, he’s hit just 1 for 21 (.048). I think there’s some good news in there, which is that he’s still making contact for the most part, striking out only six times, and he has also reached base on four walks and a hit by pitch. The Mariners haven’t fallen off a cliff during his slump, either, going 3-3 in the meantime.

And why’s that? Well, as much as hitters don’t always hit, hitters don’t always not hit, either. Just ask Dylan Moore, who owns just a .145 batting average but was an offensive standout in the Mariners’ series win over the Angels. He provided big hits in their victories Friday and Sunday and now has a modest three-game hitting streak going.

The Mariners’ offense still has a long ways to go and hasn’t exactly been a strength to this point in the season, though, and it’s safe to say Seattle was lucky this weekend that Moore was able to pick up the slack while France scuffled. Slumps are going to happen, and in the days where France, Mitch Haniger and Kyle Seager don’t produce, the M’s are going to need more players than Moore to keep the lineup afloat.

3. Plan your trips to the 253 or 360.

Has there ever been a more exciting reveal of the Mariners’ minor league rosters than the one that arrived late last week? I can’t imagine so.

That’s because local baseball fans got confirmation that while there will still be a wait before Jarred Kelenic, Logan Gilbert and Julio Rodríguez get to play at T-Mobile Park, it will be just a short drive to see them play in the minors beginning this week.

Kelenic, Gilbert and Cal Raleigh headline the Tacoma Rainiers’ roster, and manager Kristopher Negrón’s Triple-A squad will start play Thursday night at Cheney Stadium when the Rainiers kick off a six-game series against the El-Paso Chihuahuas.

And north of Seattle in Everett, the now full-season Single-A AquaSox get going Tuesday in Hillsboro, Ore., and will hold their home opener at Funko Field on May 11 against the Tri-City Dust Devils. I suspect tickets to AquaSox games will be as hot a commodity as they have been since Félix Hernández’s days with the team, and that’s not just because of Rodríguez.

Everett’s roster has a host of big-name prospects. The pitching staff itself is staggering, featuring four of the team’s top 10 prospects per MLB Pipeline – George Kirby, Emerson Hancock, Juan Then and Brandon Williamson – as well as 2019 second-round pick Isaiah Campbell. Then there’s third baseman Austin Shenton, a Bellingham product, and three of Seattle’s top five draft picks from last season – Zachary DeLoach, Kaden Polcovich and Tyler Keenan – that could join Rodríguez in the lineup on any given day.

It’s safe to say that whether the M’s are home or not, there will be a pro baseball game in the area worth attending most days of the week this season.

This week’s Mariners schedule

All games and shows air live on 710 ESPN Seattle.

• Monday: Mariners vs. Orioles, 7:10 p.m. (pregame show 6 p.m.)
• Tuesday: Scott Servais Show, 1 p.m. on Jake & Stacy with Shannon Drayer
• Tuesday: Mariners vs. Orioles, 7:10 p.m. (pregame show 6 p.m.)
• Wednesday: Mariners vs. Orioles, 12:40 p.m. (pregame show 11:30 a.m.)
• Thursday: Jerry Dipoto Show, 8:30 a.m. on Danny & Gallant
• Friday: Mariners at Rangers, 5:05 p.m. (pregame show 4 p.m.)
• Saturday: Mariners at Rangers, 4:05 p.m. (pregame show 3 p.m.)
• Sunday: Mariners Magazine, 9:30 a.m.
• Sunday: Mariners at Rangers, 11:35 a.m. (pregame show 10:30 a.m.)

Follow Brent Stecker on Twitter.

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