Drayer: Will this Mariners homestand be where they turned the corner?
Is this it?
It wasn’t that long ago that the never-ending roller coaster ride that has been the Mariners’ 2021 season went through a walkoff loss on a pitcher’s fielding error, which followed a two-hit shutout at the hands of Cleveland’s Aaron Civale and Blake Parker, which followed Seattle dropping a second series to the lowly Detroit Tigers.
At that point, it would be hard to fault anyone for wondering, “Is this it?”
Is this the time, with too many key players injured and too many young players not able to hold things up on their own, that we don’t see this club bounce back?
We had been there this year already numerous times before, and each time I would write in a post or go on the air and tell everyone to take a deep breath. It’s a long season. The goals go well beyond the wins and losses, and each time the team bounced back. But the penultimate night of a disastrous road trip two months into the season had a different feel. Was this really it?
As it turns out, there wasn’t even time to take that breath. A feel-good win the next day against Shane Bieber and the Indians – despite the loss of Mitch Haniger to what looked like (and in a turn of serious good fortune did not turn out to be) a serious knee injury – kicked off a week of performances against the Twins and Rays that led to me doing the unthinkable. On the 710 ESPN Seattle postgame show following the Mariners’ 6-5 walkoff win on Saturday night, out of absolutely nowhere I declared that we were witnessing the team turning the corner.
The statement was made more on feel and emotion than raw analysis. I walked it back fairly quickly as I am rarely one for hyperbole or absolutes. If you have read my stories in the past, you know I never make predictions. This is partly because in a game that is played every day for six months by 26 (or 51 and counting) humans, anything can happen – and also because I absolutely hate to be wrong. So while I was surprised that I said what I said, I still circled this homestand on the schedule as perhaps the week that we will look back on as the beginning of, well, the beginning.
Ideally, if all goes right this season, at some point the roller coaster stops and and we see more of an upward trajectory of not just key players but the team as a whole. That doesn’t mean there won’t be downs and losing streaks – this is baseball after all – but they will be fewer and the rebounds quicker. What we see from the team will be more predictable, in a good way. I think there is a good chance we started to see that this week.
A look at what we have seen of late. Since the walkoff loss in Cleveland on June 12, the Mariners have gone 7-1 with three walkoff wins of their own. After a 3-8 start to the month, the Mariners are now 10-9 in June and back over .500 for the season at 38-36.
Over the last week we have seen the offense stick with a consistent approach almost night in and night out.
I think it’s safe to say that J.P. Crawford has exceeded expectations with his offense, posting the second-best WAR and wRC+ in the month of June for an American League shortstop (sixth and fifth-best for the season).
Dylan Moore and Shed Long Jr., both back from injury, have shown promising results at the plate in smaller samples.
Ty France has been remarkably consistent when healthy, posting a .314 average and .918 OPS before suffering a wrist injury in Houston, and .323/.903 since returning from the injured list.
All of this has contributed to the the Mariners’ hitters climbing out of the cellar in May to eighth in the AL in WAR and ninth in wRC+ in June.
On the pitching side, we have seen Yusei Kikuchi come into his own, sporting the highest fastball velocity for a left-handed starter in the game and the second-best ground ball percentage in the AL.
Logan Gilbert has shown promise in his call-up and Marco Gonzales is showing signs that he can get back to, if not 2020 form, perhaps what we saw in 2019.
We are learning more about Chris Flexen, who at his worst looks like he can keep his team in games much more often than not.
The bullpen, after a brief break, is back to being a bright spot with once again plenty more trusted arms that manager Scott Servais can go to than not.
There are of course cautions and concerns, the biggest being players the Mariners need to learn more about but cannot because of injury, including Kyle Lewis, Evan White and now Justin Dunn. All important to “the plan,” with White in particular missing important developmental time.
Then there is the luck factor, as someone pointed out before the Mariners’ win Sunday. Any of the three walkoff wins against the Rays could have gone the other way, as could have their eight extra innings wins and 17 one-run wins.
While we are at it, a painful lesson in baseball is learning to believe in the significance of run differential. Chances are a team that is outperforming its run differential is not different or special. It is just waiting for a fall. On that note, however, we have seen improvement. While the Mariners’ run differential for the season is minus-46, in June it is just minus-4.
As for the one-run and extra innings wins, the bullpen plays heavily into those, and it could be argued that the relievers have been the most consistent performers on the team. That’s not luck. There is also something to be said for learning to win, and while that’s impossible to quantify outside of playing smart, clean baseball, it’s hard to say that has not been a part of what we have seen on this homestand.
Then there are the intangibles that Ryan Rowland-Smith pointed to on Sunday’s postgame show. Comments by players have mentioned trusting the work put in by their teammates and everyone pulling in the same direction. According to Rowland-Smith, this is significant and not to be taken for granted in any clubhouse. It’s not easy to get 26 men at different points of their careers all on the same page.
What does all of this add up to? We don’t know. This is why I don’t make predictions. I do know this homestand has felt different, and in a sport where just about everything can be quantified, analyzed and forecast, most often feel is the last thing I want to go to when assessing performance.
It can be different with a young team, however.
When the goal is development, April and May numbers will mean little in September. It’s about getting off the roller coaster and onto a smoother track. Is there another plunge ahead or a gentler curve? We will find out shortly.
More Mariners coverage from 710Sports.com
• Yusei Kikuchi using attitude, aggression to reveal a No. 1 mentality
• It’s rare rookies find confidence as quick as Logan Gilbert
• Dipoto: J.P. Crawford evolving into even more than M’s had hoped for
• Scott Servais on the key to Jake Fraley’s breakout
• Mariners may have a new candidate for an Austin Nola-like trade