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Mariners Table Setter: 3 keys to Seattle’s success in the second half

The Mariners will need to rely upon Mitch Haniger and Kyle Seager down the stretch. (Getty)

For the first time since 2018, the Mariners will come out of the MLB All-Star break in the playoff race.

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The Mariners get back to play Friday after four days off, bringing a 48-43 record with them that has Seattle just 2 1/2 games out of a wild card spot.

Will the M’s be able to make the postseason if they keep up the pace they had over the first half of the season? That’s debatable at best. If they want to be serious about breaking the franchise’s long playoff drought before it hits an even 20 seasons in October, they’ll probably need to play even better than they did during their surprising showing over the first 91 games.

So how can they do that?

Let’s set the table for the final 71 games of Seattle’s regular season, which starts at 6:38 p.m. Friday in Anaheim against the Angels (pregame show at 6 p.m. on 710 ESPN Seattle).

1. The rotation needs to be more than a 2 1/2-man show.

Yusei Kikuchi may not have pitched in the All-Star Game, but he was present in Denver nonetheless and deserved to be there. He’s played like an All-Star and is a big reason the Mariners have turned heads this season.

Rookie Logan Gilbert, meanwhile, has been a feather in general manager Jerry Dipoto’s cap in his first MLB season. The Mariners’ 2018 first-round pick shook off a couple rough starts out of the gate, found his groove and took a 3.51 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 5.3 strikeouts to walk ratio into the break. His last start was especially impressive as he dominated the Yankees in seven scoreless, one-hit innings to keep New York from sweeping at T-Mobile Park.

And then there’s Chris Flexen, who has been absolutely dynamite at home (6-2, 1.76 ERA, .218 opponent batting average) but not as great on the road (2-1, 6.97 ERA, .352 opponent batting average), though it’s worth mentioning his numbers away from T-Mobile Park are inflated by one particularly bad outing in San Diego.

After those three pitchers, though, Seattle’s rotation has had a lot of problems. Injuries can be pointed to for a lot of the issues, as James Paxton, Nick Margevicius and Ljay Newsome were all lost for the season early on and Marco Gonzales, Justin Dunn and Justus Sheffield have all appeared on the injured list. Gonzales and Sheffield have also both struggled when healthy enough to pitch, and that’s concerning since they were Seattle’s two best starters in 2020.

Gonzales has at least provided hope that he can get back on track. Though he’s 1-5 with a 5.88 ERA and 1.46 WHIP, he gave Seattle a chance to win in three of his last four starts, the best of which was when he went 6 1/3 innings against the Rays on June 20, holding the defending American League champions to two runs on five hits and three walks. His command certainly hasn’t been what it needs to be, however, and what Gonzales does over the second half will play a big role in how Seattle finishes the season.

As for the Mariners’ fifth spot in the rotation, that’s a big question mark. Sheffield isn’t likely to come back any time soon and Dunn’s return doesn’t appear to be imminent. Whether or not the M’s are true buyers at the July 30 trade deadline, they certainly will need to get themselves another arm to eat some innings and keep the team in the hunt.

2. At least one of the kids has to contribute on offense.

The Mariners find themselves in a precarious position as a rebuilding team with a surprising record. On the one hand, their lineup could use some extra punch for the stretch run. On the other, they have top prospects who have shown they can handle themselves in Triple-A and need to be challenged in the big leagues.

Because of that, I don’t expect the M’s to go too crazy adding offensive talent in trades over the next few weeks. They’re going to see if their rookies can sink or swim, hoping they can prove they belong while also taking part in a playoff push.

Cal Raleigh is already with the team, the switch-hitting catcher having made his MLB debut last Sunday in the final game before the break. He went hitless in what was a loss to the Angels, and he’ll look to get things going Friday in a new series with the Angels on the road.

Then there’s Jarred Kelenic, the team’s No. 1 prospect according to MLB Pipeline, who Dipoto confirmed Thursday on his weekly 710 ESPN Seattle show will be called up Friday for the second time this year to be Seattle’s usual center fielder. Kelenic, who turns 22 on Friday, had a rough first stint with the Mariners, and that can’t be the case this time around if the M’s are going to play him regularly and stay on the heels of the Athletics in the wild card race.

3. The Mariners need production out of their veteran leaders.

A strength of Seattle’s team is a trio of veterans who have provided valuable leadership for a roster full of inexperienced players. But for as much as Gonzales, Mitch Haniger and Kyle Seager have done in the dugout and clubhouse, what they do on the field down the stretch will be just as important.

We went over Gonzales already, and he may be the biggest piece to the puzzle considering how much help the Mariners’ starting rotation needs. As for Haniger and Seager, they have each had their ups and downs but are crucial due to their spots in the heart of Seattle’s order.

Seager, 33, has a .691 OPS coming out of the break, which would tie for his second lowest in 11 years with Seattle if the season were to end today. His 16 home runs and 16 doubles are nice while his .213 average and .280 on-base percentage aren’t, but knowing his reputation as a streaky hitter, I would suspect he’ll get on a good run pretty soon.

The 30-year-old Haniger, meanwhile, has also been streaky but really needs to just keep up what’s he done thus far. That’s easier said than done for a player who missed half of 2019 and all of 2020 due to injury and has played more than 96 games in an MLB season just once. He takes a .257/.311/.487 slash line (.798 OPS) with 16 doubles and a team-high 20 home runs into the second half of the season, which was enough to at least garner him some All-Star consideration.

At the beginning of the season, I wrote about how the Mariners’ roster was full of potential X-factors. That remains the case now, even if some of the names have changed. There were a lot of things that didn’t go to plan over Seattle’s first 91 games, but they’ve weathered the storm and have had a lot of good stories to come out of it – J.P. Crawford, Paul Sewald, Jake Fraley and Kikuchi specifically come to mind. But for the Mariners to make it through 2 1/2 more months of successful baseball, there are no bigger X-factors than their veterans who have played at All-Star levels before.

Follow Brent Stecker on Twitter.

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