BRENT STECKER

Mariners Table Setter: How does Seattle get back on track? Breaking down lineup, bullpen and rotation

Aug 9, 2021, 2:17 PM | Updated: 3:51 pm
Mariners Abraham Toro JP Crawford...
The Mariners scored at least five runs in a game only twice on their 10-game road trip. (Getty)
(Getty)

The Mariners return home to T-Mobile Park on Tuesday after a 4-6 road trip that felt a lot worse at times then it ultimately ended up being.

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Seattle certainly could have done better in the 10 games, especially against a lowly Texas team that has gone 1-6 since it took two of three from the Mariners. And when you win a series – well, actually another series – against the team with the best record in the American League like the Mariners did in Tampa Bay, you’d think the trip would finish on a more positive note. That was not the case, of course, as Seattle’s luck in close games didn’t follow them to New York, where the Yankees took three of four in a series where every game was decided by two runs or less.

The Mariners did themselves no favors during the Yankees series, as New York is one of the teams they are chasing in the race for the AL’s second wild card spot. Another one of those teams, the Oakland Athletics, were busy at the same time sweeping Texas, so Seattle enters Monday 5 1/2 games back of the A’s in the standings and three behind the Yankees.

There’s some good news, though. First, the Mariners’ 2-0 win Sunday on their way out of the Bronx was important, because there’s a big difference between ending a 3-7 road trip with the final loss in a four-game sweep and ending a 4-6 road trip with a shutout win. And second, that win allows Seattle the chance to take momentum into a six-game homestand that could easily get them back in the mix. That starts with three games with the Rangers, who the M’s would love to redeem themselves against, and will continue with a huge weekend series against the Blue Jays, who are currently 2 1/2 games ahead of Seattle in the wild card race.

So where do things stand for the Mariners on the field now? Let’s look at what the team’s starting rotation, lineup and bullpen need to do on this homestand.

The starting rotation: Just keep it up

The Mariners’ biggest need going into the trade deadline was a starter to fill the fifth spot in the rotation. Well, mission accomplished.

The addition of veteran left-hander Tyler Anderson has seemed to truly stabilize Seattle’s starting pitching. Not only did he go at least five innings without allowing more than three runs in each of his first two starts, but on the entire road trip, the Mariners’ starter in each game made it at least through five and never allowed more than four earned runs. Even better, the only time a M’s starter over those 10 games allowed more than three earned runs was when Logan Gilbert gave up four in the opener in Texas (which was a Seattle win because go figure).

The biggest development is what Marco Gonzales did in his two turns on the road, holding the Rangers to one run over six innings on Aug. 1 and going 6 2/3 innings of scoreless, three-hit ball Friday against the Yankees. Those two outings lowered his season ERA to 4.73, but they also underline the big problem the Mariners bring back home with them. That’s because they lost both of those games.

The lineup: Start scoring runs again

Here’s the big puzzler about the last 10 games.

Abraham Toro has been excellent, reaching base in all 12 contests since coming to Seattle in the much-talked-about trade with the Houston Astros on July 27. Jarred Kelenic has started hitting, going 10 for 38 on the trip for a .263/.333/.553 slash line (.886 OPS) with three homers, two doubles and seven RBIs. Kyle Seager slugged three homers and a double, drove in 10 runs and walked five times over the last three series.

And even with all that, the team’s ability to string together hits and put up a crooked number seemed to disappear save for one game each at Texas and Tampa. The timing was head scratching considering how much more complete the lineup looks with Toro’s addition and Jake Fraley’s recent return from the injured list, something that manager Scott Servais said had jumped out to him during his weekly interview on 710 ESPN Seattle last Tuesday.

“As I wrote up the lineup card for yesterday’s game, I thought, ‘Wow, this is the deepest lineup we’ve had at any point this season,'” Servais said, referring to his batting order for Aug. 2 against the Rays. “… I really look for our offense to take a big step forward here over the final 50, 60 games of the season.”

Unfortunately for the Mariners, that step forward didn’t come last week. It’s pretty easy to see why – their hitting with runners in scoring position (RISP) tanked. Seattle ranks fifth in MLB with both a .264 average and .808 OPS with RISP this season. Over the last six games of the road trip, they hit 9 for 46 (.196) in those situations, and never had more than two hits with RISP in any of those contests. They even won a game despite going 0 for 7 with RISP on Aug. 3, beating Tampa Bay 4-2 thanks mainly to homers by Toro and Kelenic.

For me, that factors into the most telling stat from the trip. In games where the Mariners scored at least five runs, they went 2-0. The rest, they were 2-6. That suggests what the magic number of runs the offense needs to provide Seattle’s pitching staff is, and if you’re only going to reach it once every five games, that’s a recipe for trouble.

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The bullpen: Dance with who brought you

For anyone who’s been on social media the last two weeks, it’s obvious that the hot topic with the Mariners has been the bullpen’s stumbles since trading closer Kendall Graveman to Houston in the deal that brought Toro to Seattle. I don’t want to get into whether or not that deal was a good idea – there are arguments for both sides and a worthwhile discussion about team chemistry that has been covered plenty by now. Instead, let’s focus on what shape the bullpen should take now that Graveman’s out of the equation.

Diego Castillo was brought in to take over Graveman’s role, but despite his closer experience and history of pitching in big games, it’s hasn’t been a great start to his M’s career. He blew his first save chance in Texas and coughed up another lead in New York, and the fact that his velocity has been down is certainly worrisome. I understand the Mariners acquired him to do one thing, but I don’t think they’re painted into a corner and need to rely on Castillo to be “the guy” in big spots.

That’s because they still have Paul Sewald, who has been one of the best relievers in all of baseball, and Drew Steckenrider, who I think does just fine when he needs to get the final three outs of a game. They can take care of business, as displayed when they slammed the door on the Yankees in Sunday’s combined shutout. Let them handle the key moments for now and use Castillo in lower-stakes situations to get a better idea of where he’s at.

The bullpen had a rough road trip, but there’s still a good mix of relievers there. Veteran sidearmer Joe Smith, the other player Seattle got from Houston in the Graveman trade, has allowed just one hit and no walks in five scoreless appearances since joining the team. He essentially replaces JT Chargois, who went to Tampa Bay in the trade for Castillo. Erik Swanson still has nasty stuff and has bounced back well from giving up a walk-off homer in Texas. Casey Sadler, Anthony Misiewicz and Keynan Middleton all contribute.

The timing of Seattle’s blown saves really amplified the reaction to the Graveman trade, but I think the ‘pen will be just fine going forward. The Mariners still have two strong relievers who have played big roles in making pitching in the late innings a strength for the team. If they let Sewald and Steckenrider serve as the main back-end options, the rest should fall into place.

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