Lefko: 3 things that jump out from Mariners’ 2-1 start to season

Apr 10, 2022, 7:21 PM | Updated: 7:22 pm
Mariners Logan Gilbert...
Logan Gilbert delivers a pitch for the Mariners in the first inning Saturday in Minnesota. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
(Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)

The Mariners will wrap up their first series of the season on Monday afternoon against the Twins, but there was plenty that stood out after the opening weekend of games.

Watch: Julio Rodriguez’s first hit starts Mariners rally in comeback win

At the forefront of it all was the fact that I had to double-check what year it was no less than five times because the 2022 Mariners play games a lot like the 2021 Mariners. Nothing like broad, sweeping statements just three games into a 162-game regular season, but so far, the brand of baseball the Mariners perfected last season has carried over to this year.

It’s too early to say whether that continuity, particularly when it comes to success in one-run games,  is a good or bad thing. And that’s not to say this team is built like the 2021 version. We know the lineup has more depth and versatility, and that along with the collection of young prospects arriving in the majors gives this club the most potential it has had in a long time. It’s just simply to say that after three games, it has been a mirror image of 2021.

Here are a few more things that stood out to me after opening weekend.

The top of the Mariners’ rotation can be elite.

The 1-2 punch of Robbie Ray and Logan Gilbert showed how dangerous the top of this rotation can be, setting the tone in wins on Friday and Saturday by limiting a potent Twins lineup to six hits and two runs in their 12 combined innings. Not only that, but they showed an impressive knack for battling through adversity in a couple of innings. In a first start of a season (after a shortened spring training), there were clearly areas they could improve on, yet even without perhaps their best stuff each was able to get out of innings and find the right pitch to neutralize scoring opportunities.

Ray, last year’s American League Cy Young, delivered everything that was expected amidst lofty expectations as the Mariners’ marquee signing of the offseason and headliner in the rotation. He was one of just four MLB pitchers to throw seven innings in an outing this weekend (none went more than seven) and he seems fully capable of maintaining his nearly 200-inning workload from last season. More importantly, he appears ready for the big moments, the leverage situations in games. Ray ran into trouble in both the third and fifth innings on Friday, facing Byron Buxton and Carlos Correa both with runners on, yet yielded nothing against two of the most potent hitters in the AL.

If Ray was the known quantity, Logan Gilbert represented the leap that the Mariners hope their talented core of prospects will make as they become acclimated to the big leagues. He labored through the first couple of innings but found an adjustment to become absolutely unhittable, retiring the final 10 batters he faced. The confidence and command in his secondary pitches is much improved from a year ago, and as Gilbert has gotten more comfortable utilizing his pitch mix, it only enhances his mid-to-high 90s fastball to then fool hitters when he comes back with a devastating slider or changeup.

Clutch is quantifiable.

The big outlier that loomed over the Mariners’ 2021 season was their terrific 90-72 record despite a minus-51 run differential. It also seemed foolhardy to think a 33-17 record in one-run games could be replicated, as certainly that was rife for regression.

Well… maybe not.

Much like last year, the Mariners started this season by winning two close games, and then when they lost Sunday, they lost big. It’s at this point though where you start to think that “clutch” is a value that can be measured.

Each member of the clubhouse dynamic, from manager Scott Servais on down to a rookie whose first hit was a leadoff double to start a comeback rally in the ninth (yes, that would be Julio Rodríguez I’m talking about), believes wholeheartedly that they can and will win close games. On Saturday it was Julio as well as Adam Frazier, who was on a hitless streak in two games to begin his Mariners career but came though with a game-saving, two-out hit (and terrific slide at second, which led to another run), and Diego Castillo, who had a maligned 2021 but was lights out to get the save in his season debut. And that’s not to discount the shutdown pitching on Friday, either, as Paul Sewald and Drew Steckenrider replicated the blueprint that was so effective for the Mariners a season ago with scoreless innings of their own.

Scoff all you want, but if that firm belief in crunch time exudes calm at the plate or on the mound, a confidence that breaks down the will of an opponent, and the ability to stave off fear, then that is an advantage that will, and already has, shown up in games. The power of the mind and the mental aspect of sports is a massive component of the game, especially in baseball. The Mariners have found the right wavelength, and the clutch gene is showing up once again.

The young guys are struggling.

We must end on a bit of a downer, because the flip side of those close, low-scoring wins is the fact that outside of Mitch Haniger and Ty France, the Mariners’ offense is struggling in a big way. Haniger (two homers, five RBIs) and France (4 for 11, .500 on-base, .955 OPS) are worthy of a separate column by themselves, but zooming out to the macro view of the offense, the rest of the hitters in the lineup have struggled to find consistency in both driving in runners and getting on base. A concerning Friday of 0 for 8 with runners in scoring position was bolstered slightly on Saturday (3 for 10), but the majority of the run production centers around just a few guys.

The attention invariably is drawn to the young guys and the new guys, and as this point you still don’t really know what to expect because of the whole “it’s only three games into a 162-game season” thing. Yet small sample size or not, it has been a struggle and slow adjustment for both Rodríguez (1 for 12, six strikeouts) and Jarred Kelenic (1 for 11, walk, five strikeouts). For all the concern about the impact a shortened spring training would have on the pitchers, it also didn’t allow for an extended look at live, top of the rotation pitching for these young hitters.

It is important to keep this minuscule sample size in proper context, but solely functioning as an observation on this first weekend, it’s clear that the young hitters were overmatched and the Mariners’ offense needs to find additional production to supplement France and Haniger.

Sunday: Twins’ six home runs lead way past Mariners 10-4

Date Starting Pitcher
Friday, May 27 @ 6:40 pm Mariners' Chris Flexen vs. Astros' Justin Verlander

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Lefko: 3 things that jump out from Mariners’ 2-1 start to season