The 3 biggest reasons Mariners have gotten on a much-needed roll

Jun 8, 2022, 8:36 PM | Updated: 8:41 pm

Mariners Cal Raleigh...

Mariners catcher Cal Raleigh celebrates with Dylan Moore after hitting a home run Monday in Houston. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

(Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

If there’s one thing you can say about the Seattle Mariners’ June so far, it sure is going a heck of a lot better than their May went.

M’s pitching coach: How Logan Gilbert has become a “special” pitcher

After seemingly finding rock bottom multiple times from late April to mid-May, the M’s have now won four straight series. Those series wins have had just about everything, too.

A surprising jolt back to life against their longtime division rivals, the American League West-leading Houston Astros.

Escaping by the skin of their teeth against one of the worst teams in the league in Baltimore.

Multiple comebacks in the ninth inning against Texas.

And finally, a statement-making series win in Houston that started with tensions rising high Monday night.

In a lot of ways, it seems like the Mariners have willed themselves back from the brink, and while their 26-31 record still isn’t pretty, in a year where there are three wild card spots, Seattle is proving it is far from out of this thing.

So how have the Mariners gotten themselves back in the picture? Here are the three biggest reasons.

1. The Mariners’ future is arriving.

A few weeks ago while the Mariners were struggling, I wrote a column stressing that even though the team came into 2022 with postseason expectations, the most important thing was that their young players with star potential and a year or less of MLB experience keep moving in the right direction. Playoffs may be the goal for this year, but the big goal is sustained postseason contention, and they’re counting on their young core to lead them there.

Well, a few of those players are certainly moving in the right direction at a fast rate, and it’s playing a big role in the ’22 team inching closer and closer back to .500.

The revelation that is Julio RodrĂ­guez continues to impress and amaze. Not only has he shaken off his rough start to the season to now sport a .270/.336/.422 slash line (.758 OPS), and not only does he look right at home hitting third in the order and playing brilliant defense in center field, and not only was he the AL Rookie of the Month for May, but he’s showing that he’s got the ‘it’ factor. What do I mean by that? How about a guy who immediately answers a benches-clearing… situation (it certainly wasn’t a fight of any kind) with a two-run, opposite-field home run in the very next at-bat?

To borrow a phase from college basketball announcing legend Bill Raftery, kid’s got onions.

On the other end of the series win in Houston was another quality start Wednesday by Logan Gilbert. While he’s not quite performing at the insane level he was to earn April AL Pitcher of the Years honors, he’s clearly been Seattle’s best pitcher this season and appears in line to get an invite to the All-Star Game in a little over a month. Maybe the biggest breakout story of the season for the Mariners, the lanky, filthy right-hander has a 2.41 ERA, 1.08 WHIP, .211 average against, and 70 strikeouts to 22 walks over 12 starts and 71 innings. Oh, and the Mariners have won the last three games he’s started.

Elsewhere in the starting rotation is rookie George Kirby, another tall, hard-throwing right-hander the Mariners got in the first round of the MLB Draft. He’s getting up to speed quickly, having thrown a quality start in three of his six outings to the tune of a 3.38 ERA, 1.09 WHIP, and 31 strikeouts to just three walks. Yes, that vaunted mix of elite command, high velocity and strong secondary offerings is already coming into play.

The newest positive development, though, is catcher Cal Raleigh, who had himself quite the road trip. It hasn’t been an easy go in the big leagues for Raleigh since he debuted last season, and he even had a short stint back in Triple-A last month. The switch-hitter has found his power stroke, though, hitting three homers over the past six games, including one in each of Seattle’s victories in Houston. He has seven homers now on the season, tied with RodrĂ­guez for third on the team, despite playing in just 31 of Seattle’s 57 games thus far. Even better, the Mariners have won every game Raleigh has homered in.

Winning four series in a row is big. Having four building blocks of the future that came through your system helping to lead the way? Even bigger.

2. That late-inning magic has returned.

On last week’s Jerry Dipoto Show, which airs at 8 a.m. each Thursday on Seattle Sports Station, the Mariners general manager/president of baseball operations spoke about how the 2022 team had yet to find its personality, something that was a big part of the 90-win team last season that thrived in one-run games and lived for rallies in the late innings.

“I do think that this team is still trying to find its personality,” Dipoto said. “It’s June now, and it’s not something you can really rush. Last year’s team, it was such a resilient, bounceback-oriented team, and not to be demeaning to that team in any way because it’s one of the funnest teams that I’ve ever been around, but this team has more talent than that. We’re still trying to find the personality here.”

It’s almost like that comment flipped a switch.

That night, the Mariners clinched a series win in Baltimore with a win in extra innings. The night after that, Eugenio Suárez hit a two-run homer in the ninth inning that saved Seattle from taking a 3-2 loss and instead lifted them to a 4-3 victory. Two more days after that, Suárez homered in the ninth again to cap off a three-run rally that forced extras, where the M’s won again.

You know what’s a great way for a team that’s trying to develop a personality? Win some close games in an exciting fashion. You know what’s another way? Get mad at the best team in your division for being a jerk to you.

On Monday, Astros pitcher HĂ©ctor Neris threw a pitch behind Ty France that hit the Seattle first baseman in the back. Manager Scott Servais thought it was obvious that Houston was throwing at his best hitter and shouted some choice words at the Astros dugout. Next thing you know, both benches were cleared as a tense argument between the two teams took place around home plate.

Once the dust settled, of course, Rodríguez hit his homer and the Mariners won. Then they took the series (though Rodríguez was nailed by pitches on his left arm in his two final plate appearances by Houston relievers – no extracurriculars this time). Now they take some good vibes – and, it seems, their personality – home with them for an 11-game homestand where they could really turn this thing around.

3. Long outings by the starting pitchers.

Something that played a big part in those close wins on the road trip were big performances by some of Seattle’s relievers. Diego Castillo seems to be the best version of himself that the Mariners have seen since they traded for him last year, and several other relievers have thrown important shutdown innings in recent days.

Plenty of credit is due to the bullpen for that, but just as much is deserved by the starting rotation. The bullpen has been hurt by injuries and unexpected struggles by key arms, and the more innings it has to cover, the less likely Seattle is to pull off a win – which makes a long outing by the starter all that more important. The Mariners have by and large been getting that as of late.

Over the 12 games that cover Seattle’s four straight series wins, the Mariners’ starting pitcher has given them at least five innings every time. In nine of those games, the starter has gone at least six. Four times, they lasted through seven.

Marco Gonzales deserves some shine, going seven innings in each of his last two outings (and getting barely any run support as Seattle lost both of those games). So does Kirby, who allowed just two runs total over a pair of six-inning appearances (one of which was scoreless), and Chris Flexen, who saved the bullpen some work by going 6 2/3 innings in a loss when he was matched up against Astros ace Justin Verlander on Tuesday. Gilbert, who we already covered, has been sensational all year.

The only question mark is, curiously, Robbie Ray. The 2021 AL Cy Young has not been as advertised and had to work just to get to five innings Monday as the Astros hit him around. The good news is the rest of the rotation is picking him up, but certainly the Mariners need more out of him going forward.

I will say, though, that if your rotation’s biggest question mark is the guy with last year’s version of the most coveted hardware for pitchers on his mantle, there are worse things.

Mariners’ upcoming homestand at a glance

All games air live on Seattle Sports. Coverage starts with the pregame show 70 minutes before first pitch.

• Mariners vs. Red Sox

Friday, 7:10 p.m.
Saturday, 7:10 p.m.
Sunday, 1:10 p.m.

• Mariners vs. Twins

Monday, 7:10 p.m.
Tuesday, 7:10 p.m.
Wednesday, 1:10 p.m.

• Mariners vs. Angels

Thursday, 7:10 p.m.
Friday, 7:10 p.m.
Saturday (doubleheader), 1:10 p.m. and 7:10 p.m.
Sunday, 1:10 p.m.

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