BRENT STECKER

Mariners Table Setter: 3 things that could help M’s catch Astros

Jul 22, 2022, 12:23 AM | Updated: 2:15 pm

Mariners Kyle Lewis...

Kyle Lewis rounds the bases after hitting a homer in a Mariners win over Houston on May 27. (Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

(Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

The first time the Mariners and the Astros squared off this season, the M’s sent a message.

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It started with the first pitch of the game, a purposeful cutter up and in from Seattle starter Marco Gonzales that brushed back star Houston second baseman José Altuve, and that early-season series ended with the Mariners taking two of three.

Unfortunately for Seattle, it struggled over the next two months to keep pace with the American League West’s dominant team of the last six years, proving there was still work to be done if the M’s were going to catch the Astros.

Well, here’s their chance.

Riding the wave of a 14-game winning streak and 22-3 record over the past month, the Mariners have revived their playoff hopes, finishing the first half of the MLB season at 51-42 to move into an AL wild card position. Houston (61-32) remains 10 games ahead of Seattle in the AL West, however, but not only are the two rivals an even 6-6 against each other this year, but the Mariners can gain serious ground with seven of their next 10 games coming against Houston, the first three being a series at T-Mobile Park that starts Friday night.

It’s still a long road to the end of the season, though. So how can the Mariners chase down the Astros this year? Here are three things I think would go a long way.

Kyle Lewis putting the Mariners’ offense over the top

Do the Mariners even have room in their lineup for Lewis?

Exactly.

The Mariners’ lineup is finally featuring the length they believed it would at the beginning at the season, something that has been delayed by injury (Mitch Haniger, Ty France), poor starts to the season (Jesse Winker, Adam Frazier), and even suspensions. The emergence of rookies Julio Rodríguez and Cal Raleigh has helped turn around the offense, as has the addition of veteran first baseman Carlos Santana, and the expected return of Haniger perhaps by the end of the month would bring Seattle to full strength at the perfect time.

Whatever the Mariners got out of Lewis this year, meanwhile, was always considered a bonus. Coming off the second major injury to his right knee in his pro career, the 2020 American League Rookie of the Year didn’t appear in a game until late May, which came after he missed the majority of last season following the initial injury. He clearly wasn’t at 100% upon his return as playing the outfield wasn’t a consideration and his running on the bases was anything but full speed. Even still, he had a tantalizing four-game run where he went 4 for 16 with two home runs in back-to-back games, only to find himself back on the shelf with a concussion suffered when a pitch from Houston’s José Urquidy ricocheted off his shoulder to his head, with his helmet falling off in between the two blows.

Now nearly two months later, Lewis is expected back Friday night, and he’ll be joining a much more confident and deep M’s lineup. One that, unlike in May, doesn’t desperately need him every night. One that can utilize him against favorable pitching matchups while still giving him the rest his body needs.

One that his addition could put over the top.

A hitter of Lewis’ ability in a spot like that is something serious contenders have, like Josh Reddick when the Astros won the World Series in 2017 or AJ Pollock for the Dodgers in recent years. It’s a luxury – a dangerous bat that can be at manager Scott Servais’ disposal in key moments late in a game, or if he starts on a given day can allow Santana or another veteran hitter to fill that role.

The 27-year-old Lewis debuted in the big leagues in 2019, and he’s been a solid producer (.258/.342/.457 career slash) with prodigious power (24 home runs) whenever he’s been available. Unfortunately, it’s been just 116 games thus far, with 58 games during the shortened 2020 season being his longest continuous stretch since joining the M’s. The Mariners have 69 games to go and the ability to manage his workload thanks to the state of their lineup. How Lewis figures in the rest of the way will be very interesting, and a potential difference-maker.

A splash at the deadline – for more pitching

I know, I know, you probably want the Mariners to go big and bring in Juan Soto. That would be quite the development, but as the previous section illustrates, I’m not all that concerned about the Mariners’ offense right now.

I’m not concerned about the starting rotation, either. But you know what they say – you can never have too much pitching. Especially when two members of your starting rotation have never thrown more than 135 innings in a season.

Those two pitchers would be Logan Gilbert and George Kirby. Gilbert, in his second MLB season and only his third as a pro (remember, there was no minor league play in 2020), is already at 111 innings this year. Kirby, a rookie, is at 91 innings between the majors and minors this season, which is already a career high.

The Mariners are going to need another starter or two, and if a Soto deal doesn’t materialize, it wouldn’t be the worst idea to use some of their prospect capital on a big name who will not just provide Seattle innings but hopefully even improve what has been an impressive piece of the team this season. Reds All-Star Luis Castillo fits that bill. So would Oakland’s Frankie Montas if it’s determined his arm is healthy enough to continue this season (so far so good there after he returned to action with three sharp innings Thursday).

This is a point now for Seattle where the MLB trade deadline, which is Aug. 2, shouldn’t be treated as a way to fill holes but instead a way to make a strength of the team even stronger. And while we’re on that subject…

Keep the bullpen rolling

Yeah, the Mariners’ bullpen has been awesome. They should do everything to keep it that way, because as Seattle has shown in the past two seasons, the offense has a flair for the dramatic. And the reason it has been able to show that is because the bullpen has allowed it the chance to.

Since June 21, when the Mariners’ 22-3 run started, their relievers have led MLB in ERA (1.49), fWAR (1.8) and left on-base percentage (93.8%), and you’ll find them near the top in just about every other meaningful category. Paul Sewald, Diego Castillo, Andrés Muñoz, Erik Swanson and Penn Murfee have all been standouts this season. Left-hander Ryan Borucki has been a find, coming over after being DFA’d by Toronto, and even Matt Festa, who was with Triple-A Tacoma as recently as this month, has been strong and had one of the nastier innings of the season for Seattle last week.

That’s all great, but there’s no harm in leaving no doubt. It may not seem like a need right now, but another recognizable name or two for the ‘pen (hopefully one that’s a southpaw) that can turn leads into wins and keep deficits within striking distance could be huge, because you never know when the next injury will come. And if it never does, even better.

If the Mariners set their sights on the division title, they need every win they can get. A few reinforcements to keep their bullpen as lockdown as it has been would be invaluable to that cause.

Mariners this week on Seattle Sports 710 AM

• Friday: Mariners vs. Astros, 7:10 p.m. (pregame at 6)
• Saturday: Mariners vs. Astros, 1:10 p.m. (pregame at noon)
• Sunday: Mariners vs. Astros, 1:10 p.m. (pregame at noon)
• Monday: Mariners vs. Rangers, 7:10 (pregame at 6)
• Tuesday: The Scott Servais Show, 1 p.m. during Bump & Stacy’s The Dugout
• Tuesday: Mariners vs. Rangers, 7:10 p.m. (pregame at 6)
• Wednesday: Mariners vs. Rangers, 12:40 p.m. (pregame at 11:30 a.m.)
• Thursday: The Jerry Dipoto Show, 8:30 a.m. during The Mike Salk Show

Dipoto: M’s “open to anything” that “adds impact” at deadline, SPs the focus

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