BRANDON GUSTAFSON

Mariners Bounce Back: How rotation, lineup lead to important rebound

Jul 27, 2022, 4:08 PM
Mariners Julio Rodriguez...
Julio Rodriguez reacts after hitting a three run home run against the Texas Rangers at T-Mobile Park on July 27, 2022. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
(Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

The Mariners began the second half of 2022 with a disappointing series against the AL West-leading Houston Astros, who swept Seattle at T-Mobile Park. The Mariners didn’t let that deflate them, though, as they rebounded with a three-game sweep of their own against the Texas Rangers.

Another Julio HR, another comeback leads Mariners to sweep of Texas

While the sweep of Texas wasn’t resounding as all three contests were close and decided late, Seattle did improve in virtually every way after getting beaten handily by Houston over the weekend.

Starting pitching back in form vs Texas

The Mariners’ starting rotation has been critical in getting the team back in the playoff race. Unfortunately, the rotation didn’t start the second half on the best note.

Overall, Seattle starters allowed 13 runs on 24 hits in 14 2/3 innings against the Astros. Much of that was because Houston did very well against Marco Gonzales and Robbie Ray, as Logan Gilbert was very good in his start on Saturday.

The rotation returned to form against Texas, playing a key role in the series sweep.

Between three starts by Chris Flexen, George Kirby and Gonzales, Mariners starters combined for 18 innings of four-run ball while allowing just 10 hits and four walks.

Obviously the Rangers are not the Astros, who are arguably the best team in the American League. But this Mariners team, to date, has rode the back of the starting rotation and bullpen, which have really carried the load over the last two-plus months.

So, here’s a quick look at how every Mariners starter has looked in their first starts of the second half.

Logan Gilbert

Gilbert looked most impressive with a strong, explosive outing. The fastball popped and his breaking balls really impressed, especially that first inning with two nasty curveballs to José Altuve and a wipeout slider to Jeremy Peña before getting Yordan Álvarez swinging on 98 mph at the top of the zone.

Overall, Gilbert recorded 18 swings and misses in six innings of work, allowing two runs while striking out eight. He had just one inning where he got into trouble, walking Álvarez and allowing two doubles, but he pitched well enough to win. Unfortunately, Seattle’s offense had no answer for future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander and the M’s lost 3-1.

Gilbert looks strong to start the second half after being just OK in his last few starts before the All-Star break. Gilbert faces the Astros again on Thursday, so it will be interesting to see if he has the good secondary pitches as the Astros are really aggressive and dangerous against the fastball, which Gilbert does lean on.

George Kirby

Kirby returned to the rotation after being briefly sent down to Tacoma to manage his workload before the break. While working on a pitch count, Kirby looked fantastic in his Tuesday start, throwing five scoreless innings while striking out four and allowing three total baserunners. His fastball was really good both in terms of velocity and life, looking like it was really jumping on Texas hitters.

Kirby went right after the Rangers, likely because of his limited pitch count, and dominated the strike zone. He threw 51 pitches, 39 of which were strikes as he was constantly working ahead. Kirby also broke out his new two-seam fastball he debuted in his last start versus the Blue Jays. He threw one in particular that had wicked movement, getting lefty Nathaniel Lowe out looking.

Servais called Kirby’s new pitch “special” on Wednesday, and said that for being a young pitcher, Kirby can really manipulate the baseball and still command the zone. Kirby’s secondary offerings have shined at times, but he’s still seeking consistency there. Having that two-seamer gives him another weapon to lean on, which has worked out well for teammate Robbie Ray.

Robbie Ray

Speaking of Ray, he had a rough outing in his first second half start, allowing 10 hits and six earned runs in just three innings against the Astros on Sunday.

Ray had broken out starting against the Astros last month as he debuted his new two-seamer in the middle of that outing, which helped him get through five innings after giving up three runs early in the game. After that start, Ray posted a 1.36 ERA in seven starts before Sunday. Part of that was Ray limiting hard contact.

That wasn’t the case Sunday, though, with Ray allowing eight hard-hit balls in just three innings of work. Ray gets a shot at revenge soon, though, as he’s set to start Friday in Houston.

Chris Flexen

Flexen was Flexen in his first start of the second half. He tossed six solid innings and allowed two runs against Texas on Monday, doing what he usually does which is give Seattle a quality start and a chance to win. The Mariners have leaned on their pitching over the last month or so, and Flexen has quietly been having a solid season yet again. Having him down the stretch, especially with Gilbert and Kirby’s workloads worth watching, will be more important to the Mariners than some may expect, even if we saw just how valuable Flexen can be last season in Seattle’s playoff push.

Marco Gonzales

Gonzales had a tough outing on Friday against the Astros, allowing five runs and three homers in five innings of work. He rebounded in a big way against Texas, spinning seven innings of two-run ball with five punchouts.

For most of his Wednesday outing, Gonzales was very sharp, using all of his pitches to generate soft contact with the changeup in particular working as an out pitch. Gonzales did run into trouble in the fifth and sixth innings, allowing all four of the Rangers’ hits and both of their runs. But he rebounded for a quick seventh inning and more than did his job in a quality start.

Gonzales was a bit better at getting ahead early in counts, but overall his quality of strikes was much improved against the Rangers, who like the Astros can get very aggressive early in counts.

Offense not overwhelming, but rebounds

The Mariners didn’t light up the scoreboard in either series, but they did improve against Texas after scoring just eight total runs against Houston.

In three games against the Rangers, the Mariners compiled 13 runs, or 4.33 runs per game. For context, Seattle entered Wednesday averaging roughly 4.1 runs per game.

Here’s a bit of what stood out from the lineup side of things over the last few days.

Julio returns, continues Home Run Derby ways

After missing the first four games after the break with a wrist injury, Julio Rodríguez returned in a big way on Tuesday, hitting a home run in his first plate appearance back and then being granted a intentional walk in a ninth inning comeback.

On Wednesday, Julio again kept up his Home Run Derby ways, hitting a go-ahead, three-run home run in the bottom of the seventh inning, which was critical in Seattle’s 4-2 win to secure the sweep. He now has three home runs and 14 RBIs against the Rangers this season.

“I think he’s the best player I’ve ever seen. He’s the best player I’ve ever played with,” Gonzales said after Wednesday’s win and another Rodríguez home run. ” … Nothing he does surprises me anymore.”

I’m not going to get into the debate about whether or not Rodríguez should have done the Home Run Derby after apparently hurting his wrist in Seattle’s last game before the All-Star break, but it is undeniable what he brings to the team in the order as well as defensively and on the bases.

That being said, would Rodríguez playing against Houston have tipped the scales? That’s unclear as Seattle got beat in essentially every phase of the game, but it was clear they missed him in that series. After all, why wouldn’t they? He certainly showed why in the final two games against Texas.

Cal Raleigh rocks

The Mariners have been searching for consistent offense from the catcher spot for years. They appear to have found it in Cal Raleigh, who made his presence felt in a big way against the Rangers, recording two hits in each of the first two games of that series, including a home run and game-tying double before scoring the winning run Tuesday night. He also worked a pinch-hit walk and scored in the series finale. This series against the Rangers was just another example of Raleigh emerging as one of the most dangerous hitting catchers in baseball.

After making the opening day roster, Raleigh scuffled and was sent down to Tacoma. He was called back up out of necessity when Tom Murphy injured his shoulder, and since returning to the big leagues, Raleigh is slashing .227/.295/.508 in 59 games (51 starts) with 13 of his 14 home runs. Since the start of June, Raleigh is slashing .245/.317/.539 with 10 home runs and 21 extra-base hits in 44 games (38 starts) and has been one of baseball’s best offensive catchers. He’s also continued to be a great defender and pitch caller behind the dish.

It took some time for the 2018 third-round pick to get his footing, but he’s taken his opportunity and run with it over the last two-plus months. For the first time in a while, the Mariners appear to be very well set behind the plate.

Ty France update

All-Star first baseman Ty France did not start or play in the series finale on Wednesday due to a minor wrist injury. Servais before Wednesday’s game told reporters that France felt something in his wrist when he swung and missed on a changeup Tuesday. France had an injured list stint last season after being hit by a pitch on the wrist, and the injury has popped up from time to time when he swings.

“Just going to give him a blow… He got out in front of a 2-0 changeup … and kind of felt something in his wrist,” Servais said. “He has this creep up on him every now and then. It’s always in that swing and miss when he’s way out in front with extension that it bothers him a little bit.”

Servais said France is day-to-day so he could return to the lineup as soon as Thursday in Houston.

Lineup rounding out, getting longer

It hasn’t showed up yet in terms of big-time results, but having your 7-9 hitters be J.P. Crawford, Raleigh and Adam Frazier like it was Tuesday is much improved from what we’ve seen in the rest of the Jerry Dipoto/Servais era. That Tuesday lineup was arguably the best lineup top to bottom that the Mariners have rolled out in nearly 20 years, and that was with Mitch Haniger still out on a rehab assignment.

Getting the bottom half of the lineup more stabilized will help the top of the order of Rodríguez and France in terms of creating more traffic and run opportunities. With Kyle Lewis back, Haniger nearing a return, Raleigh surging and Crawford now hitting near the bottom of the order, the Mariners are suddenly one of the longer lineups in the American League, assuming guys can continue to play everyday and stay healthy.

Big test upcoming

After the series win over Texas, the Mariners hit the road for what may be their toughest road trip yet.

It’s not the longest in terms of length, and the roster is in better shape than it’s been most of the season, but Seattle ends the month of July with four games in Houston before heading to New York for three games with the Yankees. The Astros and Yankees have the two best records in the American League.

It will be a big test not just because the Astros swept the Mariners in Seattle or the Yankees’ stellar play this season, but because the Mariners have some room to improve against top teams.

Entering Wednesday, the Mariners are 27-33 against teams with .500 or better records. That’s 14th in baseball. Last year, Seattle was 44-34 against teams at or above .500, which was third-best in baseball.

A big reason the Mariners didn’t make the playoffs in 2021 was because they went 46-38 against sub-.500 teams, which was 21st in baseball. They’ve been much better at beating up on bad teams in 2022, though, going 27-12. Before Wednesday’s win over Texas, Seattle had the fifth-best record against sub-.500 teams. The Mariners have been especially good at beating the worst teams in their own division, going a combined 21-10 against the Rangers, Oakland A’s and Los Angeles Angels. Against the A’s and Rangers in particular, the Mariners are a combined 18-5.

The good news for the Mariners is that even with this tough seven-game stretch coming up, they have the fourth-easiest remaining schedule in baseball, per Tankathon. As of Wednesday, Seattle has just 25 games left against teams currently at or above .500, and seven of them will be completed by next Wednesday.

This upcoming seven-game stretch likely won’t dictate whether or not the Mariners make the playoffs, but it will be a good test as Seattle has been middle of the pack against winning teams this season. And if the Mariners do make the playoffs, they’ll obviously need to beat teams like that to advance. And more specifically, if the Mariners make it out of the wild card round into the American League Division Series, they’ll be facing either New York or Houston as one of those two teams will finish with the American League’s best record.

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