BRANDON GUSTAFSON

Mariners show they can win their way against baseball’s elite

Aug 10, 2022, 5:12 PM | Updated: 5:23 pm
Mariners Paul Sewald...
Paul Sewald of the Seattle Mariners gestures after the game against the New York Yankees at T-Mobile Park on August 10, 2022. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
(Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

If it wasn’t clear before the trade deadline, it sure was clear after it. The Mariners were going to lean on their pitching in their bid to end their 20-year playoff drought.

Encore: Mariners stun Yankees 4-3 to follow up 13-inning epic

The Mariners did add two complimentary bats in utility man Jake Lamb and backup catcher Curt Casali, but the big addition was Luis Castillo, a true No. 1 starter who made the All-Star Game for the second time in his career last month with the Cincinnati Reds. Suddenly, the Mariners’ very good rotation looks elite, and it’s paired with a bullpen that was already among the league’s best.

But the bats, much like last year, have left a bit to be desired when looking at overall numbers as well as runs sometimes being hard to come by.

Rather than going out and upgrading the lineup, though, Seattle opted to lean into its strength of great pitching both in the rotation and bullpen in order to keep the team in games while the lineup looked for the timely hit.

That strategy, which many have debated both this year and last, was put to the test in a massive three-game set against the American League East-leading New York Yankees this week. And much like when those two teams faced off the week before, the strategy worked.

The Mariners again took two of three from the Bronx Bombers and showed the baseball world that they can win their way, and that they’re going to be a tough team to boot out of the playoffs should Seattle indeed end the drought.

“It’s really driven by pitching,” Servais said of taking another series from New York. ” … You’ve got to be able to shut down that lineup to have any chance to defeat them, and our pitching staff did an awesome job in this series.”

Yankees manager Aaron Boone can see the Mariners being a problem in the playoffs as well.

“I think they’re really good. They can pitch. Obviously they have some good starters, but their bullpen is I think about as good a bullpen as we face,” Boone said, per MLB.com’s Daniel Kramer. ” … It’s a team that certainly feels for real.”

Star pitchers do star pitcher things

Let’s be clear: Logan Gilbert had another tough outing against the Yankees on Monday when Seattle fell 9-4. The young right-hander allowed 10 hits and seven earned runs in just four innings of work.

But the Mariners have something few other teams do, which is two ace-level starting pitchers. And they both came up big for Seattle this series.

First and foremost, Castillo was otherworldly on Tuesday, spinning eight scoreless innings and punching out seven in his T-Mobile Park debut. Castillo was the best pitcher on the mound this series, and what makes it even more impressive is that Tuesday was the third time in four starts he pitched against the Yankees.

Castillo saved his best for last, slightly outdueling Gerrit Cole (who threw seven scoreless innings) and keeping the Mariners in a game when they couldn’t muster much offensively. In case you missed it, the Mariners didn’t score until the 13th inning, which was enough to win that game 1-0.

Robbie Ray, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, then got the mound in the series finale with the Mariners not only looking for a series win but their first season series victory over New York since 2002.

Ray battled but was not as sharp as Castillo, walking five in 6 1/3 innings, but he gave the Mariners yet another quality start, which was enough for Seattle’s bats to strike late against New York’s bullpen.

“The storyline the last couple days was pitching,” manager Scott Servais said after Wednesday’s win, “and I thought Robbie Ray was awesome.”

Pairing Ray with Castillo on back-to-back games is something Servais called “special.”

“That’s what playoff teams have. They have front-line starting pitching that you can lean on,” Servais said. “Guys that will take you deep into ballgames.”

Having two legit No. 1 starters like Castillo and Ray has a big impact on the team’s mentality, Servais said.

“Our guys love playing behind it. We feel like we’re in the game and you’re gonna win that day when it’s their turn to pitch, and it says a lot,” he said.

Simply put, the Mariners are positioning themselves to be the team nobody from the AL wants to face in the playoffs, especially in the first round. The first round is a best-of-three series, and whoever Seattle faces could see Castillo and Ray in back-to-back games. That’s not a spot any contender wants to be in, which is exactly how the Mariners want it to be.

Bullpen is again a strength

The Mariners’ bullpen has once again been one of the best in baseball, and that was on display against the Yankees.

Overall, Seattle relievers allowed three runs in 12 2/3 innings while striking out 15 and walking three. The best performance from that unit came in Tuesday’s 1-0 win in 13 innings, where the ‘pen pitched five scoreless innings without allowing a single hit.

After Wednesday’s win, the Mariners have 27 one-run victories in 2022, which tops all of MLB. That comes a year after winning 33 one-run contests, which was also the most in baseball.

That wouldn’t be possible without the bullpen, Servais said Wednesday.

“To win close games you need a really good bullpen,” he said. ” … It all does start with the bullpen and those guys keeping it close and keeping us right there in the game and giving us the chance to come back in those games. And when you have the one-run lead, lock it down.”

“They’ve been lock-down pretty much the whole season,” Ray said of Seattle’s relievers. “It’s been really fun to watch those guys out there …  (Winning close games is) a credit to our bullpen and what they’re able to do late in the games, locking it down and keeping it close.”

Last year, the Mariners rode the bullpen trio of Casey Sadler, Drew Steckenrider and Paul Sewald late in the season. Sewald is back but Steckenrider is in Tacoma and Sadler is out for the year, yet Seattle’s bullpen has much better depth with guys like Andrés Muñoz, Erik Swanson, Penn Murfee and Diego Castillo, who returned from injury Wednesday and threw a scoreless eighth inning.

Sewald in particular has been great yet again, and he pitched scoreless innings back-to-back days in both of Seattle’s wins over New York this series.

A top-of-the-line starting rotation led by Luis Castillo and Ray coupled with an elite bullpen has the makings of a potentially lengthy playoff run in October.

Timely hitting once again

It took 13 innings to get a run across on Tuesday, but that wasn’t the case on Wednesday.

The Mariners got a 1-0 lead when Sam Haggerty, who has been a surprise star for the team of late, hit a laser home run to left field. But the Yankees answered with a two-run shot by Kyle Higashioka off Ray and a solo blast by AL MVP frontrunner Aaron Judge off Murfee, giving New York a 3-1 lead in the seventh inning.

But like we saw last year and have seen more of late, the Mariners didn’t panic. And as they have so many times these last two seasons, they came up with the big hit late once again.

It started in the bottom of the seventh when Ty France singled to right field to lead off the inning and later scored on a Mitch Haniger single after advancing to second base on a passed ball. Then, veteran Carlos Santana did what he’s done a handful of times since being traded to Seattle, blasting a go-ahead home run to right field, giving the Mariners a 4-3 lead that the bullpen held for the final six outs.

“Lo and behold, here comes Carlos and he hits another big homer,” Servais said. “It seems like there’s been four or five of those since we’ve acquired him and they’re all big two- or three-run homers late in games (where) he gets a pitch and he doesn’t miss it. Carlos doesn’t have the highest batting average, but he gets on base, he’s got power, he’s got a ton of experience. He’s been in those spots and credit to him for handling it the way he did.”

Servais said the Mariners’ messaging in these close games is simple.

“Don’t panic,” he said. “We’ve played these games a lot. They’re close. You’ve got to get guys on base and you’ve got to make something happen.”

Well, Seattle again made something happen. It came at the perfect time and contributed to one of the biggest series wins for the Mariners franchise in recent years.

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