Why the AL wild card-leading Mariners have become tough to beat
Early in the Mariners’ first year under current manager Scott Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto, Servais shared with Seattle Sports’ Brock and Salk something he hoped his team would eventually become.
“The term I use is I want us to be uncomfortable to play against,” Servais said in May 2016. “There’s certain teams in the league – I’ll talk about the Houston Astros, they’re uncomfortable to play against. What things they do athletically and can challenge you on the bases and how they match up and stuff like that.”
The Mariners certainly looked like one of those teams in their sweep this week over the Angels in Anaheim, applying pressure on the bases to take advantage of defensive errors, employing matchups in the late innings, and finally running away with the series finale Wednesday thanks to an offensive explosion after pulling out wins in games that were tight on Monday and Tuesday.
On Thursday, it was Dipoto’s turn to talk about the Mariners’ since-realized goal of being a tough team to play.
“I think when Scott says that – and we talk about it all the time, being hard to play against – it’s hard to lose if you never give up. (That’s) the easiest way I can put it,” he said on the weekly Jerry Dipoto Show on Seattle Sports. “There is no ‘give-up’ in this team. We’re tough to beat because of that. It’s tough to beat a team that every player who walks up there right now is giving you a competitive, grinding at-bat. We take the balls, we swing at the strikes, we force the pitcher to beat us, we don’t make mistakes and beat ourselves on defense. Those are the types of things the teams that are difficult to play against embody, and I think that’s what this team does and has been doing for quite some time now.”
That has helped the Mariners push into the lead in the American League wild card race with a 65-54 record, enough for a 1.5-game cushion for the first of three wild cards entering Thursday, and that success is certainly helping keep the mood around the team positive.
“Energized,” Dipoto said when Mike Salk asked him to describe the Mariners right now. “I would say deeper than it’s been, at least in my time in Seattle. I would say inspired and together – just a few things that come to mind.”
It’s all a result of work that goes back years but also started with the current team before even spring training. Credit goes to a full team effort that includes work done by Seattle’s player development department which includes director Andy McKay and minor league field coordinator Lewis Boyd, according to Dipoto.
“It’s something that Scott and our staff work so hard to create, and it starts with us even in the offseason prep,” he said. “The amount of work that the staff puts into developing a plan for the spring training work days, to really drive home the drills and routines for these guys, and the same thing is true of Andy McKay and Lou Boyd and the folks in our player development system. When our players come here, they know the expectation, and they’ve been practicing it since they put on a Mariners uniform.”
Seattle’s calling card of sorts this year has been keeping mistakes on defense to a minimum while striving to apply pressure all game long on its opponents. Dipoto used a metaphor to explain the thought process his team uses.
“I’ll equate it to tennis or ping pong. Whoever you’re playing, if your opponent is constantly trying to smash the return, you’re gonna beat them fairly handily. If what they do is continually return and put the ball on the lines, they’re hard to beat. You’re constantly pressuring your opponent to respond, and our group is in tune with that response. They practice it, they know that that’s who we are, and they take great pride in it. I’ve never been around a team that takes greater pride in the way it plays defense and does the little things than this group.”
Going back to something else Dipoto touched on, the depth of the Mariners’ roster is playing a big part in their success, especially after moves at the MLB trade deadline earlier this month and several key returns from injury. In highlighting that, Dipoto explained the importance of the M’s having multiple players who can play both infield and outfield positions while providing value as hitters.
“Part of what you’re trying to do is create as much versatility as you can,” Dipoto said. “I have been talking about this since 2016, and it took us years to find those players, to give them that major league experience and cultivate the kind of versatility that we have on our roster. It’s been so important to watch the growth of guys like Sam Haggerty and Dylan Moore, to pick up a guy like Adam Frazier… it creates so much function with your roster. And they’re really hard positions to play. I don’t think the casual observer really understands the complexity of having to show up every day and be prepared to play so many different positions, or not play at all. It takes a really resilient player or person.”
Two of the recent Mariners additions have added even more versatility both for the lineup and the pitching staff, and in a fun twist, those players grew up in the Seattle area as Mariners fans: Jake Lamb, a corner infielder/outfielder who grew up in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood and starred in college for the UW Huskies, and Matthew Boyd, a left-handed pitcher who was born on Mercer Island and was a high school star for Sammamish’s Eastside Catholic. Lamb is currently on Seattle’s roster while Boyd, who has primarily been a starter in his career but is coming back from flexor tendon surgery, is on a rehab assignment as a reliever with Triple-A Tacoma and nearing his team debut.
“With both guys, we’re so familiar with them because they were local. And we’ve known for many years that Matt and Jake both had interest in playing for the Mariners, and it just so happened in this particular case that we thought both were good fits for our roster as we continue to try to build that depth, do what we do,” Dipoto said.
“Having Jake – our bench right now, depending on who started that game, is as good as it’s ever been. And, you know, Jake is a part of that. He gives you a great at-bat against a right-handed pitcher, he’s got real pop and he can get on base, and (he’s) versatile enough to play any of the four corners. And I would say that Matt going into your bullpen is that kind of versatile pitcher. You have a starting pitcher’s feel with a starting pitcher’s strikes who goes out and can pitch multi innings in a bullpen. And that’s a huge advantage to a manager, especially when that pitcher is left-handed. That’s the hope and as we head into September is that Matt can fill that void.”
You can listen to the full Jerry Dipoto Show, which airs at 8:30 a.m. every Thursday during Seattle Sports’ Mike Salk Show, at this link or in the player below.