BRENT STECKER

Mariners Takeaways: 4 things to know as playoff push hits final turn

Sep 14, 2022, 4:49 PM | Updated: 7:42 pm
Mariners Luis Castillo...
Luis Castillo celebrates a strikeout during the Mariners' win over the Padres on Sept. 14. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Just 20 games remain for the Seattle Mariners, who are 18 games over .500 and sit comfortably in possession of one of the American League’s three wild card spots.

Nobody. Move.

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After an exhilarating, mind-blowing comeback to clinch a series win over the defending champions from Atlanta on Sunday, the Mariners split a quick two-game set on Tuesday and Wednesday with the San Diego Padres, another team trying to secure a wild card. While Seattle’s homestand was an even 4-4, the fact that the M’s have won three of their last four and had an impressive showing in a 6-1 Wednesday victory should have the fan base in a hopeful mood while the team gets a day off Thursday.

And after Thursday, that’s when it’s time to take care of business, because this upcoming 20-game stretch represents the final turn of the Mariners’ quest to end a 21-year playoff drought. No team left on Seattle’s regular season schedule has a winning record. That means there are no excuses for the M’s now.

With that in mind, here are four things to know as the Mariners get ready for a 10-game road trip, their last of the 2022 regular season.

1. It’s time to talk about the playoff rotation.

That’s where things are now with the Mariners. They have a 99.8% chance of making the playoffs according to Fangraphs, and with the wild card round being a best-of-three series, who Seattle will pitch in those three games is a very good question to ask.

ESPN MLB reporter Jeff Passan joins Seattle Sports’ Brock and Salk every Wednesday morning, and he shared his thoughts on the subject this week.

“I look at the Mariners’ rotation as the first-world problem of first-world problems,” Passan quipped. “To me, it’s clear Luis Castillo is the No. 1. I think he’s your best pitcher. I think he’s where you start the playoff rotation. … I think Robbie Ray probably gets the start in Game 2.”

No surprises there. But after them?

“Mike (Salk) and I talked about this a little last week, and he sort of caught me off-guard because I had just assumed Logan Gilbert was going to be the guy,” Passan said. “But George Kirby, what is it, over his last 11 starts has a sub-2.00 ERA? He’s been spectacular.”

Kirby, a 24-year-old rookie, has certainly been a standout, and most years would probably be a frontrunner for a Rookie of the Year award. Passan was correct in Kirby’s record over his last 11 starts, too – 1.99 ERA with a ridiculous 66 strikeouts to just seven walks over 58 2/3 innings during that stretch.

Not that Gilbert, who at 25 is in his second MLB season, is far off. He has bounced back from a rough patch in August to post a 2.10 ERA with 34 strikeouts to eight walks over his last six starts (34 1/3 innings), and he was on his game Tuesday night, holding the Padres to a run over five frames.

“Then you see Gilbert go out and do what he did last night,” Passan continued. “Honestly, I think it’s probably just whoever’s pitching best at that point. Or maybe you take Kirby and for that first round, turn that fastball into a weapon where he’s going to be going two innings (out of the bullpen) in a fireman role sitting 100 mph. You could do the same with Gilbert, presumably. There’s just no good answer to deciding between the two because I think it’s so close. But there’s no bad answer if you get either of the two.”

2. The Mariners have two of the most electric players in baseball.

Watching Wednesday’s game, I noticed how consistently I was being struck by two players, both of whom were playing for Seattle. And this was in a game that also featured Juan Soto and Manny Machado, two of the most talented players in the game.

On the one hand was the aforementioned Castillo, who was sending some serious witchcraft the way of the Padres hitters from the get-go. Soto, good luck with a 99 mph two-seamer that takes a right turn from the edge of the plate to basically San Diego’s dugout. Machado, how about 100 at the top of the zone for a strikeout in the first inning, then three sliders later in the game that make the No. 3 player in offensive WAR this season look like a chump?

Not since prime King Félix has there been that kind of electricity on the mound in a Mariners uniform. Seattle’s big trade deadline acquisition is truly capable of utter filth, as he showed in six scoreless innings Wednesday with nine strikeouts.

As for the other half of this electric duo, then you have Julio Rodríguez, who was absolutely balling on Wednesday.

The first pitch he saw, Rodríguez deposited into the Padres’ bullpen to give Seattle a quick 1-0 lead. It was his 26th home run of the year, as he’s making a run at the most homers in an AL rookie season by a player aged 21 or younger (hat tip to Mariners Baseball Information stats guru Alex Mayer on that). And just three days after Rodríguez hit his 25th homer, he became the fastest player to join the 25/25 club with his 25th stolen base in the fifth inning.

Oh, he also had a hard-hit single Wednesday, and I suppose for good measure we should mention the 117-mph, game-tying rocket of a homer he hit in the ninth Sunday against Atlanta that for real dented the scoreboard in left field at T-Mobile Park.

It’s rare you get one player on a team with that kind of eye-popping ability. The Mariners have two, and it was something to see them paired together on Wednesday afternoon.

3. There’s an outfield controversy on the horizon.

Things have seemed pretty set for the Mariners’ lineup over the last month or so following the return of Mitch Haniger and Ty France shaking off a slump. There’s likely to be a question asked regularly once the road trip starts Friday in Anaheim, though.

Sam Haggerty is making a serious case for playing time, and Jesse Winker hasn’t been able to shut the door on that conversation being focused on left field. The switch-hitting Haggerty is at the very least deserving of having his name written into the lineup every time there’s a left-handed starter opposing the M’s on the mound. In 56 plate appearances as a right-handed hitter against lefty pitchers, Haggerty has four homers, four doubles and a triple, and he owns a .429/.491/.796 slash line vs. lefties, which amounts to an astonishing 1.276 OPS.

Now, Haggerty has definitely not been the same hitter against righties (.211/.265/.289, .554 OPS), but he does a lot of other good things when he plays, namely play strong defense in the outfield and run exceptionally well on the bases. He stole his 12th bag on 13 attempts on Wednesday.

Winker was expected to be a lot more than he has been at the plate this season after the Mariners made a trade with the Reds for the 2021 National League All-Star starter, but it’s Eugenio Suárez who has looked like the prize of that deal. While Winker does have a solid .348 on-base percentage, the rest of his offensive numbers are way down, and he is not known for his defense nor does he run well.

The question of Winker or Haggerty has been put on the back burner for a few days with Haniger sitting out with a back issue since he came out of Sunday’s game late, and he may need time as designated hitter when he does come back hopefully as early as Friday. But once Haniger is ready to play right field again, leaving Haggerty without a clear spot on the field, Winker vs. Haggerty is going to get a lot of attention.

4. Where the Mariners sit in the wild card race.

Let’s wrap this up with a quick look at the AL wild card picture.

After the Mariners’ 6-1 win over the Padres on Wednesday, they sit at 80-62. That put them at the time in a tie with Toronto for the first wild card spot – the one the M’s no doubt want to end up with when all is said and done because it comes with guaranteed home playoff games – and Seattle holds the tiebreaker over the Blue Jays due to winning the season series between the two teams.

Toronto regained sole possession of the spot Wednesday night, however, moving to 81-62 with a 5-1 victory in Game 3 of its big four-game set with the Tampa Bay Rays. That puts the Jays a half-game up on Seattle and drops the Rays to 79-63, so Tampa Bat sits in the third and final wild card spot, a game behind the M’s and 1 1/2 games behind the Jays. Tampa Bay and Toronto will wrap up their series Thursday.

How do the M’s want that Rays-Jays series to shake out? The Rays coming back to win Thursday is the ideal situation. If Toronto wins again Thursday, it will take a full one-game lead over Seattle. If Tampa Bay wins, it goes back to the way it was after the Mariners’ win Wednesday, with Seattle tied – but technically ahead – of the Blue Jays, and the Rays a half-game back.

Whatever happens, the Mariners’ destiny is in their own hands as they have the favorable schedule going forward. Toronto has nothing but winning teams left on its schedule, starting next with Baltimore, who are four games out of the wild card picture and surely eager to get back in the mix. The Rays have it a little easier with the Rangers up next, but every other game after is against a winning club. Oh, and the Jays and Rays meet four more times from Sept. 22-25 in Florida, providing a huge opportunity for the Mariners to pull ahead.

This dream for the Mariners? Well, it’s not far from being very real.

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