MIKE SALK

Salk: 5 keys for Mariners to finish playoff push in final 10 games

Sep 27, 2022, 12:44 AM
Mariners Ty France Mitch Haniger...
Ty France celebrates with Mariners teammate Mitch Haniger after hitting a home run on Sept. 1, 2022. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)
(Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)

Mariners manager Scott Servais said his team really needed this last off-day of the season. No kidding! After a 3-7 road trip through three moribund baseball hellscapes culminating in a loss worthy of an eighth Dantean circle, no one will argue.

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But as much as the team needed the rest, I think the fan base might have needed the day even more.

Baseball, more than any other sport, requires perspective. Because it is played over such a long period of time, it is easy to get trapped in the moment. That’s fine. Being a fan should be emotional and it is up to us to hold our team accountable when they lose and cheer them when they win. But avoiding grand proclamations based on small sample sizes is crucial, and even more so right now.

Personally, I’m glad to have stepped away for a day and recharged. Re-energized. Refocused. Yes, the road trip was bad. Yes, Sunday was awful. Yes, these Mariners are flawed.

But they have a 10-game sprint to make the playoffs, and there is a legit chance they could clinch in the next few days. Eugenio Suárez is coming back and should DH Tuesday night. I’ve heard he has thrown a few balls with his fractured right index finger – not sure when he will play third base but it’s not impossible – and Julio Rodríguez should be back from his low back strain next Monday.

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So I am determined not to let the last 10 days affect my enjoyment of this moment. Sports aren’t supposed to be easy, and many of my best memories as a fan are not total blowouts or cruising to an easy victory. They are the amazing moments that aren’t expected and that you have to work for (or at least as much as a fan can work).

These final 10 games of the regular season might not always be fun. Baseball is sometimes more about anxiety and survival more than enjoying the moment. But it makes you feel alive, and hopefully it will come with the reward we are all craving.

Here are five keys to the last 10 games.

1. Play clean.

Enough errors. Enough sloppy moments. Get back to playing locked-in, clean baseball. That has been the hallmark of these last two years – really the entire Servais tenure – and something has turned it on its head the last few weeks.

This team doesn’t hit enough to play sloppy. They aren’t potent enough to overcome errors. Like Commander Tom “Stinger” Jardian tells Maverick in “Top Gun” (the original), you have to be doing it better and cleaner than the other guy. Play clean or you will be going home sooner than you’d like.

2. Get Julio and Suárez back.

Duh.

These two guys have paced the offense all year and the Mariners simply aren’t the same team without them. Complain all you want about depth but there are very few teams that could look dominant while missing their top hitters.

But here’s the thing: it’s not just what it has done to them offensively. It’s the defense at two premier positions that has suffered in their absence and may have cost them Sunday in Kansas City. And it’s the heart and soul element that these two free spirits have brought to the clubhouse.

Servais speaks of Suárez in reverential tones, and Julio not only keeps everyone loose, he is the center of the team’s belief in itself because he is so confident. It’s not an accident that the two players most responsible for their best win of the year (Sept. 11 over Atlanta) were not around for the worst loss.

3. Get someone hot.

Anyone. Ty France? Mitch Haniger? Jarred Kelenic? Whatever. Sure. Just get someone hot, and preferably a few people.

Fortunately, two of those players seem to be showing signs of some legit heat.

France is 8 for his last 18. He says he has made some adjustments. I still worry about his wrist, but he is such a linchpin in the Mariners’ lineup. They need him to be the guy he has been ever since he arrived from San Diego.

Kelenic is 6 for his last 16 with a home run and three doubles. He may never smile again, but if he hits like this, it won’t matter.

But the real key would be to get the real Mitch Haniger back. I feel for Mitch. You know no one wants it more than him. He wrote the letter challenging the players and the management to commit to this season. They responded. The players have been invested. The team brought in Robbie Ray and others this offseason, then dealt a huge piece of their future for Luis Castillo at the deadline. They are serious. And while I know he is too, he just seems off. Maybe he is still hurt. Maybe he just needs his timing back. But whatever it is, they could use the real Mitch.

4. Re-sort out the bullpen.

We’ve seen some hiccups there in the last week or so from the group that has really been the Mariners’ superpower. We know what we’re getting with Andrés Muñoz and Paul Sewald. But after that? Diego Castillo, Eric Swanson, Matt Festa, and Matt Brash have all had issues recently. Servais needs to know what he has.

And that could get easier if they make the postseason. Taking one or two of these flame-throwing starters out of the rotation could sure have a positive effect on their bullpen depth. But until then, the skipper needs to know who he can count on.

5. Clinch, celebrate and rest.

Yes, you have 10 games left, but try not to use all of them. The faster you clinch, the more you can rest. And they have some dudes who could really use a few days off.

I don’t just mean the guys coming back off the injured list. France has had wrist issues. Haniger recently had a back issue. Cal Raleigh’s playing time is currently being dictated by his pain tolerance for a thumb injury. J.P. Crawford has been battling through things all year and hasn’t quite been himself. The quicker they can get these guys off their feet for a few days, the more they have a chance to look like themselves again.

Making the playoffs is a big deal in baseball. Teams (all teams) tend to celebrate with champagne showers in the clubhouse. They deserve it! It’s a sign that they have met their first objective. And in this town, it has been a LOOOOOONG time coming.

But celebrating one accomplishment should make you hungry for the next one, and if they can work through these five keys, they’ll have a better chance of pluralizing the party.

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