MIKE SALK

Salk: Who gets blame for Mariners’ Game 1 collapse? It’s complicated

Oct 11, 2022, 9:11 PM | Updated: 9:16 pm
Mariners Astros...
Houston's Yordan Alvarez hits against the Mariners in Game 1 of the ALDS. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
(Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Take the exact feeling you had on Saturday after the Mariners finished off the Blue Jays, turn it inside out and upside down, throw it on the ground, stomp on it for a while, and then hurl it against the wall a few times and run it over with a bulldozer. You now have an approximate recreation of how you felt watching Yordan Alvarez take Robbie Ray to deep space just three days later.

Mariners Reaction: Wyman & Bob on ALDS Game 1 loss, Ray decision

It was awful. No, it was worse than that because you could taste victory. You had Justin Verlander beat and you were going to throw Luis Castillo in Game 2 with a chance to take a commanding lead before even coming home. And you had to suffer through an eternity waiting for the game to end.

Sometimes the fan experience of leading a baseball game is worse than trailing. When you are trailing, you expect to lose but you get excited for each moment that threatens to get your team back in it. When you are leading, you just have to wait. And the pressure mounts. And the anxiety builds. And when it all comes crashing down, it can feel inevitable because you’ve been nervous about it for so long.

This loss was all of those things and then some. Because it came against the Astros, the team that has bullied you and everyone in your division for years. And because it seems like the exact way they lost was something you yourself could have avoided because it seems so simple not to go to Robbie Ray in that situation.

But was it?

Well, in retrospect, the move didn’t work so it was wrong. But did it make sense? As usual in baseball, it’s complicated.

First of all, it never should have come up. Mariners manager Scott Servais has had an incredible two years of bullpen management. Yes, it’s easier to do that when you have so many great arms. But he has done an amazing job of using his highest-leverage pitchers in the biggest spots and to face the best hitters.

He did exactly that on Tuesday when he brought in Andrés Muñoz to face Jeremy Peña, Alvarez and Alex Bregman (2-3-4 in the Astros lineup). Not only did Muñoz give up a two-run bomb to Bregman that cut the lead in half, he let six batters come to the plate, which gave the heart of the order another chance to come up.

If he does what he’s done all year, there is no decision to make because Paul Sewald can face the bottom of the order in the ninth and Alvarez never sees another at-bat. And then Sewald hits the nine hitter and gives up a 1-2 single to Peña.

Now you have to make a decision. And none of the options are great.

Do you stick with Sewald, who was laboring and has a tendency to give up the long ball? Do you turn to Erik Swanson, who has been your best option to get out lefties this year even though Alvarez pummels splitters and change-ups (Swanson’s bread and butter)? Do you walk Alvarez, their best hitter, and pitch to Bregman with the bases loaded when a single ties the game? Or do you go to the lefty who won the Cy Young Award last year, started opening day, and whose stuff you think (or hope) might play better out of the ‘pen?

None of these are good because Alvarez is one of the five best hitters in baseball and he is a nightmare match up for this bullpen.

Here is what I can tell you: that scenario was discussed before the series and the decision was made long before Ray came into the game. These decisions are made by the organization, not unilaterally by the manager. They go through the scenarios and make a plan for when they come up in the games.

In retrospect, I wish they had walked Alvarez and taken their chances with the righty Bregman. Quite frankly, I wish they had put Chris Flexen on the ALDS roster to start on Saturday and had George Kirby available to pitch in that moment. But the reality is that they trusted their top guys to get the top guys out on the other side, and they weren’t able to do it. That stinks. It hurts. And it isn’t very satisfying. But it is what happened.

The road forward isn’t easy. The Mariners will need to beat one of the best teams in baseball in three out of the next four. But this is the most resilient team I’ve ever seen. They won’t be fazed by the devastating loss. They won’t be cowed by the long odds. They won’t hide from the challenge ahead of them. They will throw their ace at Houston on Thursday and keep scratching, clawing and grinding. And while I’m still angry and frustrated, I am going to try to remember that they lost this game because on this day, their strongest attribute wasn’t as strong as Houston’s. Not just because of a bad process or a poor decision.

When they win, they credit 26 players and an entire staff of coaches, scouts and decision-makers. I think it’s fair to do the same after this loss. It isn’t on one person or one decision. It’s a team effort. It stinks and the road ahead is tough. But that’s just how this team likes it.

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