BRENT STECKER

Mariners Table Setter: 3 things to watch coming off 1st series win

Apr 10, 2023, 12:06 AM | Updated: 1:23 pm

Mariners Jarred Kelenic...

Mariners OF Jarred Kelenic runs after hitting an RBI double against the Guardians on April 9. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)

The Seattle Mariners took a significant step forward with their first series win of the 2023 season, though they didn’t leave Cleveland feeling as good as they could have.

Sunday: Guardians rally to win 7-6, avoid sweep by Seattle Mariners

The Guardians erased three separate M’s leads late in the game and came away with the 7-6 victory in 12 innings on Sunday, preventing the Mariners from heading to Chicago with a sweep. Instead, Seattle had to settle for taking two out of three at Progressive Field, and that loss Sunday could be costly at the end of the season if the M’s and Guardians are jockeying for wild card position as Cleveland finishes the season series with a 4-3 advantage.

Of course, it’s still plenty early and the Mariners have ample time to make sure that tiebreaker with the Guardians isn’t a factor in October.

With that out of the way, let’s break down three things to keep your eyes on as the Mariners get ready for a set at Wrigley Field followed by a homestand starting Friday against the Colorado Rockies.

1. The state of the Seattle Mariners bullpen

If you want to point fingers at one reason for the M’s not coming away with a win on Sunday, it’s probably best to look at Seattle’s corps of relievers.

The Mariners needed to make a change on Sunday morning, placing Andrés Muñoz, who is perhaps their best relief pitcher, on the 15-day injured list with a sore shoulder and optioning the struggling Matt Festa to Triple-A Tacoma.

Seattle Mariners Moves: Muñoz to IL, Festa optioned in ‘pen shakeup

Now, Seattle was ready for Sunday’s game with Justin Topa and JB Bukauskas in uniform after being called up from Triple-A Tacoma, but the M’s were in a tough spot with their bullpen even with two fresh arms.

Losing Muñoz certainly hurt, but so did the fact that Seattle had been playing catch-up with the bullpen ever since Logan Gilbert’s short outing Friday where five separate relievers each provided a scoreless inning, helping the Mariners win 5-3. By the time Sunday came around, the Mariners needed to stay away from Paul Sewald and Gabe Speier, and they would have liked to let Penn Murfee rest if possible, too.

Well, that meant Matt Brash was given the ball looking for his first career save in the big leagues, and even with a two-run lead in the ninth inning, the pesky Guardians lineup was able to show the 24-year-old right-hander just how pressure-filled a save opportunity can be. After Teoscar Hernández couldn’t haul in a deep fly ball by Will Brennan, Cleveland was able to force extra innings, something Seattle could ill-afford considering the state of its pen.

That meant Topa and Bukauskas each had to make their M’s debuts, and Seattle finally had to blink in the 12th inning and go to Murfee. His errant pickoff throw to second base loomed large as Josh Bell drove in José Ramírez on a weak ground ball for the walk-off win.

As much as that loss hurt, there are two things worth considering here. First, the Mariners probably wouldn’t have been in position for a potential sweep if not for the bullpen’s heroics the previous two days (Seattle relievers also held Cleveland to one run over 3 1/3 frames in Saturday’s 3-2 win). And second, the freshness of the ‘pen is going to be a storyline for at least the next three games against the Cubs.

The M’s certainly will be hoping for some long outings by Luis Castillo, Chris Flexen and the aforementioned Gilbert against the North Siders, because they’ll have just three relievers (Sewald, Speier and José Rodríguez, who was called up from Triple-A on Monday while Bukauskas was optioned back to Tacoma) who didn’t throw Sunday at the ready for Monday’s 4:40 p.m. series opener.

2. Is Jarred Kelenic finding his stride?

Coming out of the series at Cleveland, the 23-year-old Kelenic owns a .286/.333/.393 slash line for a .726 OPS.

Sounds pretty good, right?

Now, all the reminders that it’s still early April that apply to the Mariners’ slow start also apply to any players who are doing well in the early going, but if there’s one thing you would think Kelenic could use after his rough first two seasons in the big leagues, it’s some confidence.

The kind of confidence that a modest four-game hit streak can give a kid. Or a three-hit day, like Kelenic had on Saturday, can provide. Or that can come from a big go-ahead knock in extra innings, which Kelenic had with an RBI double off the wall in the 11th inning Sunday that put Seattle up 4-3.

The Mariners may be scuffling some right now, making some uncharacteristic mistakes that are keeping them from getting on a roll early on. Those are the kind of things that can be corrected pretty easily. It’s a lot harder to turn around a young hitter who is struggling to find his way against big league pitching, and this is where it’s looking like the M’s are in good shape.

It’s early, and Kelenic is still working to cut down on his strikeouts (10 in 30 plate appearances). But he’s showing marked signs of improvement at the plate, whether it’s with pitch selection, hitting the ball the other way or taking advantage of MLB’s new shift restrictions. If he keeps it going, maybe you’ll see something similar to how Julio Rodríguez’s rookie season went when he spent the first month getting up to speed, started to rack up base hits to get his confidence going, and then was able to unleash his power at the plate.

The first 10 games of the M’s season haven’t been as encouraging as fans were hoping for, but if you’re looking for a silver lining, Kelenic is definitely providing one.

3. Is this where a breakout starts?

The Mariners are 4-6, and if I had to give a succinct reason for that, I would point to them making mistakes against good competition.

The Guardians are the favorites to repeat as American League Central champs, and they have the makeup of a World Series contender this year. They also feast on miscues, which the M’s found out multiple times while facing Cleveland seven times in their first 10 games. Good news is that Seattle won’t face the Guardians again this year unless they meet in the postseason.

The other team Seattle has played is the Los Angeles Angels, who are pretty good even though they’re, well, the Angels. Their lineup is no joke and the pitching staff is tougher than you may think based on their reputation of the past decade. They have the pieces to be a playoff contender, it’s just a matter of them staying healthy and putting it all together.

That’s a tough way to open the season, and if you want an illustration of how strength of schedule can factor into an early record, go look at the Tampa Bay Rays, who are 9-0 after beginning the year against the Tigers, Nationals and Athletics, who were three of the six worst teams by winning percentage in 2022.

Now consider this: Seattle is about to play three games against the 4-4 Cubs, who were 74-88 last season, and then three at home against the Rockies (4-6 this season), who finished in the cellar of the National League West at 68-94 in 2022.

The Mariners still need to clean up their defense after making six errors through their first three series, but if they don’t this week, the penalty shouldn’t be as steep against the competition they have coming up. These next six games should be an opportunity to get the offense rolling a bit more, as well, and we’ve already covered the importance of giving the bullpen a break.

The M’s could use some get-right games. This week looks like a good place to start.

Seattle Mariners week at a glance

*Scheduled interviews subject to change

MONDAY

• M’s analyst Ryan Rowland-Smith joins Seattle Sports’ Wyman and Bob, 3 p.m.
• M’s at Cubs, 4:40 p.m. (Seattle Sports coverage starts with pregame at 3:30)

TUESDAY

• ESPN MLB reporter Jeff Passan joins Seattle Sports’ Brock and Salk, 8:30 a.m.
• The Dugout with M’s guests, noon to 2 p.m. during Seattle Sports’ Bump and Stacy
• M’s analyst Mike Blowers joins Seattle Sports’ Wyman and Bob, 3 p.m.
• M’s at Cubs, 4:40 p.m. (Seattle Sports coverage starts with pregame at 3:30)

WEDNESDAY

• M’s at Cubs, 11:20 a.m. (Seattle Sports coverage starts with pregame at 3:30)

THURSDAY

• The Jerry Dipoto Show with M’s president of baseball operations, 8:30 a.m.
• M’s analyst Ryan Rowland-Smith joins Seattle Sports’ Bump and Stacy, 11 a.m.
• Mariners Extra Innings hosted by Curtis Rogers on Seattle Sports, 7-9 p.m.

FRIDAY

• Seattle Sports’ Wyman and Bob live from T-Mobile Park, 2-6 p.m.
• M’s vs Rockies, 7:10 p.m. (Seattle Sports coverage starts with pregame at 6)

SATURDAY

• M’s vs Rockies, 6:40 p.m. (Seattle Sports coverage starts with pregame at 5:30)

SUNDAY

• Trident Talk, 11 a.m. on Seattle Sports
• M’s vs Rockies, 1:10 p.m. (Seattle Sports coverage starts with pregame at noon)

Fann’s Seattle Mariners Takeaways: Dipoto details what need to be fixed

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