Lefko: A rookie is why Mariners’ AL West hopes are still alive

Sep 14, 2023, 10:55 AM

Seattle Mariners Bryan Woo...

Bryan Woo of the Seattle Mariners reacts during the fifth inning against the Angels on Sept. 12, 2023. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Bryan Woo saved the Seattle Mariners’ season on Tuesday night. OK, more accurately, he saved the Mariners’ chances of winning the AL West.

Seattle Mariners’ Playoff Race: Where Seattle stands after big series win

A wild card spot for Seattle remains on shaky ground, but there was no path to the division without the rotation remaining intact the rest of the way. The course of the final weeks of the season hung in the balance when Woo took the mound in a game the Mariners absolutely could not lose. He proceeded to throw 5 2/3 innings of shutout baseball, striking out eight and walking no batters on a crisp 83 pitches.

The effect was two-pronged – the Mariners beat the Angels 8-0, and it put them in position to win the series on Wednesday. Woo locking down Los Angeles – coupled with the M’s offense allowing for significant breathing room – kept the high-leverage bullpen arms available for a series finale in which they were absolutely needed.

Woo is beyond the pale for any kind of expected workload entering 2023. A combined 119 2/3 innings across Double-A and the Mariners this season torpedoes his previous high of 57 innings in the minors last year. Yet even pitching past the charted course hasn’t deterred Woo, as J.P. Crawford told Mariners insider Shannon Drayer of Seattle Sports on the field after Tuesday’s win.

“I told him today when he was done pitching that, ‘That was the best start I’ve ever seen you throw,’” Crawford said. “I was right behind him for more than half the batters. That fastball was just elevating. I’ve never seen a fastball like that, so that was really cool to see from him.”

Perhaps the limit doesn’t exist. We saw George Kirby pitch through an entire 2022 season as a rookie despite an originally scheduled plan to limit his innings. Maybe the same holds true for Woo, especially after a recent adjustment to how he has approached his last two starts.

“Get ahead early, kind of like, ‘Here it is, hit it,’” Woo said. “Regardless of whatever the location was or the spot in the count, be aggressive. If they’re going to beat you, go down on your own terms and be in the zone all night.”

More: Mariners Notebook – How Woo came up big in 8-0 win over Angels

If that recognition enables him to continue to turn in 5-6 inning outings the rest of the way, it will be a massive boost for the Mariners. Beyond Woo, there are no more viable options for the rotation, especially over the final 10 games that will be a de-facto playoff into the playoffs. Bullpen days haven’t fared well for the Mariners lately, whether it was the unexpected one against Oakland on Aug. 29 due to illness for Kirby, or a scheduled one in Tampa last Saturday. And had Woo faltered on Tuesday, it would have been the only option remaining for his two or three final starts. Yes, that number is a shifting target, because as the rotation currently plays out, Woo’s spot should come up three more times.

However, Woo’s next turn through the order comes Monday against the A’s in Oakland. Skipping that start would give him extra rest and two final outings against the teams you absolutely need him for: Houston and Texas. Hedge the bet that this time the Mariners’ offense comes through in a bullpen game against Oakland because Seattle managed just four hits and one run in the 3-1 loss to the A’s on Aug. 29.

This division will be there for the taking at the end of the year. It just will be. With the way the schedule plays out and the lack of separation that any team has been able to get since the end of August, everything lines up for the Mariners to be within range to win their way to an AL West title. On Sept. 1, all three teams in the race – Seattle, Houston and Texas – were within a game of the division lead. Now 13 days later, the three teams are within 1 1/2 games of the division lead. Not much of a finishing kick by anyone to run away from the pack.

Current MLB Standings: Division | Wild Card

You have to answer the bell every night, and past starts certainly can’t predict what will happen to Woo the rest of the way. But if the Mariners are in the orbit of two games from whichever team has found its way to the top (it could even be the M’s!) by the time the final homestand arrives, they will have a chance to decide the division on their home field.

All thanks to a Tuesday night start in mid-September by Bryan Woo.

More on the Seattle Mariners

• How Eugenio Suárez keeps the good vibes in Mariners clubhouse
• Start times for two Seattle Mariners playoff chase games changed
• ESPN’s Jeff Passan weighs in on what Mariners’ George Kirby said
With eyes opened, Mariners’ Jarred Kelenic makes his return
• Drayer: Seattle Mariners’ Kirby shows ‘better understanding’ after comments

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Lefko: A rookie is why Mariners’ AL West hopes are still alive