Moore: How long can the Mariners stay on a roll without Robinson Canó?

May 21, 2018, 10:30 PM | Updated: 10:50 pm

Mariners lefty James Paxton has thrown two complete games over his last three starts. (AP)...

Mariners lefty James Paxton has thrown two complete games over his last three starts. (AP)


Can you figure out the Mariners? I can’t either. They have overcome all kinds of injuries in the first quarter of the season and a rotation with three so-so pitchers and another, Wade LeBlanc, who wasn’t even an option in spring training for the fifth-starter spot that was decided between Erasmo Ramirez and Ariel Miranda.

The Mariners are following Jean Segura’s lead now

And now they’re playing 80 games of the season without Robinson Canó, suspended for violating MLB’s PED policy. Yet here they are, a week after the Canó news, sporting the fourth-best record in the American League, holding a 1 1/2-game lead over the Angels for the second wild card spot.

Is it too early to talk about wild cards? Yeah, as in heck yeah, but when you’re going on 18 years with no playoff appearances, might as well point it out while you can. By September, I suspect we’ll be talking about the Mariners’ dwindling chances to secure the second wild card berth unless this surprising magic continues for another three months.

It’s not like I think they’re lucky, I just wonder if the pace they’re setting right now is sustainable with their rotation and a lineup minus Canó. We’ve seen it in sports over and over again – when a star is injured or suspended and out for a long stretch, his teammates pick it up and produce in the short term. Maybe this version of the Mariners will do it in the long term too, like they did in 1995 when Ken Griffey Jr. broke his wrist making his Spiderman catch and was out for three months.

They really need to take advantage of a favorable stretch in the schedule to pad their record now for the probable drop in June when they play the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels and Astros. In the next two weeks, the Mariners face Oakland, Minnesota, Texas and Tampa Bay, and only the A’s series is on the road. Oakland is the only one of that bunch that has a winning record at 25-22.

I don’t know how Oakland manager Bob Melvin does it. The A’s appear to be a subpar team, but Melvin gets the most from his players, and I admit to pulling for the former Mariners manager for shallow reasons – I played golf with him once at Desert Mountain in Scottsdale, and he gave me a sleeve of Titleist ProV1 golf balls. Yes, I can be bought.

This Oakland series could prove too interesting than it should be. The Mariners will face the overachieving A’s with their shakiest three starters – Mike Leake, Félix Hernández and Marco Gonzalez. I fully understand that all three of these guys have had good moments this year, but I also feel like the Mariners better score five or six runs in each of their starts if they’re going to win. Leake’s ERA is up to 6.00, Felix is at 5.53, and Gonzales is the best of this trio at 4.66. I don’t have anything against any of them personally, I just don’t think you’re going to get it done over the course of the season with what we’ve seen from them thus far.

Leake is a middle-of-the-road starter. Felix is on the decline. Gonzales is a youngster with upside, but you’ll have to deal with the growing pains this year. It’s a strange deal when your ace and fifth starter are your best pitchers, but that’s what’s happening with James Paxton and LeBlanc. After going the distance in a 7-2 win over the Tigers Saturday night, Paxton’s in terrific shape to become AL Pitcher of the Month after striking out 16 A’s and throwing a no-hitter against the Blue Jays in his first two May starts.

I’d say I don’t get what’s going on with LeBlanc, but he was an effective fill-in starter for the Mariners two years ago so we’ve seen this from him before. It’s always intriguing to watch a pitcher who uses guile and control to compensate for a lack of velocity. Again, though, is that sustainable? I’d say no. If LeBlanc were this effective over longer stretches at other stops in his career, he wouldn’t be a stop-gap starter, he would have been a fixture in somebody’s rotation by now.

Then again, with the mojo displayed by the Mariners this year, all things seem possible, and maybe LeBlanc will be Jamie Moyer for the next 10 years. How do you explain what’s happening? They have come from behind in 12 of their 27 wins, and the latest examples against Detroit were their most improbable – erasing a 4-0 deficit with a five-run seventh inning Friday night, then tying the game with Mitch Haniger’s two-run homer in the ninth and winning it on Jean Segura’s RBI single in the 11th on Sunday.

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The Mariners are now 4-2 since Canó was suspended. Nothing seems to bother them. The way they’re going, we might talk about 2018 the way we talk about 1995. Who’s to say they’re not World Series contenders from what we’ve seen?

I mean, honestly, I don’t think they are – certainly the rotation and Canó’s absence will catch up to them, but they continue to defy logic.

The Mariners might actually be in better shape defensively at second base with Dee Gordon, albeit slightly, over the aging Canó. But you can’t replace Robbie’s bat, and who knows if Guillermo Heredia’s equipped to be an every-day player in center field. Guess we’ll find out. Same holds true for Ben Gamel in left field. His bat is coming around, but don’t forget that he struggled through the second half of 2017.

Canó’s suspension causes all kinds of emotions, among them disappointment and anger. As much as I want to think this is a one-time occurrence or an oversight on his part, it’s hard not to be cynical. If I had to bet, I’d say he knew what he was taking and didn’t think he’d get caught. I’d also guess he’s been doing it for years, and it was no doubt worth the risk if it helped him get the $240 million, 10-year contract from the Mariners.

Danny O’Neil from 710 ESPN Seattle speculated that Canó might have been motivated to take PEDs to justify that contract while trying to outrun Father Time. Point is, he has five years left on that contract and will get paid whether he hits .300 or .200.

I’m not caught up in the moral part of it, nor do I want to call him an out-and-out cheater. But even if you don’t agree with the rules, he broke them. He knew the consequences so it’s hard to feel sorry for him even if you like him, which I do. And this might be terrible, but if the difference between a .200 Robbie and a .300 Robbie when he’s 39 years old in 2022 is the use of PEDs, it wouldn’t bother me if he kept taking them – just don’t get caught this time. Hate to say it, but if I’m the one paying him, I want results, and if it means I have to look the other way, I’ll look the other way.

Even if you think like I do that the Mariners have too many weaknesses to keep this up, the standings show that they’re only two games behind the defending World Series champion Astros in the AL West. And when you look around the rest of the league, the Angels appear to be their strongest competition for the second wild card.

Instead of micro-analyzing their flaws like I did, it might be better to sit back and enjoy the crazy ride. Sometimes things that don’t make sense in sports are the most satisfying.

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Moore: How long can the Mariners stay on a roll without Robinson Canó?