Table Setter: Buckle up — the Mariners have proven they’re all-in on this year
It’s almost June, and a look at the standings shows the Seattle Mariners are 33-20.
That’s a full 13 games over .500. In the wild card race, it makes them 4 1/2 ahead of Anaheim for the second spot. And in the American League West, it’s just one game behind the defending World Series champion Houston Astros.
The Mariners are red hot, and it’s been an improbable streak if there ever was one. Let’s re-set everything after a stellar holiday weekend for the M’s.
All-in on this year
The Mariners’ team slogan for 2018 was an easy one for the pessimists to mock.
As in “Oh, another key player got injured? Well, good.”
It’s made for plenty of jokes in the world of Mariners Twitter, especially in spring training when players kept dropping to little dings and dents, or early in the campaign when Ben Gamel, Mike Zunino, Nelson Cruz and Ryon Healy (in that order) all found their way onto the disabled list.
Only thing is, it totally fits.
Robinson Canó breaks his pinkie, then gets popped for an 80-game suspension. Well … good.
And here’s why:
• Canó’s suspension led the Mariners to move Dee Gordon back to second base, opening up center field for Guillermo Heredia. And he’s not just playing his usual stellar defense out there, but also hitting at a .294 clip with an impressive .425 on-base percentage to go with it.
• The loss of Canó also gave the Mariners over $11 million back in forfeited salary, and general manager Jerry Dipoto put it to good use, pulling off a rare trade with significant impact before Memorial Day. Dipoto filled a critical hole in the bullpen with Alex Colomé, employing last year’s MLB saves leader to set up dynamic young closer Edwin Díaz. In the same trade, Dipoto added Denard Span, a veteran on-base machine who still has some speed and defensive skill in the outfield, allowing manager Scott Servais to use more of a rotation between Span, Gamel and Heredia in left and center. Sure, it hurts a little to send Andrew Moore over to Tampa Bay as part of the trade, but the fact that Colomé still has two more years of team control after this season sure helps. As does the fact that Tampa Bay kicked in $4.75 million to cover some of the nearly $14 million Seattle took on with the additions of Colomé and Span – meaning there’s still some money left over to take on another new contract in a trade. Even if you wanted to, it’s pretty hard to argue with the move.
I didn’t even mention how the Mariners completed their first sweep of the year Sunday then tacked on their ninth win in 10 games Monday all without Segura, who was inadvertently kicked in the head and had to leave Saturday’s game (which the Mariners went on to win in extra innings, naturally).
Dipoto and the front office sent a message to the clubhouse that it’s doing everything it can to help the Mariners’ push for the postseason. The team has answered in kind.
Hey look, a pitching staff
Bad news: Félix Hernández is the least effective starter in Seattle’s rotation.
Good news: That has as much to do with the other four pitchers’ performances as it does Félix’s.
James Paxton should probably be American League Pitcher of the Month for May (he could cement that honor over Houston’s Justin Verlander with one more gem Wednesday). Wade LeBlanc hasn’t given up more than two runs in any of his five starts thus far. Mike Leake threw eight innings of one-run ball Saturday and has gone at least 6 2/3 innings in three of his last four starts. Marco Gonzales hasn’t given up an earned run in any of his last three outings, the two most recent of which saw him pitch into the seventh. And remember that one time a few weeks ago when Christian Bergman came up from Triple-A for a spot start, flirted with a no-hitter and went back to Tacoma on the heels of a scoreless, seven-inning, two-hit showing?
And even though Félix is still scuffling some, he’s also giving the M’s six innings more often than not. And that might be just fine once the offense gets back to full-strength.
There wasn’t a ton of confidence in the starting rotation coming out of spring training. Things got even worse early in the season. But they got better – way better. The Mariners haven’t allowed an opposing team to score more than four runs in a game since May 16. And since May 8, Seattle has allowed their opponents to score five or more only five times. That’s a pretty nice 20-game stretch.
And lest we forget the bullpen. I’ll let Mariners radio announcer/producer/engineer Gary Hill handle that.
The @Mariners have won 9 of 10
27 1/3 IP
Filthy, filthy, filthy
— Gary Hill Jr. (@GaryHillJr) May 28, 2018
The just-enough offense
Here’s what happens when your pitching keeps holding teams to four or less runs: your offense is never out of it.
And thus, the story of the Mariners’ month of May.
Seattle has played seven one-run games in their last eight. It has won all but one of them. In fact, 12 of the Mariners’ last 15 games have been decided by one run or less, and they’ve been victorious in 10 – including all four that went to extra innings (and they’re 5-0 in extras overall this year).
It barely makes sense. Teams aren’t supposed to win one-run games at the regularity the Mariners are. But even when they’re rolling out a patchwork offense that’s missing Robinson Canó and maybe Jean Segura, Nelson Cruz or Mitch Haniger (depending on the minor ailment of the day), the pitching staff is keeping the M’s within striking distance. And more often than not, the hitters are striking in an inning or two, which has been just enough.
That was the case in each of the four wins over the weekend. On Friday, RBI singles by Cruz and Haniger were all Paxton and the bullpen needed in a 2-1 win over the Twins. Saturday it was a three-run sixth inning that provided enough for Seattle to stay in it into extras, where relievers Juan Nicasio and Chasen Bradford combined for three scoreless innings, giving Mike Zunino the opportunity to walk things off with a sign-damaging homer. Sunday, Ryon Healy’s two-run double in the eighth broke a 1-1 tie and sent the Mariners to a sweep of Minnesota. And Monday, the RBI singles by Cruz and Kyle Seager in the sixth provided all the offense needed with Gonzales and the bullpen handling things against Texas.
This is an incredible run by a team that’s not even 100 percent. Just wait until Segura returns Tuesday and Dee Gordon follows a few days later. The one-run games might soon become a thing of the past.