BRENT STECKER

Table Setter: Edwin Díaz’s MVP-caliber weekend gets Mariners back in race

Aug 12, 2018, 10:47 PM | Updated: Aug 13, 2018, 11:37 am
Edwin Díaz left the Mariners' series in Houston with four more saves to get to 46 on the year. (AP...
Edwin Díaz left the Mariners' series in Houston with four more saves to get to 46 on the year. (AP)
(AP)

I wasn’t looking forward to writing this column five days ago. You know, back when the Mariners had lost two straight to the Rangers and seemed on the verge of falling out of the playoff race completely. I’ve detailed Seattle’s problems plenty in the Table Setter throughout the season, and re-hashing them sure didn’t sound like fun.

Drayer: Mariners glad to have Colomé to turn to with Díaz needing rest

I should have known better. These aren’t the same old Mariners.

They’re the 2018 Mariners, the team that puts everything together when you least expect it – like how they reeled off nine wins in 10 games shortly after Robinson Canó’s suspension in May or shook off a disaster of a trip to New York and Boston by winning their next eight in a row. So yeah, of course they rebounded from four straight series losses to not just best the division-leading and defending world champion Astros, but sweep them in four games for the first time ever in Houston.

As big as that series was, bringing Seattle within four games of the Astros in the American League West and 1 1/2 of the Athletics for the AL’s second wild card, this week starts with an even bigger one – three games in Oakland that is an opportunity to move back into playoff position. The Mariners have their three most consistent starters set up for those games in Marco Gonzales, James Paxton and Mike Leake, too.

Here are three things to keep in mind this week about the Mariners.

Edwin Díaz is officially an MVP candidate.

The Mariners’ All-Star closer has been great all season. But in Houston, he put the team on his back and showed why he should not just be the AL Reliever of the Year but also in the MVP conversation. The 25-year-old righty became the first pitcher since Minnesota’s Joe Nathan in 2004 to save all four games of a four-game series, and the only reason he got the chance to complete that feat on Sunday was because he spoke up, telling bullpen coach Brian DeLunas to call the dugout and let it be known he wanted the ball if the M’s got a lead in extra innings.

“He wants the ball,” Mariners catcher Mike Zunino told Shannon Drayer after Sunday’s 4-3 win on the 710 ESPN Seattle broadcast. “We went through a stretch where we couldn’t give him a ball for a little while. He wants it, and there’s nobody better at the end of the game.”

No kidding.

With his four-save series, Díaz sits at 46 saves on the year – 11 more than second-place Craig Kimbrel. And it’s not like he’s losing effectiveness as the workload continues to pile up. In Houston, he was extremely efficient, needing just 13 pitches on Thursday, 12 on Friday, 11 on Saturday and (you guessed it) 10 on Sunday to get through the ninth.

Need more proof that what Díaz is doing is remarkable? Look at this comparison from MLB.com research analyst and writer Andrew Simon of Díaz’s season and Francisco Rodriguez’s record-setting 2008 campaign with the Angels:

The only problem is that by throwing four days in a row, Díaz absolutely won’t be available to pitch in Monday’s opener in Oakland. But then again, he’s not the only All-Star closer in Seattle’s bullpen, and Alex Colomé (currently on an 18 2/3 innings scoreless streak) actually did get a day of rest on Sunday.

Mitch Haniger likes the leadoff spot.

Here’s one of the less-smart things I’ve said on Twitter this year. When the idea of taking the scuffling Dee Gordon out of the leadoff spot came up last week, I pointed out how (at the time) Gordon was hitting .355 with a .375 on-base percentage in at-bats that led off the game for the Mariners. See, I thought it was invaluable how easily he can turn a leadoff hit into a run because he can steal second and advance on ground balls and sacrifice flies to score before the third out.

Gordon wasn’t hitting much at all, though, and the Mariners pulled the trigger on moving him out of the spot when they got to Houston. All-Star right fielder Mitch Haniger got the nod instead, and all he’s done since is hit 9 for 17 (.529) with five doubles and a home run (hit in his first career at-bat leading off a game), and all the Mariners have done is not lost a game since the switch.

The leadoff spot isn’t the only change manager Scott Servais made with the lineup in Houston. To replace Haniger’s usual No. 3 spot, shortstop Jean Segura moved down from second, with veteran outfielder Denard Span hitting second when it was turn to play in the outfield platoon. Segura went 6 for 17 (.353) with a homer against the Astros while Span was 6 for 10 (.600) with a homer and a triple in his three starts in the series. So, yeah, everything is working out just fine.

The top of the lineup isn’t going to keep hitting like that for forever, but here’s hoping for the Mariners’ sake it lasts into the A’s series.

Old faces, new roles.

With all of the excitement the younger players on Seattle’s roster provided in the sweep, it leaves a question about where a pair of legends figure into things now.

Tuesday is the day Robinson Canó comes back from his suspension, and he appears to be chomping at the bit considering how much he wore out Single-A pitching playing with the Everett AquaSox in recent days.

Then there is Félix Hernández, who was moved into the Mariners’ bullpen late last week and has yet to make his debut in relief – though it seemed like a near-certainty in extra innings Sunday until Díaz asked for the ball.

Canó is going to play – at his customary second base, but also at first and third, depending on which regular infielder needs a rest or makes the most sense matchup-wise to sit that day. But there’s a lot of uncertainty about how Canó will hit after such a long layoff and coming off the embarrassment of a PED suspension. And while I don’t personally think this will be the case, you do have to wonder in the back of your mind if his re-introduction into the everyday clubhouse will mess with the chemistry of a team that has added several new players since he last played.

With Félix, he’s going to need to pitch sooner or later, but considering it was ineffectiveness as a starter that landed him in the bullpen and he’s never been a reliever, the Mariners are understandably being cautious about his next appearance. They’re not going to use him in the middle of an inning to get out of a jam, and their penchant for playing close games makes it hard to turn to him in the sixth or seventh inning right now. If they build a big lead in Oakland or fall in an early hole, I suspect Servais will be quick to turn to the one-time Cy Young winner.

Moore: With Canó return near, M’s fans don’t have to miss Robbie anymore

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Table Setter: Edwin Díaz’s MVP-caliber weekend gets Mariners back in race