General manager says everyone from him on down has to do a better job in second half if Mariners are to remain in conversation for playoffs.
MIAMI — It was a euphoric night at Safeco Field. A crowd of more than 31,000 fans jammed into the stadium on a warm Friday evening to watch the surging Mariners take on the Houston Astros, who were leading the American League West and had the best record in baseball.
Felix Hernandez was making his first start since after missing more than a month on the disabled list and the Mariners’ offense was proving to be a run-scoring juggernaut.
In one of their best games of the year, the Mariners crushed the Astros 13-3 on June 23. Mike Zunino highlighted a six-run third inning with a three-run homer while Ben Gamel and Kyle Seager also added homers in the rout. Hernandez gave a solid outing, allowing three runs in six innings against a potent Astros lineup.
Mariners @ White Sox, 5:10 p.m., ROOT
It was the Mariners’ seventh win a row. They were 37-35 and rolling. Finally, the team that general manager Jerry Dipoto envisioned was starting to gain some traction.
“We looked like we were starting to take off,” Dipoto said.
But then they lost to the Astros the next day, and again the day after that. And after an off day, they inexplicably dropped two games to the Phillies.
The slide continued, and even a series win in Anaheim provided only minor pause to the hemorrhaging.
Since that Friday night at Safeco, the Mariners have gone 6-12 to limp into the All-Star break. The failures couldn’t be blamed on injuries like earlier in the season. It was just poor execution, silly mistakes and bad baseball.
The dichotomy of the two periods of performance was typical of a team that has been anything but consistent. A 6-1 stretch in early May was immediately followed by a 1-5 span, including a series sweep by the Blue Jays. There was the awful 1-7 stretch (May 19-27), including being shut out in back-to-back games at Fenway Park followed by a 9-1 run (May 28-June 7).
“This team, for a year and a half now, has been a pretty topsy-turvy team,” Dipoto said. “We tend to go through highs and lows. And every time we hit the bottom, we bounce higher than we did the time before, and inevitably we come back down. But the one thing that this group is not afraid of is kind of energetically kicking it into the mountain once the ball starts rolling. When the ball starts rolling, we will push it faster. We just have to get better at when we start rolling up the hill.”
At 43-47, the Mariners are four games out of the wild card thanks to a muddled American League that has revealed the Astros as elite and everyone else as flawed.
Dipoto was blunt in his evaluation going into the All-Star break.
“We have underperformed, truly,” he said. “Particularly over the course of the last couple of weeks. We just haven’t played well, and we are at probably our most, the longest stretch of positive health that we’ve had since opening day, and we’ve played perhaps as poorly as we’ve played all year long over the course of the last two weeks.”
More galling is that the bad baseball came at home in front of frustrated fans. With a post All-Star break schedule that features 27 of the next 44 games on the road, it was a wasted opportunity.
“It’s disappointing because we had a nice stretch in the schedule that set us up to do some damage before we head to the All-Star break,” Dipoto said. “We haven’t taken advantage of it. We came out flat. We didn’t show up effectively. We’ve struggled to score runs over the last week or so on a given day. We’ve struggled to stop the other team from scoring runs on a fair number of occasions, and frankly, from my job to the scouts’ job to the players, we have to do better than we’ve done.”
To be fair, injuries have played a factor in the Mariners’ current situation. At one point, the Mariners had four of their projected starters for their pitching rotation — Hernandez, James Paxton, Hisashi Iwakuma and Drew Smyly — on the disabled list. It’s forced them to start 14 different pitchers this season and carry an extra long reliever in the bullpen out of fear of sub-five-inning starts.
Of their 90 outings this season, Mariners starters have thrown seven complete innings just 18 times. Conversely, they’ve had 36 outings of five innings or less. There were 30 games where the starter allowed four runs or more. Seattle’s starting pitchers have a combined 4.76 ERA, which ranks 11th in the American League.
“We have not carried that same level of consistency or impact on the pitching end, and that’s just reality,” Dipoto said. “That is not something that we can solve by snapping our fingers. Like I said, it’s been some combination of injuries, some level of inconsistency, and whether it’s the number of bodies we’ve had to churn through, or the reasons we’ve had to churn through them.”
Realistically, all five starting pitchers projected for the rotation had questions about health and performance coming into the season. None have exceeded expectations. The Mariners’ best pitcher has been a guy that wasn’t supposed to be in the rotation — lefty Ariel Miranda.
That instability and inconsistency game to game from the starting pitching has forced the Mariners to totally rely on an improved offense that is averaging 4.79 runs per game — sixth-best in the AL to go with the fourth-best batting average (.263) and fifth-best on-base percentage (.332). Yet, it’s almost illogical to expect a team to go out and score five or six runs per night. But given the pitching, it’s almost a necessity. Think of it as knowing you are three runs down before you start a game.
The Mariners are 40-15 when scoring at least four runs. And when they put up three runs or less, they are 3-32, including losing their last 25 games when scoring three runs or less. That dates to a 3-1 win at Cleveland on April 28.
“We have pitched better here in the last couple of weeks, but still not what we’re capable of, and we can’t continually expect to put up six and seven late runs again, like the offense was doing for a month,” Dipoto said. “We have to find a way in July to not force our offense to do what they were doing in June. We have to pick ’em up, whether it’s defensively, whether it’s with our pitching staff, or it’s with better baserunning, but across the board, we just have to be a little bit better.”
Unexpected contributions from Gamel, Mitch Haniger, Zunino and Guillermo Heredia have helped offset the subpar first half from Seager. Seattle has shown it doesn’t have to completely rely on Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Seager to score runs.
“Our offense has been what’s put us in a position to at least be part of the conversation coming out of the break,” Dipoto said. “We need to click on all cylinders. We’re not good enough, and we are too flawed to expect for one element of our team to carry anybody, and that makes us like at least 12 of the other teams in the American League.”