MINNEAPOLIS — Even if the Mariners don’t want this to be the expectation, it has become reality — and it doesn’t seem likely to change in a season that’s already lost.
For a third consecutive day at Target Field, the Mariners bullpen delivered another abysmal showing, turning a promising bounce-back start from Yusei Kikuchi and a tie game into another lopsided loss. Seattle relievers gave up nine runs in two innings, leading to a 10-5 drubbing by the Twins in a game that went from competitive to calamity in one inning. It was the 16th time this season that the Mariners pitching staff has given up double-digit runs.
It would be easy for fans to lament Mariners manager Scott Servais’ bullpen decisions, but a closer inspection reveals a collection of mostly inexperienced arms, many of whom were cast off from other organizations. Their obvious flaws — lack of command, no secondary pitch, woeful inconsistency — is what made them available to the Mariners in the first place.
No pitcher in the bullpen has shown the ability to handle high-leverage situations on a consistent basis. So the decision late in the game becomes: Would you rather endure a kick in the ribs or a punch to the face?
“Guys in the middle of our bullpen have had a rough go of it of late,” Servais said. “We have to get them back on track. You have to keep getting them back out there and giving them a chance to figure it out.”
Since the organization made the decision to go into step-back/rebuild mode, the Mariners chose not invest anything more than minimal money into the bullpen. Why spend on late-inning arms if you are rarely going to lead in the late innings? They shopped in the clearance aisle of waiver claims, trades for players who were designated for assignment and minor-league free-agent signings. It has yielded expected results.
With Hunter Strickland experiencing a setback in his recovery from a strained lat muscle, Sam Tuivailala battling dead arm and Chasen Bradford shut down with elbow issues, there are no reinforcements coming to help. And expected contributors such as Dan Altavilla and Nick Rumbelow have yet to help this season. Rumbelow was just released because of his poor pitching.
“We knew the bullpen was going to be a struggle when we left camp and when Strickland went down,” Servais said.
Bad bullpens are a plague on the league this season. While it may seem difficult to fathom, the Mariners aren’t the worst — but they are in the conversation.
The bullpen came into Wednesday with a -0.6 Wins Above Replacement per FanGraphs, which was fourth worst in all of baseball. A 4.81 walks per nine innings was the third highest and 1.88 strikeout-to-walk ratio was second lowest. The 68.1 percent of stranding inherited runners was the third worst.
“Getting behind in the count, the walks certainly hurt and not locating is what it comes down to,” Servais said. “You have to execute your pitches in this league.”
After Kikuchi delivered five innings and allowed just one run, a vast improvement over his previous three outings, the trio of Brandon Brennan, Cory Gearrin and Jesse Biddle turned the sixth inning into an interminable dumpster fire of bad pitches, base runners, hits and runs scored.
When it was finally extinguished, 11 batters had to come to the plate and six runs had scored.
Brennan, a Rule 5 draft pick this offseason, had been one of the Mariners more reliable relievers, which also speaks to the bullpen’s problems. But he’s struggled of late, allowing runs in six of his last nine appearances. He didn’t record an out in the sixth, walking the first batter, giving up a single and committing a throwing error on a pickoff play to allow a run to score. A wild pitch set up another run to score on a fielder’s choice and a walk to the fifth batter he faced ended his outing.
There may be a lingering health issue as the cause of Brennan’s recent inconsistent performances.
“You could say it bit of fatigue and (discomfort) in the middle of my back is where it’s really all stemming from,” he said. “I can’t really get a normal feeling out there. It’s becoming more to work. It’s not free and easy. In the beginning of the year, you’re fresh and it’s just different. Obviously, I haven’t had this big of a workload in my career. Coming from the minor leagues, everything is a little more planned out.”
Brennan has been dealing with the issue on and off since the Mariners played in New York in early May. He met with a doctor and underwent some tests.
“I’ve been doing a bunch of stuff in the training room every day for it, but it’s kind of at its peak right now,” he said.
His replacement, Gearrin, gave up a pair of singles, allowing two of Brennan’s runners to score. Brennan was charged four earned runs. He has a 17.61 ERA, having allowed 15 runs in his last 7 2/3 innings pitched with 11 hits and eight walks.
Gearrin got just one out while allowing two runs. Biddle entered and got the final out but not before allowing a two-run single.
The Twins tacked on three more in the seventh with Biddle giving up another single and Tayler Scott giving up a two-run homer to C.J. Cron.
Kikuchi was much better than recent outings. He worked out of a bases-loaded, no-out situation in the second inning without allowing a run. His only run allowed came on a solo homer from Nelson Cruz.
“I felt really good right out of the chute, but in the last three games I would get into spots like that and I wasn’t able to come through,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Justin Novak. “I was proud that actually I was able to come through for my team in a tight spot like that.”