Kendall Graveman and his 100-mph fastball are back. That’s a nice arm for Mariners manager Scott Servais to have as he attempts to solve the ongoing riddle of his late-inning bullpen configuration.
Graveman, after three weeks on the COVID-19 injured list, made his return to the mound Saturday, allowing one run in the eighth inning against Cleveland.
It got worse for the Mariners’ bullpen from there.
Much … much … much worse.
Rafael Montero wilted in the bottom of the ninth inning, blowing a three-run lead with two outs and wasting one of the best starts of Yusei Kikuchi’s major-league career.
Cleveland went on to win the game 5-4 with a walk-off run in the 10th inning on an errant throw home from Mariners right-hander Paul Sewald.
“As sour a taste as you can get in your mouth when you give away a game like that,” Servais said.
The final play — what should have been an easy 1-2-3 double play gone wildly wrong — was the perfect caper for the most dreadful late-inning performance of the season for the M’s bullpen.
After the Mariners’ offense — given a free runner at second base under MLB’s extra-inning rule — failed to score off Cleveland’s James Karinchak in the top of the 10th, Cleveland quickly loaded the bases off Sewald with no outs in the bottom of the 10th.
Sewald made a good first pitch to Harold Ramirez — a changeup off the plate inside — and got an easy comebacker. But Sewald slowed down his throwing mechanics and made an awkward soft toss to catcher Tom Murphy, who was pulled a good 10 feet up the third-base line to make the catch.
That gave Cleveland’s Cesar Hernandez ample room to slide home for the winning run. Sewald crouched in front of the mound, head down in disbelief, as Cleveland players poured out of the dugout and celebrated around him.
The Mariners had led 4-0 going into the eighth inning.
Graveman, one of baseball’s most dominant relievers early in the season, allowed a solo home run to Hernandez in the eighth — the first run Graveman has allowed all year.
“It’s good to get ‘Gravy’ back out there. It’s been a long time since he pitched for us in the game,” Servais said, adding, “(He) wasn’t overpowering like we’ve seen him in the past, but that’s expected. It’s been 20-some-odd days since he’s pitched in a game for us. … We will continue to get him out there and build him up, but it’s great to have him back.”
The ninth inning was ugly.
Montero did get two quick outs and, with a 4-1 lead, the Mariners appeared on their way to a much-needed victory on this much-too-long road trip.
Instead, Montero folded.
His worst sin: He walked back-to-back batters with two outs. Most of his pitches in those at-bats to Yu Chang and Josh Naylor weren’t even competitive pitches, and that’s what irked Servais (and anyone else watching) the most.
“He quit attacking,” Servais said. “You’ve got to be pounding the strike zone there. The only thing that can get you (in that situation) is what got us — the free passes.”
Pinch-hitter Bobby Bradley’s bloop single made it 4-2, and former Mariner Rene Rivera doubled off the left-field wall to tie 4-4. Montero had gotten ahead of Rivera 1-2, but then left a low slider over the middle of the plate that Rivera hammered.
In 13 opportunities, Montero has blown six saves this season — the most in MLB. The Mariners did not make him available for a postgame Zoom call.
“It’s more mindset than anything else — you have to go after it and you’ve got to force them to swing the bat and put balls in play,” Servais said. “We didn’t do that. We gifted it to them, and that’s why it’s so hard to swallow.”
And yet, outside of Graveman and Montero, the Mariners don’t have any other proven bullpen arms for high-leverage situations. Servais said the late-inning situations lined up well Saturday — with Graveman going against the top of Cleveland’s lineup and Montero against the middle of the order.
“We had it lined up the way we wanted to. You know, guys need to execute; we didn’t execute today,” Servais said.
Kikuchi deserved better.
After a shaky start, Kikuchi got some advice from his catcher, Murphy, after the third inning. Kikuchi was finishing toward first base, Murphy noticed, instead of aiming home. Kikuchi was able to correct his mechanics, and then retired 13 of last 14 batters he faced.
He allowed just three hits and three walks with six strikeouts a week after taking a hard-hit ball off his right knee in a defeat against the Los Angeles Angels.
The Mariners also welcomed back second baseman Dylan Moore, who in his return from the injured list went 2 for 4 with a home run, a double and two runs batted in. His seventh-inning homer traveled 427 feet to left and extended the Mariners’ lead to 4-0.
Jake Fraley continued his hot road trip, belting a two-run home run in the third inning. It was the third homer of his major-league career — and all three have come on this 11-day, 10-game, cross-country trip.
The Mariners benefited from a wild start from Cleveland right-hander Triston McKenzie, who recorded just two outs before being pulled in the first inning. He threw just 12 strikes with his 32 pitches — issuing four walks, including one to Moore with the bases loaded to give the M’s a 1-0 lead.
The Mariners left the bases loaded to end the first. It wouldn’t be the last time they squandered a prime opportunity.