When compiling a list of reasons for the Mariners’ unexpected success in the 2021 season, the surprising success of starting pitcher Chris Flexen could rank near the top in importance, perhaps falling just behind a dominating bullpen that has been the island of misfit arms and minor league signings made good.
But it’s fair to wonder where the Mariners would be had they not unearthed Flexen, a major-league washout with the Mets, from the Korean Baseball Organization and brought him back to the United States as their highest-paid free agent signing — 2-year, $4.75 million — in an offseason where upper-level management wouldn’t allow general manager Jerry Dipoto to shop anywhere outside the clearance aisle.
And now that offseason signing that generated a collective “Who the hell is Chris Flexen?” from the Mariners fan base has been their best starting pitcher not named Yusei Kikuchi.
With a crowd of 27,353 filling T-Mobile Park on a pleasant Saturday evening, Flexen and two of those unwanted relievers — Drew Steckenrider and Paul Sewald — combined to hold the Angels scoreless in a crisp 2-0 victory.
It guaranteed a win in the three-game series and improved the Mariners’ record to 48-42. The six games over .500 is the highest water mark for the team this season. Seattle has won 14 of its past 20 games and six of its past eight series.
Flexen pitched seven scoreless innings, allowing just three hits with two walks and six strikeouts to improve to 8-3 in 16 starts this season and lower his overall ERA to 3.51.
And in 10 starts at T-Mobile Park, he’s now 6-2 with a 1.75 ERA.
“His ability to shape certain pitches and attack certain zones in the strike zone is way better than I thought it was going to be when we first saw him in spring training,” manager Scott Servais said. “His growth, the confidence he’s gained and his ability to move the ball to all different quadrants of the strikes is very, very impressive. He’s got four quality pitches. Now he’s actually comfortable enough that he’s pitching the scouting reports and hitters weaknesses a little bit and that’s what you got to do in this league.”
Steckenrider pitched a scoreless eighth inning, striking out the side in dominating fashion while Sewald, the man of many thrown sliders, notched his second save with a 1-2-3 ninth that included a swinging strikeout of Shohei Ohtani and getting Jarred Walsh to flyout.
“I just went out there and tried to make the best pitches I could,” Sewald said. “We faced him in Anaheim. And I know if I make good pitches, then I’m gonna be successful most of the time. That’s all I focused on. I got behind both of them, which wasn’t ideal. But at the end of the day, it worked out.”
Speaking of Ohtani, Seattle held the legend hitless on the evening with Flexen also striking him out looking on a pitch that wasn’t a strike. But hey, he can’t always get every call to hit tape measure dingers.
Flexen wasn’t dominant in terms of swings and misses, but he got ahead early and generated weak contact, including 10 groundball outs vs. two flyball outs.
After posting an 8-4 record with a 3.14 ERA in 21 starts for the Doosan Bears, Flexen generated some interest with MLB teams. The Mariners had monitored his success via video scouting and statistical analysis and contacted his agent. A Zoom call was set up between Flexen and Dipoto.
“Ultimately having that Zoom call with him and giving me a breakdown of what the organization is like, who we have on the team, I truly was excited to come here and be a part of this organization,” he said.
Admittedly, he didn’t expect this sort of success.
“I definitely didn’t think I’d be where I’m at right now,” Flexen said. “But I think that comes along with the trust and confidence and continuing to learn each outing and trying to get better and help the team win a ballgame. Obviously, I wouldn’t be in this position without everyone behind me.”
The offense was provided by Jake Fraley hustling down the line to avoid an inning-ending double play in the fourth inning and Luis Torrens’ RBI triple into the right field corner. An infielder converted to catcher, Torrens doesn’t run like an infielder any longer. It was just his second career triple.
Kyle Seager was scratched from the starting lineup about an hour before first pitch due to a bone bruise on his right shin. It snapped a career-high streak of 225 consecutive games played, dating back to June 29, 2019.
“It’s one of the worst I’ve ever seen,” Servais said. “It’s not good. It’s pretty sore. It looks like a bruised banana. It’s bad. It’s all different colors.”
Seager suffered the injury when he fouled a ball off the shin Thursday in the finale vs. the Yankees. He played through the pain Friday night.
Servais wasn’t certain if they were going to place Seager on the injured list. But MLB sources did confirm that infielder Donnie Walton and top catching prospect Cal Raleigh were removed from their game with Class AAA Tacoma and en route to Seattle to be called up.