For the past two games at T-Mobile Park, a person with no background knowledge of this season would be hard pressed to pick the team that was projected to win more than 90 games and its division this season vs. the rebuilding team projected to win around 70 games and finish fourth in its division.
And this is not to disparage computer projection systems like Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA and FanGraphs’ ZIPS, which are right, or close to it, more often than they are wrong.
But with the Mariners’ 10-0 trouncing of the Twins on Tuesday night – their most convincing win of the season – it guaranteed a win in the three-game series with a chance for a possible sweep Wednesday night.
The Mariners have won four of their five games played against the Twins this season. After dropping three in a row, and looking quite bad in doing so, Seattle has now won three in a row and edge closer to .500 with a 34-35 record.
The unpredictability of the team and its performance is due to the inexperience and a plethora of injuries that haven’t allowed manager Scott Servais to send out his best possible lineup on more than one or two occasions this season.
Meanwhile Minnesota, which has been riddled by injuries to its everyday lineup, including starters Byron Buxton, Max Kepler, Mitch Garver and Kyle Garlick, fell to 26-41. But the return of those players in the coming days and weeks doesn’t seem to be a fix for a rotation that has underperformed and a bullpen that is one of the worst in baseball.
While the Twins were projected with 91 wins, they are trending to more than 90 losses.
Obviously, the Mariners’ 10 runs grab immediate attention. They were a season high and came on 14 hits, which tied a season high that also came against Minnesota and included a double, a triple and three homers.
“It took us a while to get the double digits, but we did score 10 runs in a game,” manager Scott Servais said.
But perhaps more impressive than the double-figure runs was the outing from starter Chris Flexen.
The lanky right-hander delivered his best outing in the big leagues, tossing career-high eight shutout innings, allowing four hits with no walks and eight strikeouts, also a career high, while improving to 6-3 on the season.
“Absolutely the best starting pitching outing we’ve had all year,” Servais said. “He just dominated the strike zone. I think he was first-pitch strikes to about 80% of the time. He had all of his pitches working. It is really fun to watch when he’s got it going like that with command of everything.
“I thought (catcher) Tom Murphy did an excellent job behind the plate tonight, working in all of his pitches and allowing him to get deep in the game, But heck of an outing. I wish it was that easy every night. It’s fun to sit back and watch games like that.”
Flexen displayed pinpoint command and exceptional movement on his four-pitch mix. Of the 58 swings he generated from the Twins, he had 15 swings and misses, including seven on his changeup.
“It was pretty awesome,” he said. “I don’t think anything really felt different. I was just definitely locked in and had all four pitches going. I’ve had all four working before in a game, but definitely tonight was the best so far.”
It showed in the pitch balance. He threw 30 fastballs, 30 changeups, 30 cutters and 17 curveballs in the outing. The Twins had just four balls hit with exit velocities over 100 mph.
The nights where everything works don’t come around often. But Flexen made the most of it.
“I hope I could do it all the time,” he said. “You know those nights when it feels really good and just keep your foot on the gas pedal and continue to attack. The ones that you don’t have all four going, those are the ones that good pitchers really figure out how to get deep into games and still continue to win ballgames.”
The Mariners jumped on Twins starter J.A. Happ immediately, scoring five runs in the first two innings and adding more frustration to a season that hasn’t gone as expected for the veteran lefty, who spent a half of the 2015 season in Seattle.
Happ made it through four innings, allowing six runs (five earned) on nine hits with a walk and five strikeouts on 84 pitches.
His very first pitch of his outing – a 91 mph fastball that sat in the middle of the strike zone – wasn’t taken for a cursory strike by Mariners leadoff hitter J.P. Crawford.
Instead, the hot-hitting Crawford was in ambush mode. He took a vicious hack at the gift strike and sent it deep into the right field stands for a leadoff homer.
Crawford is the first Mariners leadoff batter to hit a first-pitch home run since Dustin Ackley did it July 31, 2012. He has some work to do to catch Ichiro, who did it nine times in his career with the Mariners.
That first-inning blast set an early tone for the impressive offensive showing.
In the second inning, the Mariners loaded the bases against Happ with no outs on a leadoff walk from Tom Murphy and singles from Jake Bauers and Luis Torrens.
Shed Long Jr. unloaded the bases quite quickly, slashing a line drive into the gap in right-center that rolled to the wall and allowed him to hustle to third with a triple that made it 4-0. A passed ball moments later scored Long.
The Mariners added their sixth run off Happ in the fourth inning on three soft singles in a row from Long, Crawford and Jake Fraley.
Happ stood on the mound and shook his head in disbelief after Fraley’s looper to right field fell in and allowed Long to score. It was added and unnecessary pain inflicted on him by the baseball gods as if he was a pitching version of Job this season.
Happ’s replacement, Griffin Jax, was dealt similar punishment by the Mariners offense that came into the game with a .210/.287/.368 slash line with the batting average and on-base percentage being the lowest in all of baseball.
Seattle scored two off Jax in the sixth on an RBI single from Ty France and a sacrifice fly from Tom Murphy, and Torrens led off the seventh inning with a solo homer into the visitor’s bullpen.