ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — The Mariners have found an immediate solution to avoiding the misery of yet another walkoff loss on this road trip — get a quality start from your pitcher, score an inordinate amount of runs and the late-inning suspense just disappears.
Of course, if it were only that simple all the time.
The Mariners made it look elementary Monday night at Tropicana Field, rolling to suspense-free 8-2 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays in the opener of a three-game series that was supposed to test their resolve and provide another test of their true potential.
Coming off back-to-back walkoff defeats against the lowly Rangers, the Mariners looked nothing like the team that struggled to score runs against average pitching, ran the bases to a detriment and struggled to execute on the mound.
That it came against the Rays (64-43), who were fresh off a three-game sweep of the Red Sox to move into first place in the American League East, only adds to the head-scratching amusement.
“We put the starting pitching together with a lot of really good at-bats for a big offensive night,” said Seattle manager Scott Servais. “It’s a good way to start this series against a quality opponent. Certainly Tampa has been playing really good but we match up well against them and we’ve played well against them all year. So hopefully it continues here a couple more days in Tampa before we head to New York.”
The Mariners (57-50) now have beaten the Rays in five consecutive games, following up their four-game sweep in June with this easier-than-expected victory. But few of the victories have been that way. Two were in extra innings and the other was a one-run victory. Their only other comfortable outcome was a 5-1 victory June 18 against Michael Wacha, who started Monday night.
“Typically, we play them very close,” Servais said. “We’ve been on the right side of five games so far. I hope we can figure it out a couple more times and get out of Dodge because they’re a good ballclub. We’ve played well against them. I can’t really explain it other than the fact that our guys know it’s a good quality opponent over there and we’ve got to bring our A game against them.”
Unlike their previous two defeats in Texas, where they mustered just two runs over the first eight innings of each game, the Mariners came alive for five runs in the third inning off Wacha, taking control of the game. They also added a few insurance runs along the way, allowing it to be a relatively comfortable outing for starter Chris Flexen, who continues to be one of the biggest surprises in baseball this season.
Flexen worked 6 2/3 innings, allowing two runs on seven hits with two walks and six strikeouts to improve to 10-5 and lower his ERA to 3.75. Only one pitcher in the AL had more victories coming into Monday — Oakland’s Chris Bassitt.
It was just five days ago he angrily labeled his performance “pathetic” and “unacceptable” while taking the blame for the defeat. Servais doesn’t have to chastise Flexen because nothing he could say will be harsher than the words Flexen says to himself.
“It lights my fire and keeps me humble,” Flexen said. “I’m hard on myself. The last couple have been a little tough for me. You’re trying to fight to get back on that good stretch. Every time I take the ball, I’m trying to go as deep as I can in the game and put us in the best position to win a ballgame.”
The five-run third started with the top of the order. J.P. Crawford worked a leadoff walk and Mitch Haniger followed with a single. In his 10th plate appearance with runners in scoring position over the past eight games, Kyle Seager notched his seventh hit, lacing a single into right field to score Crawford.
Ty France followed with his first of three hits on the night, sending a line drive into right field to score Haniger. A Wacha walk to Abraham Toro brought Jake Fraley to the plate with runners on first and second. Activated from the COVID-19 injured list before the game, Fraley had singled in his first at-bat since July 11 and followed it up with a two-run single into right field that made it 4-0. A throwing error on a double-play attempt moments later allowed Toro to score.
An inning later, the Mariners made it 6-0 on France’s run-scoring double to deep left-center, ending Wacha’s outing. The six runs allowed were a career high. If you combine Wacha’s earlier defeat in Seattle — 3 2/3 innings, five runs on 11 hits — he has now pitched 7 2/3 innings against Seattle, allowing 11 runs on 19 hits in 41 at-bat (. 463) with four walks and five strikeouts. France has five hits in six plate appearances against him with two doubles.
The plan was not to chase pitches out of the zone, particularly on the change-up and force Wacha up in the zone in hitter’s counts.
“We just want to shrink the zone and get something good we can handle and then put good swings on it,” France said. “We did a really good job of that tonight.”
Given the early lead, Flexen went into attack mode, pitching to the situation and throwing early strikes.
With a six-run lead, he was able to shrug off a missile of a solo homer from Randy Arozarena in the fourth and didn’t have to panic when Tampa made it 6-2 in the fifth following Kevin Kiermaier’s leadoff triple.
He just kept throwing strikes and getting outs, working to get a heavily used bullpen some extra rest but never letting up. He credited rookie catcher Cal Raleigh for helping him maintain that focus.
“I think the mindset has to be — just continue to keep the foot on the gas,” Flexen said. “Attack, pound the zone and continue to execute a game plan. Cal was phenomenal with that tonight and kept me going as well.”
Flexen got through six innings at 95 pitches and it seemed like he might be done for the day with Joe Smith warming in the bullpen. But when France smoked his 11th homer of the season — a solo blast to deep left center — and Jarred Kelenic produced a run-scoring single that made it 8-2, Servais sent his starter back out there for the seventh. Flexen couldn’t quite get all three outs. He walked Kiermaier to start the inning, but came back to strike out Mike Zunino and Nate Lowe.
With Flexen having thrown a season-high 113 pitches — his previous high was 107 — Servais went to Smith, who got the final out of the seventh and worked a 1-2-3 eighth. Keynan Middleton pitched a 1-2-3 ninth to end the game.