You can call it luck if you want to. It’s tempting when a team is 13 games over .500 despite having allowed 46 more runs than they’ve scored.
You might even call it destiny. That word will certainly be thrown around if the Mariners break through and end this two-decades-long playoff drought.
But when trying to figure out how Seattle (75-62) has been able to repeatedly pull out wins in one-run and/or extra-inning games, there’s a much more tangible place to look: the bullpen.
Sunday, and this isn’t a typo, the Mariners won a 10-4 thriller over the Diamondbacks in Phoenix. The victory extended their winning streak to five and placed them three games behind Boston for the second wild-card spot and four and a half games behind Houston in the American League West. It takes contributions from every corner of a baseball team to find continued success (according to FanGraphs’ WAR, the five most valuable Mariners this season are batters), but what the M’s bullpen has done in the clutch lately is unreal. Call it relief disbelief.
Sunday, Seattle starter Chris Flexen left the game with his team down 3-2 through six innings. After the M’s tied it in the top of the next frame, Erik Swanson came in for Seattle and pitched a scoreless seventh with two strikeouts. Then, Paul Sewald came in for Seattle and pitched a scoreless eighth with two strikeouts. Then, Drew Steckenrider came in for Seattle and pitched a scoreless ninth with one strikeout to send the contest to extra innings.
This has become the norm for these three, all of whom have ERAs of 2.40 or lower. Sewald has become particularly dominant of late, having allowed just one run in his past 13 appearances. And over that stretch — which has totaled 11.1 innings pitched — he has fanned 19 batters.
But he wasn’t the reliever folks were talking about most on Sunday. That would be Yohan Ramirez, who needed a scoreless 10th inning to keep the Mariners alive, and did it despite Arizona starting with a runner on second and moving him to third after a leadoff bunt. That’s poise from the pen. And the M’s rewarded him by scoring seven runs in the 11th en route to improving to 14-5 in extra-inning games.
Afterward, catcher Tom Murphy was asked about the relievers.
“They’ve done a fantastic job the entire season. It seems like every night somebody steps up and gives us a huge inning that we need and sometimes it’s four or five innings like it was tonight,” he said. “To be able to do that and keep our offense within striking distance to kind of ignite, it’s been the key to our success, no doubt. And those guys deserve a ton of credit.”
Remember how the trading of closer Kendall Graveman to the Astros felt like a clubhouse killer for the Mariners at the time? Not only has the team surged since then (after an immediate two-game skid, that is), but the bullpen hasn’t lost a step.
Seattle skipper Scott Servais emphasized the depth of his relievers during his postgame Zoom conference with the media. He mentioned how critical it was to be able to use Anthony Misiewicz and the newly acquired Diego Castillo in Saturday’s 8-5 win over the Diamondbacks, because it spared Sewald and Steckenrider’s arms so that they could pitch Sunday.
Asked what the bullpen’s ability to keep the Mariners in games meant, Servais was direct.
“It’s everything,” he said. “We’re always going to play in close games. That’s just gonna happen. But you need the horses to get you there, and the guys in the bullpen have been outstanding. And the fact that we’re probably deeper than we’ve ever been at any point in the season really excites me.”
The projection formulas still doubt the Mariners can sneak into the postseason. ESPN gives them a 6.9% chance of making it as does FanGraphs. But they continue to persevere despite what the equations might predict.
This might not be a team overachieving like most people think. This might be a team built to win the close ones because of the guys in the bullpen. Will it end up in the postseason? We’ll see.
But if they do end the drought, “joy” might not be the most appropriate word to describe fans’ emotions. Perhaps the better one is relief.