Given how bad they were in each aspect the past few seasons — and bad might be an underselling description when awful, abysmal or terrible might seem more applicable — it made sense when manager Scott Servais would often predict/guarantee that this 2020 Mariners team would be much better on defense and at running the bases.
It might take years of therapy for Servais to remove the memories of Tim Beckham at shortstop, Ryon Healy at third base and Domingo Santana in the outfield or Ben Gamel trying unsuccessfully to advance from second base to third base on ground balls to shortstop.
Given the skill set of the players on this roster, it had to be better. But that improvement has offered multiple examples in this optimal stretch of quality baseball from the Mariners, including two standout plays — one in the field and one on the bases in a big seventh inning — that secured a 4-3 win over the Rangers on Sunday afternoon at T-Mobile Park.
“We are a totally different team,” Servais said in a postgame video call. “No doubt about it. It’s fun to watch it every day. You can score runs in a number of ways, you can prevent runs in a number of ways. It’s just not — hit the ball over the fence and hope you strike everybody out. Everybody’s contributing.”
The Mariners won their fifth game in a row — their longest winning streak of the season. It’s their 11th victory in their past 15 games. With an 18-22 record, they are flirting with reaching the .500 mark.
Meanwhile, the Rangers’ free fall continued. They have lost five in a row and 17 of their past 20 games to fall to 13-26.
The key defensive play came in the top of the seventh with the Mariners clinging to a 3-2 lead. Texas appeared on the cusp of tying the game with two outs when Leody Taveras slashed a line drive to left-center off lefty Anthony Misiewicz. Derek Dietrich, the runner on first, was running on contact with the intent to score on a ball that seemed destined to roll to the wall.
However, center fielder Kyle Lewis, running at full sprint, managed to impede the ball’s progress and knock it down. He gathered it quickly and fired to cutoff man J.P. Crawford, who wheeled and fired a one-hop rocket to catcher Joe Odom. Fielding a short-hop with a catcher’s mitt while a runner is coming at you is one of the most difficult plays in baseball. Odom executed it perfectly, grabbing the ball, putting the tag down on Dietrich inches before his foot hit the plate.
“That was the play of the game,” Servais said. “It’s fun to see the guys in the dugout. They were about as excited to see that they executed that play as they are any time one of those guys hits a home run. It really meant a lot to them.”
The base-running component came into play in the bottom half of the inning when the Mariners were able to add a huge insurance run.
Pinch-runner Dylan Moore, one of the Mariners’ best base runners, made an impressive play at home while scoring from second on Shed Long Jr.’s single to right. Running at full speed toward home, Moore was able to adjust and avoid the tag of Rangers catcher Jose Trevino on a throw that was up the line and on time. Moore not only lunged out of the way as he was careening toward home, but managed to slap home plate.
“Not many players can do that full stride,” Servais said. “He’s some kind of athletic player.”
Said Kyle Seager: “That slide is so difficult. I’d be icing a few more things if I tried that.”
That run loomed large when Yoshihisa Hirano gave up a solo homer with one out in the ninth inning to Ronald Guzman, bringing the tying run to the plate twice in the inning. But Hirano regrouped to strike out Dietrich and Anderson Tejada to end the game.
After two stellar outings where he became the first pitcher in club history to record back-to-back outings of at least six innings pitched and one hit or fewer allowed, rookie right-hander Justin Dunn couldn’t quite replicate the same results for a third straight outing.
He did reach six innings pitched, which seemed like a minor miracle considering it took him 46 pitches to make it through the first two innings due to shaky command and three walks. But like he has done in multiple starts this season, Dunn made an adjustment, found some rhythm, posted a shutdown inning whenever his teammates gave him runs and then kept on going.
“It was one of those days where I felt good and was trying to get strikeouts early in the game with the stuff that I had,” Dunn said in a postgame video call. “I was just nibbling on the corners a little too much, getting in bad counts and not being able to repeat my delivery. I just went back to attacking. My thought process was trying to get guys out in three pitches or less.”
In three starts against the Rangers this season, Dunn is 3-0 with a 2.00 ERA with 12 strikeouts and eight walks.
Considering the suboptimal start and the myriad lefties in the Rangers’ lineup, Dunn’s ability to get through six innings, allowing just two runs on four hits with four walks and four strikeouts, might have been more impressive than his previous two starts. It speaks to his maturity and competitive nature to reel things in when they start to speed up or get out of control.
“He got on a nice roll the fourth, the fifth and the sixth inning,” Servais said. “He threw a lot more strikes, that was the issue early on. I give him a ton of credit for righting the ship, getting it going in the right direction and having a real quality outing for us. He’s learning. Today was one of those days where he wasn’t on his ‘A’ game coming out of the bullpen and it took a little while to get going, but it was really important to get him through six.”
After a 21-pitch first inning where he walked two batters but was aided by a caught stealing, Dunn gave up a majestic solo homer to Joey Gallo that landed in an area of T-Mobile Park where only four other hitters have deposited baseballs.
With his uppercut swing, Gallo crushed a 1- 2 fastball that was rocketed skyward down the right-field line. It carried over, yes, over the right-field foul pole and landed in the third deck of the right-field stands, above the suites that sit above the Hit It Here Café.
“I mean, if you’re gonna give it up, give it up like that,” Dunn said. “It was a challenge heater and kind of best-on-best situation. He did a really good job of pulling his hands in, getting the barrel on it. That was one of the first homers I’ve seen that went that far off a lefty’s bat that stayed that true to get up there. That was impressive.”
Gallo became just the fifth player to hit a ball into the third deck in a game, joining Carlos Delgado, Mo Vaughn, Nomar Mazara and Daniel Vogelbach.
“There’s not too many people that can do that,” Seager said.
But it only counted for one run and Dunn made the 2-1 lead stand up until his teammates made it 3-1 in the fourth inning when Kyle Lewis hit his ninth homer of the season — a solo blast to dead center.
Dunn’s only other run allowed came via solo homer in the fifth inning when leadoff hitter Taveras sat on a first-pitch breaking ball and hit his second homer of the season — a line drive into the right-field seats that cut the lead to 3-2.