Justus Sheffield went to his best pitch, hoping for a strikeout and an end to a second inning and an outing that was spiraling out of control.
He was so focused on executing the 0-2 pitch that he didn’t really look at any of the Yankees that occupied each base.
He kicked his leg and fired a slider. It was supposed to land somewhere near the back of Luke Voit’s foot after he swung over the top of it. It’s a pitch he’s used for swings and misses for most of his young career.
Instead, that pitch, like so many of Sheffield’s pitches in his brief outing Tuesday night and really most of the 2021 season, failed to reach its intended location, yielding suboptimal results.
The slider spun and hung in the middle of the plate, where Voit and his shirt-sleeve ripping arms were happily waiting to pounce on the gift.
Voit smoked a single into left field to score a pair of runs and end Sheffield’s outing.
As he trudged off the mound to a mixture of boos from Mariners fans and cheers of “Luuuke” from Yankees fans, Sheffield mostly stared at his feet, a quick glance up revealed a broken expression of frustration and doubt. A bad season had somehow sunk lower for the 25-year-old lefty.
And it could be a while before he steps on another big-league mound.
Sheffield’s shortest, and easily the worst start of his career, buried the Mariners before they had chance to bat for a second time in a game that was already lost.
And while enduring a 12-1 pasting by the Yankees wasn’t enjoyable and barely watchable at times, the issues surrounding Sheffield and his season-long struggles have sunk to a nadir far more concerning than the loss of one game.
“Not good, not good,” Sheffield said quietly. “I mean that’s it, really, just not good. I’ve got to battle through some stuff.”
Lefty Hector Santiago replaced Sheffield and made sure Sheffield’s final pitching line didn’t get any worse, getting Gio Urshela to fly out to center to end the inning.
Sheffield final numbers had a little of everything, most of it not good — 1 2/3 innings pitched, six runs allowed on five hits with three walks, two strikeouts, a homer allowed, a wild pitch that scored a run and a hit batter.
“It’s tough,” he said. “Obviously, it’s not fun going out and not doing your job, and not playing the way that you know you’re capable of playing and playing the way that I know I can play.”
He struggled from the first pitch. He gave up a single to D.J. LeMahieu to start the game, got Aaron Judge to hit a 399-foot fly out to center, walked Gary Sanchez despite being up 1-2 in the count and left an 0-1 sinker down the middle that Giancarlo Stanton pulverized.
Stanton sent a line drive off the facing of the upper deck in left field. The three-run homer had a 116 mph exit velocity. Of his 63 pitches, 37 were strikes, only seven of which were swings and misses. The Yankees recognized early that the command was missing and they forced him into the strike zone, refusing to chase noncompetitive misses out of the strike zone.
In 15 starts this season, Sheffield has a 5-8 record with a 6.48 ERA. In 732/3 innings, he’s struck out 59 batters and walked 35 while opponents are posting a .316/.391/.520 slash line with 14 homers. He’s allowed five runs or more in seven starts and pitched six complete innings only three times. Over his last five outings, he’s pitched 19 innings and allowed 24 runs for an 11.37 ERA.
“It’s a combination of things,” said Mariners manager Scott Servais. “He’s just not locating or throwing the ball great. He’s making mistakes at the wrong time in the game and it adds up. It kind of snowballs and you’ve got to get it going back in the right direction. Usually it starts by making sure your head’s in the right spot. It happens to all players and it’s happened to Sheff in the past, and he will get through it.”
But it also may a health aspect.
“I didn’t really feel 100 percent,” he said. “I have to get right and get back out there to where I know can compete.”
It’s not an arm issue.
“It’s just a body issue,” he said. “We’ll see. I’ve been in the training room working on some things, getting some stuff right. Hopefully we’ll figure it out and maybe I’ll be able to get into the positions I need to get into.”
Several reasons/complications prevented the Mariners from making a move after Sheffield’s previous two outings — specifically a lack of starting pitching depth at Class AAA Tacoma and injuries to other starters — but it’s become clear that Sheffield needs a break from the starting rotation and possibly some time with the Rainiers as a reset.
With the Mariners now using a five-man rotation, he is scheduled to pitch Sunday in the series finale vs. the Angels and the final game before the All-Star break.
Sending him out to make that start might be counterproductive for the team and for Sheffield, who is clearly out of sync with his mechanics, leading to nonexistent command and minimal chances for success. And the revelation of the health issues, however minor they may seem, certainly changes the equation and the likelihood he won’t pitch on Sunday.
“We’ll just have to wait and see,” Servais said. “We’ll talk about it here in the next couple days. At the end of the day, we need to do what’s best for the player, and obviously the team along with that. We’ve got to get Sheff going in the right direction again. We’ll sit down talk about in the next few days. We’ll make the best decision for everybody involved.”
A glance at the Rainiers’ roster reveals a passel of relievers and not much for true starting pitching with MLB experience, particularly on the 40-man roster. With the All-Star breaking looming, the Mariners could call-up versatile Robert Dugger to start and essentially have a bullpen day – they are quite familiar with that strategy this season.
But after the All-Star break, there are no real answers. The easy solution would be to have Santiago make that start. But the veteran lefty is “stuck” in the limbo of MLB’s disciplinary process. He is still waiting for an appeal hearing with an arbiter about his 10-game suspension for having a foreign substance on his glove while pitching in Chicago.
If Santiago’s suspension is upheld, he is out 10 games and the Mariners are not allowed to fill his spot on the active 25-man roster, giving them one less pitcher. The lost roster spot makes bullpen days a little more difficult.
And for a team that’s still four games over .500 at 45-41 and in contention for a wild-card spot, moving forward after the All-Star break with either a struggling Sheffield or a bullpen outing for an extended period certainly doesn’t portend success.
Right-hander Justin Dunn is not close to returning from the injured list. The two most stretched out starters are right-handers Logan Verrett and Darren McCaughan. Verrett, 31, was signed out of the independent leagues a month ago and has made 16 MLB starts in his career. He last pitched in the big leagues in 2017 and pitched in Korea in 2018. McCaughan, 25, has pitched six innings or more eight times for the Rainiers this season.
The Mariners could also try and acquire a pitcher in a minor-league trade to try and fill the rotation spot.
None of these are options for more than a few weeks. The Mariners need Sheffield to get right, Dunn to get healthy or acquire a legitimate starting pitcher.