Even in a brief season where he will only make 10 starts, Justus Sheffield has provided the Mariners some needed reassurance about his future in their starting rotation and his status as a key part of their rebuild.
In his ninth start of the season and facing a solid Padres’ lineup, the rookie left-hander worked six innings, allowing one run on six hits with a walk and five strikeouts to set the tone in the Mariners’ much-needed 4-1 victory, ending a four-game losing streak.
The win didn’t come without a tense moment provided by the bullpen, like always. The Mariners’ “closer” Yoshihisa Hirano loaded the bases with no outs in the ninth inning. But he got Jake Cronenworth to hit a one hopper back to the mound for a 1-2-3 double play and got Jurickson Profar to ground out to second to end the game.
“Yoshi didn’t panic,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said in a postgame video conference. “He’s got a ton of experience. You are hoping for a double play there, but I wasn’t expecting a 1-2-3 double play.”
Even with the Mariners’ win, their playoff hopes grew a little more dim with the Astros also winning Saturday. Houston defeated the Diamondbacks 3-2 to remain three games up on the Mariners in the standings for the second-place spot in the American League West with eight games remaining. And really the Astros are four games up for the postseason spot since they hold the tiebreaker over the Mariners on the season series.
“It’s the drive of what we are playing for,” Sheffield said in a postgame video conference. “I knew who we were playing tonight, obviously a great team with a great lineup. I know what the circumstances of what our goal is. And that drove me more than anything.”
For the sixth time in seven starts, Sheffield pitched at least six innings and allowed two runs or fewer. He wasn’t dominant and worked through base runners in almost every inning, but he was able to make pitches to get outs and he also got some help from the Padres, who ran the bases like a drunken frat party streaking the campus quad, giving him some free outs.
During this stretch of seven starts, Sheffield has posted a 4-1 record with a 2.74 ERA, giving up 13 earned runs in 42 2/3 innings with 12 walks and 40 strikeouts.
Of his 99 pitches, Sheffield threw 21 changeups, his third-best pitch, and just 19 sliders, his best pitch.
“I didn’t even know that till just know,” he said. “Watching the game last night, a lot of their hitters were able to hit the slider out in front, especially if wasn’t down in the dirt — strike to ball. Before the game, we talked about it, and we didn’t really want to risk having to throw the perfect slider each pitch. We felt like we had an opening with the change-up there and it really worked out tonight in keeping the batters off balance.”
It was a sign of maturity. Admittedly, he would have been resistance a year ago if the scouting report and coaches asked him to throw the change-up more than the slider. There wasn’t that confidence in that process.
“In the past, I’ve relied heavily on that slider,” Sheffield said. “But we had a game plan, and we stuck with it. And I have confidence in that in that change-up. So I just really wanted to throw it on the plate and get some contact.”
Given his obvious talent — a sinking fastball with movement that can touch 95 mph, a nasty slider that works against hitters on both sides of the plate, the improving change-up and the athleticism to make adjustments — it seems odd to have concerns about Sheffield’s future at age 24.
Still, there was some doubt after a 2019 season that saw him start the season in Triple-A Tacoma, pitch his way into demotion to Double-A Arkansas where he was able to find success and give the Mariners eight uneven outings at the MLB level, posting a 5.50 ERA with most of them coming in September. He was inefficient in the strike zone. The emotion and intensity he pitched with would often work against him in situations.
But those doubts have been assuaged.
“We loved the way Shef looked in spring training and summer camp as we were building towards finally getting on the field,” Servais said. “But you never know how it’s going to play out. And I just can’t say enough about his ability, his maturity and the step forward he’s taken in being able to control his emotions. He’s a guy that’s got a chance to be really good for a long time. We are really excited about him and his future and how it plays for us going forward.”
About two hours before first pitch, the Padres decided to scratch scheduled starting pitcher Mike Clevinger as a precautionary measure. Padres manager Jayce Tingler said that Clevinger had biceps tightness. As their prized acquisition at the trade deadline, and with a postseason spot as the second-place in the National League West, the Padres didn’t need to push Clevinger.
The Padres were forced to start touted prospect Luis Patino. He was knocked out of the game in the second inning, as the Mariners grinded out at-bats and got a run on a Ty France RBI single.
The Mariners scored two more runs off old friend Dan Altavilla, as another component of that seven-player trade between the two teams last month, Luis Torrens, ripped a two-run double in the third inning.
Kyle Lewis continued his push for American League Rookie of the Year, blasting a solo homer in the fifth inning off lefty Adrian Morejon. It was Lewis’ 11th homer of the season.