This time there would be no crazy rally in the late innings or walkoff heroics. And the only bullpen implosion on this night would be their own. The good feelings and optimism of the improbable opening-day victory were replaced with the familiar frustration of relievers not being able to throw strikes and games frittered away in the middle innings.
Seattle’s 6-3 loss to the Giants on Friday night in Game No. 2 of the season offered a reminder that this team won’t find wins easily even against teams of similar or lesser talent and experience.
“Obviously a little different ending than we had last night,” manager Scott Servais said with a bit of a pained chuckle. “We had our rough inning in the bullpen tonight.”
The beauty of the 162-game baseball season is its marathon length with a game almost every day. And what seems like a variation of results will eventually expose the bad, showcase the good and decide whether teams or players are either.
The Mariners think they are good. The metrics predict they will be bad. And the bullpen, which has been an issue for the past few seasons, might be the ultimate determinant between the two sides.
Right-hander Drew Steckenrider, a minor-league signing who maximized his invite to MLB camp by pitching his way onto the opening-day roster this spring, turned a 3-3 game into a 6-3 deficit in frustrating fashion.
Called on to pitch the seventh inning, Steckenrider, who once served as the Marlins closer in 2018 before arm injuries sidetracked his career, gave up three runs on two hits with two walks and two strikeouts. After walking the first batter he faced, Steckenrider struck out pinch hitter Alex Dickerson and Austin Slater. He never got the third out in the inning.
He walked the next batter, Michael Yastrzemski, on four pitches that never sniffed the strike zone. Servais labeled the walk “uncompetitive.”
Steckenrider fell behind Donovan Solano immediately and seemed poised to walk another batter. But on a 3-1 pitch that probably wasn’t a strike, an aggressive swinging Solano pulled the inside fastball down the left-field line for a double that scored two runs. Steckenrider would give up another run in the inning on an infield single before being lifted for Keynan Middleton.
“Steck struggled in that inning,” Servais said. “Of all relievers that we have in the bullpen, he probably has the most experience of anybody, and but you know it’s about controlling the zone and he didn’t do it. We liked the matchup and we thought it was a good spot to get him in the game, he just couldn’t finish off the inning.”
Realistically Steckenrider has never been a control the zone type of pitcher. He’s relied on stuff more than command. For his career, he’s had less than a 50% strike rate and a 10% walk rate to go with a 29% strikeout rate. There will be outings like this when he pitches.
Steckenrider’s struggles overshadowed a highly promising outing from starter Yusei Kikuchi.
The hard-throwing lefty pitched six innings, allowing three runs on six hits with a walk and 10 strikeouts, which tied a career high.
“Really excited about what Yusei Kikuchi fired out there tonight,” Servais said. “That’s the type of stuff and the focus and just the attack mentality, we’ve been talking about for him to come along. That’s as dominant outing as we’ve seen him have. I’m really happy and looking forward to seeing many more outings like that this year.”
At the behest of Servais and pitching coach Pete Woodward, Kikuchi came out throwing at max velocity from the first pitch of the game. The Mariners have emphasized it over allowing a power pitcher like Kikuchi or fellow lefty James Paxton to ease their way into the game and allow early damage.
Kikuchi came out pumping fastballs in the 96-97 mph range and looked dominant in the first two innings, striking out four of the first six batters he faced.
“All spring I was told by Woody and (Servais) and by everyone to just be aggressive in the strike zone and keep attacking the strike zone,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “That was something I was able to do.”
Buster Posey ambushed a 94 mph fastball—the first pitch of the third inning – and hammered a homer over the wall in center field.
Kikuchi took a two-run lead into the sixth inning, having worked out of a minor problem in the fourth inning and striking out three of the four batters he faced in the fifth. But with one out in the sixth inning, he gave up a single to Solano and watched as Evan Longoria, for the second straight game, drove a fastball on the outside corner of the plate over the wall in right field to tie the game at 3-3.
“Tip your cap to him,” Kikuchi said. “He’s a veteran power hitter and he was able to execute.”
Kikuchi finished the inning but would get a no-decision.
Of his 89 pitches, 67 were strikes. But more importantly, Kikuchi threw first-pitch strikes to 19 of the 25 batters he faced. Throwing a strike on 76% of the first pitches is significant improvement over the 50.5% of strikes on the first pitch to batters in 2020.
Seattle gave Kikuchi an early lead against Giants starter Johnny Cueto with an RBI double from Luis Torrens in the second inning and a two-run single from Evan White in the third inning. But Seattle wouldn’t muster any offense beyond that.
“He’s got a ton of experience,” Servais said of Cueto. “He really tries to disrupt your timing with all the things he does with the quick pitching and then slowing it down. Certainly some of the guys with leg kicks and stuff like that are not comfortable facing him. I thought our at-bats were pretty good with a lot of deep counts, and got his pitch count up. But we needed to continue to keep the pressure on him. Just not quite enough offensively tonight.”