Scott Servais wasn’t trying to be prophetic or even cautiously optimistic in his pregame press session Sunday morning when he was asked what his team and its suddenly rejuvenated offense would be seeing later that afternoon when Cleveland ace Shane Bieber stepped on the mound in the series finale.
Servais complimented the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, mentioning his tight-spinning curveball might be one of the best in the game and the command of the fastball was exceptional.
And then he paused the praise for a moment.
“I say all that and he makes mistakes in the middle of the plate,” Servais said. “I just watched his last outing, and he’s really, really good, but nobody’s perfect. You’ve got to be ready to hit, you’ve got to be ready to hit from pitch one, trying to control the outside corner, especially if you’re a right-handed hitter. He commands it very, very well. But he still makes mistakes. We’ve got to be ready to capitalize on them because there’ll be a few there, there will be at least one guaranteed.”
Still, with Servais forced to have a bullpen start and Bieber capable of reverting the Mariners to their previous plate struggles, this didn’t seem like an equation that would equal success.
And yet, Servais wouldn’t concede to such thinking.
“You can look at it one of two ways: ‘Oh my gosh, it’s Bieber, he’s the Cy Young Award winner and all that other stuff.’ Or you can look at it like, ‘Yeah, let’s go. Bring it. Let’s see what we’ve got.’ And I really feel our club’s kind of at that point. It’s a good challenge for us today. And I’m looking forward to it. I really am.”
On an unusually warm Sunday afternoon for May, the Mariners proved they were up to the challenge. They scored three runs off Bieber in what would be his shortest outing in two seasons. A first-inning RBI single from Kyle Lewis and a bases-loaded, two-run single from J.P. Crawford in the third inning was enough for seven relievers to work through the nine innings in a 3-2 win over Cleveland.
After almost being no-hit in the series opener, the Mariners (21-20) won the final three games to take the series. They also snapped Bieber’s streak of 20 consecutive starts with at least eight strikeouts, which is an MLB record. They also ended his streak of 40 consecutive starts of pitching at least five innings. His official line: 4 2/3 innings pitched, three runs allowed on five hits with four walks and seven strikeouts. He threw 103 pitches with 59 strikes.
Servais didn’t brag about his pregame prescience, but he could sense his team was embracing the challenge.
“Hitting is contagious,” he said. “When you get a couple of guys going, it starts to spread up and down the lineup. It’s just a better vibe and feeling. I thought the last couple nights we did some nice things offensively and I was hoping it would carry into today. I certainly respect their starter and what he’s done, but we were ready. The most impressive thing today is we didn’t chase. We just grinded, and really made him throw a ton of pitches.”
Crawford wasn’t quite as eloquent when asked about his mindset of facing one of the best pitchers in baseball.
“Bring it on, I’m gonna rake your face,” he said. “That’s what I think up there in the box.”
With Marco Gonzales still on the injured list and the Mariners committed to the six-man rotation, Servais had no choice but to turn that spot in the rotation over to the bullpen to put together nine innings.
Right-hander Robert Dugger — the man of many breaking balls — got the start and delivered everything the Mariners could have asked for, pitching three shutout innings, allowing just one base runner on a walk and striking out four batters. Of his 50 pitches, Dugger threw 20 curveballs and seven sliders, keeping Cleveland hitters off balance.
Servais called on veteran right-hander Paul Sewald, who was called up Thursday, to provide multiple innings of relief. With a 3-0 lead, Sewald delivered two scoreless innings, allowing two hits while walking a batter and striking out four.
Dugger and Sewald combined to toss five scoreless innings while allowing two hits with two walks and eight strikeouts, better production than calling up a spot starter from the minor leagues.
“They had more than eight strikeouts,” Servais said, referencing the Bieber streak.
That run of scoreless innings ended when Rafael Montero entered in the sixth inning. The one-time closer, who just can’t seem to avoid putting runners on base or allowing them to reach, did just that. He issued a leadoff walk and allowed a double to Jose Ramirez to put runners on second and third with no outs. It did look like he might channel his inner Fernando Rodney and pitch out of the self-made situation. He struck out Franmil Reyes and got Josh Naylor to ground to second base that allowed a run to score.
Montero should’ve been out of the inning when Jordan Luplow hit a ground ball to the left side. But Donovan Walton, who was starting at third with Kyle Seager getting a “rest” day at designated hitter, couldn’t make the play. The error led to another run scored, trimming Seattle’s lead to 3-2. After Montero allowed another double, putting runners on second and third again, Servais had to make a change.
Right-hander Will Vest cleaned up the mess quickly, striking out Austin Hedges to end the inning.
Like Montero, Anthony Misiewicz found similar trouble in the seventh, allowing back-to-back singles to start the inning. But when Eddie Rosario sacrifice bunted the runners into scoring position, Servais took advantage of the free out and the open base at first. He had Jose Ramirez, Cleveland’s best hitter and who had five hits including four doubles in the series, intentionally walked to load up the bases and set up a potential double play. Misiewicz executed the strategy, throwing low cutters to the hulking Reyes, eventually getting a broken bat ground ball to third that Walton turned into a 5-4-3 double play.
Erik Swanson had no such issues with yet another cleaning inning of work, rolling through the eighth inning and earning more trust in leverage situations.
Kendall Graveman came on to work the ninth inning, allowing a two-out single before notching his fifth save of the season.