Even when they were locking down leads or holding deficits in check to allow for their teammates to put together a late rally, there was always an eerie uneasiness to the early success of the Mariners’ bullpen.
It wasn’t that it didn’t feel real. It just didn’t seem sustainable given the past pitching inefficiency of several relievers, recent outings, advanced scouting and the reliance upon pitchers Anthony Misiewicz and Kendall Graveman to be unhittable.
Now nearly two weeks into May and following another blown lead and a loss, the expected regression of a bullpen that had the lowest ERA in baseball has turned fans angry, the Mariners into a .500 team and left manager Scott Servais in quiet disappointment.
Misiewicz and fellow late-inning set-up man Rafael Montero failed to protect leads, combining to give up five runs in the seventh and eighth innings, squandering a strong outing from starter Yusei Kikuchi and wasting three home runs off Dodgers starter Walker Buehler and sending Seattle to a 6-4 loss Tuesday night at Dodger Stadium.
The Mariners fell to 18-18 and could fall below .500 for the first time since April 8 when they had a 3-4 record after losing to the Twins.
“I thought we had enough to hold them off,” Servais said. “They got some big two-out hits and we just couldn’t finish off those innings.”
Montero entered the eighth inning with Seattle holding a 4-3 lead. He quickly retired the first two batters he faced, including a strikeout of the always dangerous Max Muncy, who had homered earlier in the game.
But that third out wouldn’t come without a cost. Montero gave up a single to Chris Taylor and then hit pinch-hitter Max Beaty with a poorly executed 0-2 slider. It brought prospect Gavin Lux to the plate. The Wisconsin native, who works out with Jarred Kelenic in the offseason, had yet to homer this season. That changed quickly and easily when Montero gutted a 1-0 fastball that couldn’t have been more perfect to hit. Lux sent it into the seats in right field for the go-ahead homer.
“He gets two relatively quick outs,” Servais said. “The 0-2 hit by pitch really hurt and the big mistake to Lux.”
After looking shaky in the homestand against Baltimore and struggling in two losses to the Rangers in the previous series, the bullpen has looked more like what people anticipated coming into the season instead of the dominant group of the first 25 games.
“They’ve been lockdown and really solid,” Servais said. “But it’s been driven by controlling the counts. We’ve been ahead in counts. Tonight, our guys weren’t quite as sharp, and the Dodgers are very patient. They’re gonna make you throw strikes early. And when you get behind, certainly that’s when they do their damage.”
Kikuchi gave the Mariners a start much better than his final line indicated: 6 1/3 innings, allowing three runs on six hits with no walks and a career-high 11 strikeouts.
Kikuchi allowed just one run over the first six innings – a solo homer to Muncy – while racking up 10 strikeouts and looking unhittable at times.
“Heck of an effort tonight by Yusei Kikuchi, again,” Servais said. “He continues to get better and better and build as the season goes along. Against a really good lineup, he was really aggressive with really good stuff.”
He entered the seventh with a 4-1 lead. After allowing a single to Chris Taylor, he struck out Sheldon Neuse to set his career high. But his outing ended on shift-beating infield single on an awkward swing from Lux.
Misiewicz struggled for the third time in four outings. After issuing a walk to load the bases, he struck out Mookie Betts with the help of a questionable call from plate umpire Greg Gibson. But the Mariners’ good fortune in the inning ended when Corey Seager pulled a breaking-ball into right field for a two-run single that cut the lead to 4-3.
“The walk to the first hitter was tough,” Servais said. “(Corey) Seager is really aggressive and he just didn’t get the breaking ball out away from him enough. Miz has been very consistent, really from the beginning of last year. But the location hasn’t been quite as consistent with the cutter. That’s always kind of been his go-to pitch. But it hasn’t been quite as consistent here the last couple times out.”
The Mariners were aggressive against Buehler and came out swinging early in counts. Buehler, a clone of Justin Verlander does have overpowering stuff, but doesn’t walk many hitters and loves to throw his high 90s fastball at the top of the strike zone. That’s a place where Seattle hitters haven’t hit many balls hard.
But they did against Buehler.
J.P. Crawford, batting leadoff, swung at Buehler’s first pitch of the game – an elevated 96 mph fastball and hit a hard shot to third that Justin Turner was able to field for an out.
There was no fielding Buehler’s fourth pitch of the game. Mitch Haniger was all over the elevated 96-mph fastball from Buehler on an 0-2 count, sending a missile over the wall in deep right-center for his ninth homer of the season. The solo blast gave Seattle a 1-0 lead and had an exit velocity of 103 mph and a distance of 402 feet.
“We’ve talked before about whether you want to hunt that fastball up, or you want to try to push him down because you know he’s effective at the top zone,” Haniger said. “That’s why he throws up there. He’s got really good stuff so we’re just trying to kind of set our sights and set a bar and try to get him below that and be aggressive.”
Seattle’s second time through the lineup produced two more runs.
With one out in the fourth inning, Kyle Lewis singled to left and Kyle Seager followed with a towering blast to right field. Buehler left a 1-2 cutter on the inside half of the plate and Seager stayed inside of the pitch. Seager’s seventh homer of the season had a 107.5 mph exit velocity and a distance of 390 feet.
Haniger’s second homer off Buehler came in the sixth inning and his third at-bat. After falling behind 0-2, Haniger received a gift in the form of a hanging cutter from Buehler. The pitch sat up and over the plate, Haniger didn’t miss the mistake, sending it into the left-field seats for his 10th homer of the season.