NEW YORK — Until Hunter Strickland returns from the injured list, which isn’t expected to be any time soon, the concept of a closer or set roles in the Mariners’ bullpen won’t exist despite the external desire by many to assign those duties.
Instead of designating a specific inning for a reliever, or having one pitcher as the closer, the Mariners are piecing together usage with manager Scott Servais and his staff looking for pockets in the opposing lineup that he feels are optimal for the pitchers available.
It’s why the Mariners’ best reliever Brandon Brennan pitched the eighth inning and veteran Anthony Swarzak pitched a disastrous ninth inning Tuesday night in a 5-4 walk-off loss to the Yankees.
Once 13-2 to start the season, the Mariners fell to 19-19. They are 6-17 since that torrid start.
“These are tough losses,” Servais said. “They are tough for everybody. It’s tough for Swarz giving it up. You are battling, you have a rain delay and trying to get through it and turn this thing around. But we’ll show up tomorrow and get back after it.”
With the existing bullpen philosophy, Swarzak isn’t the Mariners’ “closer,” and given how he’s performed in recent outings, he’d be demoted if he had been. He’s served up home runs in five of his past six appearances.
Brought in to close out a two-run lead in the ninth inning, Swarzak failed for a second straight appearance to get a save. He served up a game-tying two-run homer to Gio Urshela and then allowed the winning run to reach base when Cameron Maybin followed with a single. The Mariners brought in Roenis Elias to try and salvage the inning and keep it tied for extra innings. But after striking out Brett Gardner, Elias gave up soft single to right field that allowed Maybin to just beat the throw from right fielder Jay Bruce for the game-winning run.
“We’ve had a tough time closing out some games,” Servais said. “Swarzy has been struggling a little bit and made some mistakes tonight. You still have a lead going into the ninth and you feel good about your chances, but it’s been a struggle. It’s been a struggle for us to close out games the last 10 days or so. We’ve made some mistakes and the home run ball is getting us.”
Swarzak entered the ninth and gave up a one-out single to Gleyber Torres. He quickly got up 0-2 to Urshela, but then made a colossal mistake, leaving a 95 mph fastball right down the middle. It’s the worst place for an 0-2 pitch.
“It was a fastball that ran back over the plate, belt high, middle-middle, that’s going to happen,” he said of the homer.
Swarzak saw the location of the pitch, saw the contact and heard the sound off Urshela’s bat and slumped into a fetal crouch on the mound. Any brief hopes or prayers that the ball somehow wouldn’t go out or get caught were unmet.
“I didn’t get the results I needed and that’s unfortunate because our team played a hell of a game,” Swarzak said. “This was the game we needed. And you go out there and give the lead away like that, that’s not very good for the club. I’m going to do the best I can to go out there and try to get us zeros. That’s all I can do. I’m not giving up. I’ll never give up. I’m going to figure this out.”
So if Swarzak isn’t the closer, why was he pitching in the ninth in a save situation?
Well, with the Mariners’ bullpen philosophy, the higher leverage situation came in the eighth inning when New York’s top of the order, featuring Luke Voit and Gary Sanchez, came to the plate with Seattle leading 4-1. So that’s why Brennan pitched the eighth and Swarzak was the next to go in the ninth. Had the bottom half of the Yankees lineup been scheduled to hit in the eighth then Swarzak would’ve gotten the call there and Brennan would’ve pitched the ninth against the Yankees’ top of the order. Wherever Voit and Sanchez were hitting late with a lead, Brennan was going to face them. And since the current Yankees roster features mostly right-handed hitters, the efficacy of Elias is also neutralized.
It’s not a perfect philosophy, but it seems logical with the imperfect collection of arms in the bullpen.
Brennan wasn’t perfect either. He struggled initially to find the strike zone, walking the first two batters he faced. But after getting a fielder’s choice out at second and an easy strikeout of slugging catcher Sanchez, Brennan looked like he might wiggle out of the jam with a scoreless inning. But a changeup that went about 58 feet and bounced in front of the plate got by catcher Omar Narvaez for a wild pitch that allowed a run to score. Brennan struck out Miguel Andujar to end the inning and limit the damage to one run when the situation could have been much worse.
The Mariners got a solid, but wasted outing from starter Marco Gonzales.
After getting rocked by the Cubs in his previous outing and never making it out of the second inning, Gonzales pitched six solid innings, allowing one run on three hits with a walk, a hit batter and three strikeouts. He would’ve pushed to pitch the seventh if not for a rain shower moving over Yankee Stadium, eventually leading to a delay.
The first drops started around 7:45 p.m., but the game wasn’t delayed until 8:31 p.m. when the precipitation increased from steady to a downpour.
The Mariners grabbed a 1-0 lead in the second inning off Yankees starter Masahiro Tanaka. A miscommunication between center fielder Brett Gardner and right fielder Clint Frazier allowed Jay Bruce’s fly ball to drop in for a double. Bruce later scored on Ryon Healy’s sacrifice fly to deep left-center.
The Yankees got their only run off Gonzales in the third inning. Urshela led off with a double, advanced to third on a flyout to right and scored on Gardner’s ground ball to second base.
Edwin Encarnacion broke the 1-1 tie in the most violent of ways, lashing a line drive over the wall in left field for a solo homer. The ball had an exit velocity of 113 mph and never got above 50 feet while speeding toward the seats. It was Encarnacion’s 11th homer of the season, tying him with Jay Bruce for the club lead.
The Mariners tacked on two wasted insurance runs in the top of the eighth against hard-throwing right-hander Tommy Kahnle. Mitch Haniger’s one out single was the first hit off Kahnle by an opposing hitter in 30 at-bats. An error on Daniel Vogelbach’s soft ground ball to the left side set up Domingo Santana’s two-out single to left to make it 3-1. Bruce then looped a broken bat double into shallow left field to score Vogelbach for a 4-1 lead.