The Mariners know their season-long reliance for run production from the top three spots in the batting order isn’t possibly sustainable.
Even as good as Mitch Haniger, Ty France and Kyle Seager have been in the first part of this season, they can’t shoulder that much of the offensive load for another month let alone an entire season.
The return of Kyle Lewis at the cleanup spot certainly provides some help and presence. But there must be more from the No. 5 through 8 spots in the batting order where most days a hitter with a sub .150 batting average and high strikeout rate is slotted.
So, which of the several struggling hitters in the remainder of the Mariners’ order is going to emerge from their non-hitting doldrums as April turns to May?
On Friday night, it came from the two players who have had perhaps the most disappointing starts to the season of any players on the Mariners roster – Dylan Moore and Tom Murphy.
Moore smashed a solo homer, added a bloop RBI single and manufactured his own run scored off a walk, while Murphy clubbed the go-ahead solo homer and later added an RBI double, leading the Mariners to a 7-4 victory over the Los Angeles Angels in the opening game of this six-game homestand.
Seattle finished the month of April with a 15-12 record while notching its eighth come-from-behind win of the season.
“Fun night,” manager Scott Servais said. “I think offensively we needed one of those nights. We haven’t had one in a while with guys contributing up and down the lineup. I’m really excited for those guys. They needed a night like tonight.”
Coming into the game, Moore was edging dangerously close to seeing his batting average drop below .100. He had a .108/.244/.215 slash line in 78 plate appearances with 27 strikeouts – second most on the team. The power and hard-hit balls he displayed last season were distant memories replaced by a myriad of swings and misses on fastballs up in the strike zone.
“It’s no secret I’ve been scuffling the last few weeks,” Moore said. “The game of baseball, it’s tough.”
Moore earned everyday at-bats this season with his hitting prowess last season. So not producing similar results early hasn’t been easy.
“It’s very frustrating,” he said. “There are all types of doubts that creep into your mind and you got to keep them at bay with your work level and just kind of just work through it. It’s a long, long season so I just kind of take it day by day and not worry about the numbers or anything like that and just try to be my best self every day.”
Murphy, after a vagabond minor-league existence, has finally found the job stability/security of being an MLB regular for the first time in his career. But he’s looked nothing like the player who earned that status in 2019.
Was the missed 2020 season due to injury responsible for his .111/.149/.200 slash line and 18 strikeouts in 48 plate appearances? He’s looked uncomfortable and tentative on his best days and somehow worse on others.
“It’s been one of the biggest challenges of my career,” he said. “There’s no doubt about it, especially at the professional level. This is my first opening day this year in the big leagues at 30 years old. It’s not the start that I imagined, especially after missing all last year and wanting to do as well as I can. But hopefully today was a sign of good things to come and the way I’m going to trend.”
Of course, those guys at the top of the order weren’t going to remain completely quiet. After being held out of the lineup the last two games of the series in Houston due to some fatigue, Haniger returned to the lineup and made his presence felt immediately.
With Seattle trailing 2-0 after starter Chris Flexen gave up two runs in the top of the first, Haniger smashed his sixth career leadoff homer, sending a massive blast over the wall in deep center – measured at 436 feet – off Angels starter Andrew Heaney. It was Haniger’s sixth homer of the season and it cut the lead in half.
Moore tied the game in the bottom of the second when he was able to get the barrel on one of those high fastballs, sending it deep over the wall in left-center for his second homer of the season.
The Angels retook the lead in the third inning when Shohei Ohtani hit his eighth homer of the season, muscling a changeup over the right-field wall with an off-balance swing in a display of his raw strength and power.
But Moore erased the lead in the bottom of the inning with a broken-bat bloop single to shallow right-center that scored a hustling Ty France.
Murphy gave the Mariners the lead for good in the fourth, sending a high fly ball over the wall in deep-right center off Heaney for a 4-3 lead.
All three of the Mariners homers were hit on fastballs up in the zone. It’s something Moore and Murphy have struggled with early in the season.
“I think that sometimes I will go out there and tell myself I’m in line for the fastball, but something creeps in the back of my head, and I’m not necessarily all in on the fastball,” Moore said. “With everyone throwing high velocity fastballs in the upper part of the zone, you’ve got to be real honest with yourself on what your intentions are at the plate.”
Murphy believes its been a big part of his struggles.
“The first thing you can point to, is just swinging at the right pitches,” he said. “The second thing is making sure that you’re on time for the heater. That’s number one in this game when it comes to hitting, if you can’t hit the fastball, you’re not gonna stay around very long.”
In 2019, Murphy had a .303 batting average and .586 slugging percentage on fastballs with seven doubles and 12 homers while swinging and missing at 22% of them. Coming into tonight, he had a .121 batting average and .242 slugging percentage on fastballs while whiffing on 46% of them.
“That’s kind of the challenge I’ve had,” he said. “I’ve swung at them, but I just haven’t made the usual contact that I’m used to. And to miss those time and time again is what kind of really puts you in the hole and makes you realize you’ve got to make some adjustments.”
With Flexen struggling to produce some pitch efficiency and the Mariners needing to make several solid defensive plays, including two nice catches in left field by Sam Haggerty, manager Scott Servais went to his bullpen early. He replaced Flexen, who had thrown 87 pitches in four innings, with Drew Steckenrider to start the fifth inning. The veteran right-hander pitched two 1-2-3 innings, including striking out the side in the sixth, to get credit for the win. Casey Sadler, Anthony Misiewicz and Rafael Montero closed out the win, each working an inning.
With Mike Trout coming into the game hitting over .400 and seemingly at-bat 20 times a game, the Mariners wisely added on after taking the lead.
Moore manufactured a run on his own in the sixth inning. He worked a walk off reliever Junior Guerra, advanced to second on a wild pitch, stole third and then hustled home when the ensuing throw from Kurt Suzuki was well out of the reach of third baseman Anthony Rendon.
Seattle tacked on two more runs in the eighth inning. J.P. Crawford and Murphy each notched RBI doubles.
It wasn’t a perfect night for the M’s bullpen. After Sadler and Misiewicz each pitched scoreless innings, Montero closed out the win but did allow a run to score.