OAKLAND, Calif. — When it happens for one game, you hope it is something more than a one-off surprise.
If it happens for two consecutive games, you want to believe it’s the start of a trend, but baseball superstition won’t allow you to say it.
And, well, if it happens for a third game on Thursday afternoon in the series finale and carries into the three-game series in Anaheim and beyond, then maybe the Mariners might just pull themselves back into consideration for the postseason race.
For the second consecutive night at the mostly vacant Oakland Coliseum, the Mariners looked nothing like the team that was shut out four times and scored more than three runs just three times on the previous 11-game homestand. This squad looked like something more than a competent offense, filling the bases with runners, getting timely hits and showing some power in a 9-0 victory.
With the win, the Mariners picked up a much-needed series victory — their fourth in a row on the road — and snapped an overall three-series losing streak. They’ve won 10 of their last 11 games at the Coliseum.
The Mariners can secure a series sweep with a win in what is expected to be a solid pitching duel Thursday afternoon. Left-hander Robbie Ray, who has been outstanding in his last few outings, will square off against Oakland ace Frankie Montas, who is expected to be the most coveted starting pitcher available at the trade deadline.
Obviously, the expectation isn’t scoring eight-plus runs per night, which is what the Mariners have done the first two games of the series. But it’s the process of how they racked up the runs that needs to be carried over as much as possible. The Mariners’ at-bats were filled with controlled aggression that put pressure on A’s starter Paul Blackburn — look for good pitches, don’t chase the bad pitches and pummel the ones they could drive.
“We are staying in the middle of the field,” Mariners manager Scott Servais. “We’re still not doing a great job with runners in scoring position. And that’s one thing we can continue to get better at, but we’re creating a ton of opportunities. And we’re doing it by staying in the middle of the field.”
Servais mentioned that hitting is contagious, but he wants it to be that sort of hitting — up the middle, hitting the ball where it’s pitched and not trying to yank homers to the pull side.
“We talked about it here recently at the end of the last homestand and getting back into the middle of the field,” Servais said “We let all the guys kind of express their opinions of where we’re at and I think when they get a chance to talk amongst themselves that it sinks in a little bit. And that’s what we’re seeing, because we’re staying in the middle of field and not overcooking anything.”
Blackburn, who came into the game with a 6-2 record and 2.26 ERA, was scrambling from the first few pitches when J.P. Crawford led off with a double and scored on Julio Rodriguez’s missile of a ground-rule double over the head of center fielder Ramon Laureano.
Cal Raleigh made it 2-0 in the second inning when he worked a 3-1 count and hammered a sinker out over the plate, sending a deep fly ball over the wall in center. The solo blast was Raleigh’s ninth homer of the season. In a quirky stat, since last season the Mariners are 11-0 when Raleigh homers.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the past two games of run scoring is the role that Jesse Winker has played. He produced an RBI single in the third inning that made it 3-0 and helped knock Blackburn out of the game in the fifth inning with a two-run homer to dead center.
It was the second straight night that Winker had a two-hit game that featured deep blasts to center field.
“It was a changeup away, and I just wanted to stay through it,” he said. “I got it on the good part of the bat, and it got up and got out. I was happy with that, and it’s on to tomorrow.”
The Mariners have scored 17 runs in the past two games, racking up 25 hits, 12 of them for extra bases and working 11 walks.
“Just a bunch of really good at-bats, a lot of hard contact from everybody,” Winker said. “I think that’s all you can ask for as a team is hitting the ball hard and just being tough outs on the pitcher.”
Somewhat overlooked in the back-to-back nights of offensive output, and it shouldn’t be, was the brilliant start from rookie George Kirby. In his ninth MLB start, Kirby produced a bounce-back performance against the A’s, pitching six shutout innings while allowing five hits with a walk and six strikeouts. In his third MLB start, he gave up four runs on eight hits in five innings against the A’s at T-Mobile Park on May 24.
Kirby has produced quality starts (six-plus innings, three runs or fewer allowed) in four of his past five starts.
“My biggest thing was just try and get ahead and stay ahead all day,” Kirby said. “I did really well with that the first three to four innings, and I got a little tired at the end. But when you are getting ahead, it just makes it a lot easier.”
Kirby admittedly felt the effects of sitting for long stretches in the cramped dugout with no place to stay loose or throw.
“Yeah, I just felt like could have just couple more warmup pitches,” he said. “But we scored a lot of runs tonight, so I can’t complain about long innings really.”
It was yet another impressive outing from Mariners starters, who have the smallest share of blame for the team’s previous struggles. The starting rotation has allowed three runs or fewer in the past 20 games, which tied a franchise record set in 2014. Unfortunately, they have produced just a 10-10 record over those 20 games because the offense failed to score more than three runs in any of the losses. In fact, the offense scored two runs or fewer in nine of those 10 losses.
When the Mariners score three runs or fewer, they have a 3-29 record. If they score four runs or more, they have a 28-10 record.