With their 7-2 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays on Thursday afternoon in Buffalo, the Mariners have moved a game past the numerical halfway point of the season.
From the early days of spring training when the roster seemed so incomplete thanks to a shortsighted and stingy free agency philosophy in the days following the injuries to James Paxton and Kyle Lewis, and in the brutal month of May where they couldn’t string together hits or score runs and seemed to always be on the verge of being no-hit, this version of the Mariners and the current success couldn’t have been envisioned by even the biggest optimist or team apologist.
In their 82nd game of the 2021 season, the Mariners got yet another solid outing from Yusei Kikuchi, who has finally blossomed into the pitcher they hoped he could be when he signed as a free agent before the 2019 season. Seattle scored five runs off Blue Jays’ ace Hyun Jin-Ryu to improve to 43-39 on the season.
The Mariners wrapped up the six-game, two-city road trip with a 4-2 record and three-game series wins over the White Sox and Blue Jays — both teams expected to be much better than them.
“Heck of a road trip against two really tough opponents,” manager Scott Servais said. “You find out a lot about your guys when you are playing on the road. And now, we’ve got fans in the stands again and that makes it a little more challenging. The home team is feeding off the adrenaline that the fans will give them. As the visitor, you have to be able handle it and combat it. I thought our guys did a great job of that.”
Seattle heads home to open a 10-day, nine-game homestand that leads up the All-Star break, the metaphorical halfway point of the season. With T-Mobile Park fully opening to fans with no restrictions or requirements on Friday, and schools adjourned for the summer, will fans come back to see a team that has vastly outperformed expectations?
“I’m looking forward to coming home for a big homestand,” Servais said.
Fans have every right to be cautious or skeptical about this team based on past misfortune.
Still, the idea that this team would be four games over .500 this deep into the season, and still holding out hope for a wild card spot, seemed illogical given all the things mentioned above.
If you throw in the myriad other injuries, forcing key players to stints on the injured list and the resulting all-too-frequent use of bullpen starts to maintain a six-man starting rotation, and the somewhat unexpected struggles of top prospect Jarred Kelenic during his call-up and the highly unproductive starts of the season for Tom Murphy, Dylan Moore, Luis Torrens and Justus Sheffield, well, this team’s success doesn’t quite compute to typical baseball analysis.
“That’s the beauty about baseball,” said Jake Fraley. “For us, it’s just taking it day by day. What’s the next game? What’s the next series? We are just solely focusing on that and not getting too ahead of ourselves and not getting stuck in the past.”
Kikuchi is a major reason for this success. After two “seasons” of inconsistency and adjustments with his life, his mechanics, his mentality on the mound and performance, he has finally found himself as a pitcher at the MLB level.
He pitched seven innings, allowing one run on five hits with a walk and six strikeouts to improve to 6-3 on the season and lower his ERA to 3.18.
“Yusei Kikuchi is the story for today,” Servais said. “That’s one of the better hitting ballclubs in the American League and he went out today and got right after them. He was on the attack from the get-go. He had really good stuff and did not back off. To get seven innings out of him against that kind of team says a lot about his effort today and the kind of season he’s putting together.”
It was his fourth straight start of allowing one run or fewer and his 10th quality start (six-plus innings pitched, three runs or fewer allowed) in 15 starts this season. He’s only had two starts this season where he pitched fewer than five innings, and one of them came when he took a comebacker off his knee vs. the Angels.
His ability to pitch at least six innings and his availability — never missing a scheduled start — has been vital for the Mariners, who have had to place Paxton, Marco Gonzales, Justin Dunn, Nick Margevicius and Ljay Newsom on the injured list for varying time frames in 2021 and pushed their relievers to the brink with the bullpen starts.
Kikuchi’s only run allowed came in the first inning to the first batter he faced. Marcus Semien continued his torture of Seattle pitching that started with his days in Oakland and has carried into this series. He crushed a 2-1 cutter off Kikuchi to deep left-center for his 20th homer of the season. A free agent after this season, Semien, 30, is someone the Mariners should certainly consider as an option to play either second or third base.
From there, Kikuchi rolled, using a mix of mostly cutters and fastballs to get 10 ground ball outs.
The Mariners’ offense got to Ryu immediately. J.P. Crawford led off the game with a double while Mitch Haniger and Kyle Seager followed with singles. Seager’s infield hit allowed Crawford to score. Ty France scored Haniger with a sac fly that made it 2-0 in the first.
“A lot of good things,” Servais said. “Up and down the lineup, we had some really good at-bats and some really good swings against Ryu, who is tough. This guy knows how to pitch. But what we did best is we trusted our eyes. We really controlled the strike zone well and got him over the plate and then put some good swings on him.”
Seattle answered Semien’s solo homer with a solo homer from Jake Fraley in the third inning and later a two-run blast from Shed Long Jr. in the fourth that made it 5-1.
“It was being patient and boxing him up, especially for lefties,” Fraley said. “He throws a lot of junk, trying to get you to chase off the zone. For lefties, it was just get him on the plate, knowing that he was going to try and get you to chase outside. Stay off the off-speed and see one of the fastballs — the two-seam or the cutter — that he leaves over the plate that you can do something with.”
The Blue Jays picked up a run off Drew Steckenrider in the eighth inning to cut the lead to 5-2. But Seager removed any potential looming drama for the ninth, scoring a pair of runs with a single that made it 7-2.