The Mariners have been hurt by a poor bullpen and lack of situational hitting, but still cling to hopes of earning a second wild-card spot as the second half of the season begins.
NEW YORK — The descriptive words aren’t lacking. Underachieving, disappointing, frustrating, inconsistent and abysmal come to mind quickly without even referencing a thesaurus.
For many Mariners fans, the words chosen to describe the first half of the season for their team might not be fit to use in print.
Yes, there have been much worse first halves to seasons in the past decade. The Mariners went into this all-star break with a 41-48 record, placing them fourth in the American League West, 7½ games behind the first place Los Angeles Angels.
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But this team was supposed to be much better. This team had expectations of a division title and the first postseason appearance since 2001. And that is still possible. As bad as the Mariners have been in the first 89 games, they haven’t played themselves completely out of it. That second wild-card spot gives even the most middling of teams hope.
Still, there were few moments from the first half of the season that make such a turnaround seem like a guarantee. This is a team that’s longest winning streak was four games and won three games in row just three other times. The last time they won three games in a row was at the end of May — a three-game sweep of the Rays that put them at 23-23. Since then, they’ve gone 18-25 and have won back-to-back games twice while mixing in a seven-game losing streak as well.
The lack of traction and bunching wins are indicative of the Mariners’ failure to play high-level baseball on any sort of a consistent basis.
They are the first to admit it.
“Certainly, we’ve underachieved the first half,” said general manager Jack Zduriencik. “I think the players probably feel the same way too.”
Zduriencik’s roster construction has been an issue. Perceived platoons in left field and right field never materialized with the failures of Rickie Weeks and struggles of Dustin Ackley. The lack of a quality backup catcher to give struggling Mike Zunino extra days off has hurt. When the Mariners finally addressed the issue, acquiring Welington Castillo, Zduriencik then traded him away a few weeks later for Mark Trumbo. That move has yet to pay off.
So it isn’t just the players. And yet …
“I don’t want to use disappointing because the season is not over yet,” said second baseman Robinson Cano. “But this is not what we expected. This is not the way we are capable of playing as a team.”
So what went wrong?
Well, obviously the offense, or lack thereof, is the easy culprit to pinpoint for some of the issues. Anemic offensive attacks aren’t new in Seattle. It’s been an issue for more than a decade. The Mariners struggle to get on base, not strike out, hit with runners in scoring position and score runs.
They posted a .236 team batting average in the first half — good for last in the AL — and average 3.51 runs, which is the second-lowest in the AL.
With runners in scoring position, they are last in batting average at .209 and on-base-plus slugging percentage at .633. But it’s also a lack of situational hitting that’s hurt them. They are last in the league in sacrifice flies (19) while striking out 182 times with runners in scoring position.
Nelson Cruz was signed in the offseason to provide some punch to the middle of the order. He’s done that, hitting .308 with 21 homers and 53 RBI. Seth Smith has also been solid, batting .268 with an .815 OPS. But Cano struggled for much of the first half. He was hitting .238 with a .621 OPS through June, while Zunino, Ackley and the bottom of the order were free outs for much of the first half.
The offense deserves much of the criticism, but not all of it.
“People talk about our offense a lot,” manager Lloyd McClendon said. “If you look at our team last year, we weren’t an offensive juggernaut. We won games because we pitched and we closed them out. Our bullpen was outstanding.”
The Mariners’ bullpen has not done that with any consistency. A year ago, the bullpen was one of the best in baseball, posting a MLB-low 2.59 ERA. This year, the same group has regressed beyond expected proportions with a 3.81 ERA. Leads weren’t protected, saves were blown and deficits that could be overcome were turned insurmountable.
“It speaks volumes of where guys are at, a lot of them are in the minor leagues,” McClendon said. “They haven’t performed the way they are capable of performing.”
Four key right-handers from last year’s bullpen — Tom Wilhelmsen, Danny Farquhar, Dominic Leone and Yoervis Medina — are all currently in the minor leagues. Wilhelmsen is expected to be recalled on Friday. Both Leone and Medina were traded early in the season and are still pitching in the minor leagues for their new organizations. Meanwhile, Fernando Rodney exhausted McClendon’s trust in him in the closer role and was demoted.
The lack of consistent roles and outings from the right-handers has been McClendon’s biggest disappointment. A year ago, he played for matchups and situations and the relievers rewarded him. This season, it couldn’t be more different
“In a lot of instances our bullpen hasn’t done that and as a result a lot of those guys have been demoted to the minor leagues or traded,” he said.
The ineptness has overshadowed solid seasons from Beimel and Charlie Furbush, a breakout season from Carson Smith and the rejuvenation of Mark Lowe.
“That was more unusual what we did last year,” Beimel said. “We had the same group of guys the entire season. I’ve never been in a bullpen where you have the same seven guys there the entire season. Usually you have three or four guys that are always there and some rotating parts. That didn’t happen last year. That was very awesome. But it’s hard to expect that year in and year out.”