ANAHEIM, Calif. — It’s difficult to see how this won’t always be a lurking catastrophe, ready to destroy six innings of work and negate a lead of any size.
Sure, they can say the Mariners’ bullpen will get better. And to be fair, it might, because the current situation is bordering on absurdity. Thursday night’s teeth-gnashing, 11-10 win over the Los Angeles Angels snapped a six-game Seattle losing streak, but it should have never been that close. And the the late-game heroics from veteran Jay Bruce, who showed he doesn’t just hit homers or make outs, should not have been needed.
Bruce delivered a pinch-hit single through the left side of the infield, beating the shift and driving in the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth inning. It was a clutch hit from a veteran, who had been a spectator for much of the 3-hour, 59-minute marathon that would’ve made commissioner Rob Manfred cringe.
“He took a great approach,” manager Scott Servais said. “That’s a veteran at-bat right there. You don’t need a homer. You just need a single, and he found an open spot to hit it through.”
Left-hander Roenis Elias was the only Seattle reliever who did not allow a run. He worked around a leadoff single in the bottom of the ninth to notch his third save of the season.
And though it’s difficult to win one Major League Baseball game, the Mariners bullpen made it much more difficult than necessary. It was yet another bullpen transgression. And it could be the worst in a season where more are likely.
Four relievers combined to give up seven runs, turning a rout in which the Mariners led 10-2 going into the seventh inning into a Maalox-guzzling event.
“It’s not the way we typically draw that one up when you are leading 10-2,” Servais said. “Give the Angels credit, they battled back. Fortunately for us, we were able to get it done at the end.”
The Mariners’ bullpen was expected to have its struggles this year even before closer Hunter Strickland was injured five games into the season. The team moved on from its top five most-used relievers from last season — four via trade and the fifth by a non-tendered contract — and didn’t invest much capital in replacing them. Instead, the Mariners pieced together unit has a few oft-injured veterans trying to stay at the big-league level and several largely unproven youngsters.
“It’s part of what we are going through with some inexperienced guys down there,” Servais said. “You’ve got to finish.”
It overshadowed a significant bounce-back game from an explosive offense that had been stymied during a winless six-game homestand. Seattle banged out 13 hits, worked 11 walks and clubbed three homers, including a three-run homer and two-run homer from Ryon Healy and a three-run blast from Omar Narvaez.
“That was a marathon,” Healy said. “Baseball really shows you every aspect of itself. It’s challenging.”
All of that run support was useful for Seattle starter Felix Hernandez, who worked six innings, allowing four runs on nine hits with a walk and three strikeouts but somehow he didn’t get a win. He even held his nemesis, Mike Trout, hitless in three plate appearances.
Hernandez wasn’t dominant. He had just one inning without a base runner. But he used some helpful defense, including a pair of double plays, to get out of possible situations.
He worked into the seventh inning but allowed a leadoff single off the glove of diving second baseman Dee Gordon and an RBI double to Peter Bourjos to end his night.
That’s when everything fell apart.
“The seventh inning got crazy,” Servais said. “We were trying to get an out or two out of Felix. We thought he still had a little bit left. But they were on him.”
Servais called on right-hander Ruben Alaniz to replace Hernandez with a seven-run cushion. That’s not a difficult ask.
But Alaniz, making just his third career MLB appearance, couldn’t get out of the inning. He struck out the first batter — David Fletcher — for the only out he’d record. Kole Calhoun crushed a two-run homer over the wall in right field to make it 10-5. Trout singled to right, and Andrelton Simmons and Albert Pujols followed with RBI doubles.
“Alaniz has really good stuff, but he just didn’t execute,” Servais said. “He’d get ahead in the count and left some balls right in the middle. Instead of bouncing a couple, he left them right there to hit. He’s learning.”
With the score at 10-7, Servais had to turn to his best middle reliever, Brandon Brennan, in a game he should have never had to pitch. Brennan walked the first batter and struck out pinch-hitter Justin Bour for the second out.
But not even Brennan could escape unscathed. He gave up an RBI single to Tommy La Stella and uncorked a wild pitch to allow another run to score. The Mariners’ eight-run lead was down to one run. When Brennan finally got Bourjos to ground out to end the inning, 11 batters had come to the plate and seven runs had scored on seven hits and a wild pitch.
Seattle’s lead was gone in the eighth when Fletcher hammered a pitch from Anthony Swarzak over the wall in left for a leadoff homer, tying the score at 10.
And though the bullpen will continue to be an issue going forward, the Mariners offense returned to its early-season self thanks to a monster night from Healy.
The data and scouting reports have said Healy will swing and miss at a well-thrown breaking ball. A quick glance at Brooks Baseball’s database showed he swung and missed on 23.6 percent of the curveballs and 17.5 percent of the sliders thrown to him last season. Of his 113 strikeouts, 37 came on sliders — the most of any pitch.
And yet, there is a caveat in all of that. Healy also hit seven home runs off sliders that presumably didn’t slide quite enough last season. And he sent a reminder of those consequences, smashing a three-run homer and a two-run homer — both off sliders.
“It’s swinging at the right ones,” he said. “I think I’ve always been a good breaking-ball hitter. But it’s getting my approach back and staying committed to it with two strikes.”
A day after they saw their streak of 20 games with a home run end when they were shut out by the Indians, the Mariners came back with three homers off a beleaguered Angels pitching staff. Seattle has 45 homers on the season — the most in MLB.
After a 1-2-3 top of the first, Seattle got to Angels starter Chris Stratton in the second inning. A leadoff single from Edwin Encarnacion and an infield single from Daniel Vogelbach — that’s not a misprint — started the rally. With one out, Narvaez scored Encarnacion from third on a broken-bat single to center. Healy stepped to the plate and immediately fell behind 0-2. Stratton tried to put him away with an 0-2 slider. But the pitch stayed over the middle, and Healy crushed it into the rock formations beyond the wall in deep left-center.
Seattle tacked on another run in the third on a RBI single from Tim Beckham for a 5-0 lead. But the Angels picked up two runs in the bottom of the frame off of Hernandez to make it 5-2.
Healy struck again in the sixth, crushing a 3-2 slider from Jacob Jewell into the bullpens for a two-run homer. It was the eighth multi-homer game of his career.
Narvaez made it 10-2 in the top of the seventh, launching a three-run blast deep into the right-field seats. Both Narvaez (three hits, two walks) and Vogelbach (two hits, three walks) reached base in all five of their plate appearances.