DENVER — A bullpen start that featured the usage of an opener?
In terms of generating anger, outrage and disgust, those two oft-used baseball strategies seem to unite an often-divided Mariners fan base that usually only agrees the organization has continued to fail them.
On a hope-you-remembered-deodorant Wednesday afternoon at Coors Field, the Mariners ended their post-All-Star break road trip in disappointing fashion, employing some form of those two strategies in a 6-3 loss to the Rockies.
It capped the five-game road trip where Seattle (51-45) finished 3-2 instead of 4-1.
With season-ending injuries and subsequent surgeries to lefties James Paxton (Tommy John) and Nick Margevicius (thoracic outlet syndrome) and right-hander Ljay Newsome (Tommy John) plus lefty Justus Sheffield (forearm/oblique strains) and right-hander Justin Dunn (shoulder strain) not close to returning, the Mariners have an open spot in their now five-man rotation that once was a six-man unit.
General manager Jerry Dipoto, a man of many transactions, has been trying to find some sort of replacement in the interim but has yet to finalize a deal for even a veteran mired on a team’s Class AAA roster.
The dearth of starting pitching depth around baseball is palpable. Teams are afraid to end up in Seattle’s position. The asking prices for what would normally “cash consideration” or “player to be named later” returns are high.
And unless Dipoto finds a pitcher in the next day or two, the Mariners will make another bullpen start again in five days.
“Everybody wants to focus on those games,” manager Scott Servais said before the game. “Most teams in the league are going to have days like this.”
He mentioned the Dodgers and Yankees being forced into bullpen games due to injuries to their rotation. But no team has employed the bullpen start as often or as consistently as the Mariners.
“Coming into this season, I think teams were accepting of the fact of how hard it was going to be to keep starting pitching healthy because of the shortened season last year,” he said. “Does anybody look forward to them or like them? I know managers don’t. But it’s just the world we live in. You knew this was going to happen at some point during the year.”
So the Mariners were forced to go with a bullpen start for Wednesday’s finale. But they did add a starter of sorts for the game. With Jake Fraley on the COVID-19 injured list and his spot on the 40-man roster open, Seattle selected the minor league contract of right-hander Darren McCaughan from Class AAA Tacoma before the game and optioned outfielder Dillon Thomas back to the Rainiers.
The Mariners are unable to fill Hector Santiago’s roster spot during his 10-game suspension, so they added McCaughan, a starter for the Rainiers, to pitch multiple innings vs. the Rockies.
In an effort to provide a “soft landing” in his MLB debut in the least pitcher-friendly park in baseball, the Mariners opted to use right-hander Keynan Middleton as an opener before McCaughan entered the game.
The “opener” strategy, which Seattle employed to much fan derision in 2019, is to have a reliever face the top of the order. This allows the “bulk” pitcher to work five-plus innings and avoid seeing the top of the order hitters three times.
For Middleton, his job was simple. Get as far as he could into the game — logically the first four to five hitters — with decent results.
In an ideal world, he’d give the Mariners an inning or two of shutout pitching. Allowing a run or two if he got through two innings would be acceptable.
Instead, Middleton buried the Mariners in the bottom of the first, allowing five runs on five hits and a bases-loaded walk and a strikeout with all nine batters coming to the plate.
“Keynan Middleton stubbed his toe a little bit today,” Servais said. “I don’t think he threw the ball that bad, but he didn’t get great results. And in this ballpark, it will lead to big numbers.”
Down 5-0, McCaughan entered the game in the second inning, having to face that top of the lineup.
Using a sinking fastball that tops out at 91 mph and a slider with more command than bite, he needed just six pitches to retire the first three hitters he faced. It was the first of five solid innings pitched. He allowed a run but not a hit in his debut.
“I tried to just get out there and take it all in, just breathe,” he said. “Really it slowed everything down and taking a pitch by pitch. I know it sounds cliché, but that’s really kind of what it takes when you get out there. Everything starts going fast so you just take that breath and it slows down a little bit and lets you see the game.”
His one run allowed came when he walked the first two batters of the fourth inning. A sac bunt and a sac fly led to the run.
“I believe in myself, and I feel like I do belong out there,” he said. “Just because I don’t throw 95 (mph) like these all these other guys do, I do it my own way. That’s throwing strikes, getting ahead and mixing speeds. I think just the ability to believe in yourself, believe in the pitch that’s about to come out of your hand. I’ve played this game for a while, and I’ve been lucky to keep playing it. So I’m just gonna keep doing it.”
The Mariners offense provided just three runs of support, which simply can’t happen in a bullpen game, particularly one at Coors Field, where the Rockies average 5.5 runs per game. The three runs came on solo homers from Kyle Seager, Luis Torrens and Mitch Haniger. Seattle had just five total hits in the game.
“To be competitive in these games, you need your offense to step up,” Servais said.
In games where the Mariners score less than four runs, they are 9-33 on the season.