Following the final out of what felt like an interminable fifth inning, Justus Sheffield trudged off the mound, eyes affixed on his feet and shoulders sagging in obvious frustration. He looked up to the handful of fans and the mostly empty seats of T-Mobile Park, shaking his head in disgust. His wandering command and subsequent subpar showing had put his team so far behind that victory was an impossibility.
He’d allowed seven runs in five innings and the Mariners’ offense, despite scoring 10 runs the night before, couldn’t match that sort of production at the plate leading to a 7-2 loss Wednesday night to the Twins.
The Mariners’ three-game winning streak ended, dropping them to 34-36, while the Twins snapped a three-game losing skid and improved to 27-41.
“It definitely sucks,” Sheffield said. “I want to go out there and I want to pitch well. I want to go out there and compete and win ballgames for my team. That’s the most frustrating part right now is just letting down the team. I’m not out there giving us a good chance to win. That’s what I take away from it. The most frustrating part is that.”
The 29th start of his major-league career, which is right around the typical number of starts that a pitcher in the back of a five-man rotation might make in a 162-game season, was another outing where his execution never matched his intent and there was nothing he could do to fix it.
But it’s happened enough this season that it’s fair to wonder just who Sheffield is as a big-league pitcher, and what he will be in the future.
“I’ve been through downs before that were way, way worse than this and not in the big leagues,” he said. “I got sent all the way to Double-A and came out of that. So I’ve been there before. I know that I can make the adjustments that I need to make, and continue to have a positive attitude every day, work hard, get back out there and show my team what I’m capable of and what I can do.”
In his last two outings, he’s pitched a combined nine innings, allowing 12 runs (10 earned) on 16 hits with three walks, seven strikeouts and four homers allowed.
In 12 starts this season, he has a 5-6 record with a 5.51 ERA. He’s pitched 63 2/3 innings, allowing 79 hits, including 11 homers, and 47 runs (39 earned) with 26 walks and 49 strikeouts. Opponents are batting .304 against him.
A year ago, in the shortened 2020 season, he was solid, posting a 4-3 record with a 3.58 ERA in 10 starts. In 55 1/3 innings, he allowed 23 runs (22 earned) on 52 hits and just two homers with 20 walks and 48 strikeouts with opponents batting .251 against him.
He’s allowing 11.2 hits per nine innings compared to 8.5 in 2020.
“He was on a great roll,” Servais said of 2020. “And he will get back on a great roll again. I’m really confident we will see that. I don’t think Sheff has made 30 starts in the big leagues yet. And to pitch one full year in the big leagues is about 30 to 34 starts or something like that. It seems like he’s been around a long time, but he’s still a young guy. He’s still learning. You’re going to go through stretches like this.”
With only 60 games, the Mariners never saw Sheffield hit a stretch of extended struggles and have to pitch his way out.
“What we saw last year was just able to stay under control,” Servais said. “He was commanding the fastball better than he has been, whether it was getting ahead or getting back into the counts.”
Sheffield’s official line against the Twins: five innings pitched, seven runs allowed on 10 hits with two walks and four strikeouts. He threw his sinker 32 times and generated just one swing and miss and eight called strikes. Of the six balls put in play on his sinker, five had exit velocities over 95 mph. The average exit velocity on the pitch was 100 mph, meaning it was hit hard.
“You’ve got to live at the bottom of the zone with Sheff,” Servais said. “Some of our guys can live at the top of the strike zone, but not him. The ball that’s down usually keeps the ball on the ground and that wasn’t the case so much tonight.”
Four of those runs allowed came in that extended fifth inning where one-time Mariners fan favorite Nelson Cruz obliterated a first-pitch sinker from Sheffield, seemingly creating a vapor trail off the baseball as it went rocketing into the upper deck. The three-run blast was his 84th homer at T-Mobile Park, second most for any player behind only Kyle Seager (85).
But really, Sheffield’s struggles were apparent in the first inning. He gave up a leadoff double to Jorge Polanco on his second pitch of the game — a sinker left over the middle. Facing the next batter, veteran third baseman Josh Donaldson, Sheffield got up 0-2. But Donaldson fouled off back-to-back sliders meant for his back foot and smacked a sinker over the middle into right field for an RBI single.
With one out, another sinker — this time on the first pitch to Ryan Jeffers — was turned into a single up the middle to score Donaldson from third and a 2-0 lead.
Sheffield came back with a 1-2-3 second inning that included a pair of strikeouts.
It gave the Mariners a brief hope that he might have made an adjustment to give them a competitive start.
But a leadoff walk to Polanco to start the third would eventually lead to a run. Down 3-0 after a scoreless fourth inning from Sheffield, the Mariners were still in the game when the fifth inning began.
It started with Polanco notching his third hit off Sheffield to start an inning — a double to left. Sheffield somehow walked Willians Astudillo for the second time in the game, despite Astudillo having every interest in swinging at just about any pitch that might be a strike.
That brought the ageless Cruz to the plate, who at age 40 can still demolish a misplaced fastball on the inner half of the plate more often than not.
Sheffield served up a solo homer to Jeffers two batters later on a changeup that made it 7-0.
A night after scoring 10 runs, the Mariners offense mustered just two runs on five hits.
Down seven runs, Ty France doubled to left-center off reliever Caleb Thielbar and scored on Shed Long Jr.’s hard single to center.
Seattle tacked on a second run in the seventh on France’s sac fly to left that scored Mitch Haniger to trim the lead to 7-2.