In a season where so many games have been lost, and more than half of the games remaining could reach a similar result, the impetus for the Mariners has been development for those players that have been ordained as part of the future roster.
Yet as manager Scott Servais pointed out before this series with the Padres began: “Once the game starts we are trying to win every night.”
And that is a development for these young players as well, perhaps just as important as swing adjustments and tweaks to pitching mechanics, it’s learning how to execute to win games that aren’t blowouts.
The Mariners did some developing on Wednesday afternoon, snapping a five-game losing streak with a 3-2 victory over the Padres.
“It’s how you become a winning player,” manager Scott Servais said of the process. “It’s really important. It’s how you start developing the attitude of getting it done in a game.”
With the score tied at 2 in the eighth inning, the Mariners manufactured the one run they needed off Padres flame-thrower Andres Munoz and the players involved are all part of this future plan. Mallex Smith led off with a double, advanced to third on J.P. Crawford’s sacrifice bunt and scored when Daniel Vogelbach’s “speed” allowed him to beat out a potential inning-ending double play to score Smith.
Anthony Bass got the save in the ninth, aided by a pretty 4-6-3 game-ending double play.
Here’s part of that development aspect of execution and swing changes. Smith was so frustrated with how felt at the plate, going 3 for 27 over his previous six games, he didn’t go directly home after Tuesday night’s loss. Instead, he asked hitting coach Tim Laker and assistant hitting instructor Jarret DeHart to help him go over some film of his at-bats. It led to some discussion, more film watching, some analysis and even some work in the cage.
“I was just trying to get a better rhythm, timing at the plate,” Smith said. “So I stayed here. I was more than willing and ready to find some things out and turn my performance around.”
Smith had two hits on the day. He made sure the Mariners wouldn’t flirt with being no-hit again, singling in his first at-bat of the game. But his last at-bat put him on second as the go-ahead run. Crawford’s bunt off a 100 mph fastball wasn’t perfect and settled just in front of the plate. It allowed catcher Austin Hedges to pounce on it quickly and fire to third base where Smith was sliding in head first. Third-base umpire Mark Wegner called Smith out, but a replay review quickly overturned the missed call.
“Mallex’s speed always shows up when he’s on base,” Servais said. “Really good at-bat against their eighth-inning guy, who is throwing 100 mph out there. J.P. got the bunt down, but really Mallex is the only guy on our team that is safe on the play.”
Munoz came back to strike out Domingo Santana in rather embarrassing fashion, but Vogelbach bounced a 100 mph fastball softly to third. It was just slow enough that he was able to barely beat the throw to the bag.
“Just find a way to get that run in,” Vogelbach said. “That’s what it comes down to — winning games. And I want to be in that spot 100 times out of 100. And whether I fail or I succeed, I want to be that guy every single time.”
The idea of learning how to play and succeed in close games isn’t just coach speak. The players know that it’s necessary.
“The goal is to win in the next year or so,” Vogelbach said. “These are games you to want to be in so you can learn from them. These are the games you want to be in.”
Seattle got a solid and encouraging start from Yusei Kikuchi, who continues to adapt and develop to baseball’s highest level of play.
The rookie left-hander wasn’t efficient, but he was effective. He pitched five innings, allowing one run on four hits with three walks and eight strikeouts. Not one of the five innings were clean, but the last four were scoreless.
“They grinded on him and made him throw a lot of pitches,” Servais said. “There wasn’t any easy innings out there. But he got through it. I thought his last inning might have been his best.”
Indeed in the fifth, Kikuchi allowed a leadoff bloop double to Fernando Tatis Jr., but came back to strike out Wil Myers on a backfoot slider, get Manny Machado swinging on an elevated 94-mph fastball and freeze Eric Hosmer on a 93-mph fastball on the outside corner.
But this performance was a product of an adjustment made after an unproductive start in Houston, where he allowed six runs on nine hits and generated just two swinging strikes. Kikuchi and the Mariners’ array of pitching coaches sat down and analyzed his mechanics. They found issues that needed to be corrected immediately.
“The take-back of where I was having the arm behind my back was 10 centimeters farther than what I wanted it to be,” he said through interpreter Justin Novak. “That’s what the coaches told me and what I wanted to work on.”
Servais called it the arm stroke.
“Our pitching guys had noticed through video that it had gotten a little longer,” he said. “I kept talking about his timing was off and he had trouble repeating his pitches. He shortened up the arm stroke, which is not an easy thing to do. But Yusei understands the delivery really well. He was excited when it got brought to his attention.”
Kikuchi also had a noticeable change to his leg kick, slowing it down, which was to help the changes he was making.
“My rhythm and timing was kind of off with the way I was trying to throw,” he said. “So I wanted to make sure everything was set first and then go home with it.”
Kikuchi spent the three days leading up to his starts honing that change.
“At first anything new is going to feel weird,” he said. “But I had three days to practice it. And I felt good going into the game today.”
He had 14 swinging strikes — 10 on his slider and four on his fastball.
“I haven’t been performing recently,” he said. “And in these next two months, I want to finish the season strong.”
It was a dubious beginning to the start for Kikuchi as his only run allowed came immediately.
Fernando Tatis Jr., a 20-year-old phenom and the most important piece of the Padres’ push back to relevance, homered for a second straight game against the Mariners. The rookie shortstop hammered a 3-2 slider that split the middle of the plate, sending a rocket into the upper deck of left field. Tatis’ 21st homer of the season had 111 mph exit velocity and measured 409 feet, per MLB Statcast.
Seattle answered with the first of Kyle Seager’s two RBI in the game — a ground ball to short that scored Tom Murphy in the second inning.
Seager’s solo homer in the fourth gave Seattle a brief 2-1 lead, but Francisco Mejia tied the game on a solo homer off of Brandon Brennan in the sixth inning.