Earlier this past week, Mariners’ manager Scott Servais was simultaneously marveling at his club’s sustained run of outstanding starting pitching and fretting about the potential of squandering it.
“I’d hate to waste, or not take advantage, of the starting pitching we’ve had,’’ he said. “I don’t want to look up at the end of the year and say: ‘Man, we let this one get away. We didn’t take advantage of a group of five starters and a bullpen that really came together.’’’
Anyone who has followed the Mariners this season knows where the fear is based. You can point to any number of frustrating losses in which the Mariners had a brilliant outing by a member of their rotation, only to have it go for naught. Maybe it was one of those games where Seattle’s bats were asleep all day or night. Or maybe it was one of those equally frustrating games where the Mariners had constant traffic on the basepaths but were unable to bring the runs home. Their kingdom for a clutch hit (or a well-timed sac fly).
Fast-forward to Saturday, when the M’s were in the process of producing another such maddening effort. Having lost Friday to the woeful A’s, possessors of MLB’s worst record, they could ill-afford another loss to Oakland as they try to claw their way back into the wild-card race. Especially when rookie George Kirby bounced back from his worst effort as a major-leaguer with a superior seven-inning start — just three hits and one run allowed, with a career-high-matching nine strikeouts.
Yet the Mariners trailed 1-0 after seven innings, having found new and diabolical ways to squander certain scoring chances. But when Adam Frazier’s line drive was speared by A’s first baseman Seth Brown and turned into an inning-ending double play with runners on the corners in the seventh, Servais saw it as a perversely positive sign.
“There’s times you think, ‘OK, it’s not our day,’’’ he said. “After that happened, I said, ‘We’re winning this game.’ It can only go so bad for so long. It’s got to flip. And it did.”
The Mariners pulled it out, 2-1, on a Justin Upton pinch-hit homer in the eighth, and a walk-off single by Abraham Toro in the ninth. It’s the kind of game the Mariners have to win to have any hope of a relevant second half. Especially while so many key hitters are either injured, suspended or struggling.
Their salvation — if a team that’s still four games under .500 in July can use that term — has been a rotation that has yet to miss any starts due to injuries, one of just two teams with that distinction. They are also the only team in the majors with five different pitchers recording at least five quality starts (led by Marco Gonzales with 10). Their 2.97 ERA by starters since May 27 is second only to the mighty Yankees.
But that has been matched by an inconsistent offense missing Mitch Haniger, Kyle Lewis and Tom Murphy for most of the season. Now Ty France and Luis Torrens are on the disabled list. JP Crawford is serving out his suspension while Jesse Winker and possibly Julio Rodriguez (pending his appeal) are waiting their turns. Adam Frazier has struggled much of the season, and Winker is only recently coming out of his slump.
The Seattle starters (and more recently, a resurgent bullpen) have saved the day. Until Kirby’s clunker in his previous start (seven runs allowed in four innings), their starters had gone a club-record 24 consecutive games allowing three or fewer earned runs. Yet the Mariners’ record in those games was just 13-11. Their final game of that streak was typical: Gonzales went six strong innings in Anaheim only to lose 2-1 on the night Seattle’s lineup was decimated by ejections related to the second-inning brawl.
Of the 37 quality starts (defined as at least six inning pitched, three or fewer earned runs allowed) churned out by the Mariners rotation of Gonzales, Kirby, Logan Gilbert, Robbie Ray and Chris Flexen (plus Matt Brash briefly), they’ve lost 15 of them. They’re scored two or fewer runs in 14 of those games. The Mariners are 6-32 when they score less than four runs, 32-12 when they score four or more.
Four runs is seemingly not a high bar to achieve, yet it has proved to be elusive. Servais can see a road map to a brighter future once re-enforcements to the lineup arrive — provided the pitching doesn’t have a regression. The Mariners have won nine of 12 games since the end of their disastrous recent homestand that threatened to bury them.
“Yeah, I mean, there’s not a team in the league that’s going to get very far or into the postseason without consistent starting pitching,’’ he said. “You need to ride it, and we are riding it right now. We will get healthier, we will get guys off of suspensions, we will get to the point where we’re looking up and down our lineup and it’s going to be very deep. And everyone’s going to say, ‘What was the issue all year long?’ Well, we didn’t have that lineup.
“So in the meantime, that’s what teams do. They pull together. The strength of our club right now has been our starting pitching and our bullpen. Those guys have been awesome down there, too. We need to ride them. Right now, we’ve got to figure out a way to win these games 3 to 2, 2 to 1. They’re hard. They’re very hard. That’s just where we’re at, at this point in the season. It’ll turn. We’ll get healthier. And we’ll get some guys with some more experience in that lineup to make it a little bit deeper. But that’s where we’re at right now. And those guys are stepping up. It’s a credit to them.”
In the Mariners’ current predicament, every loss is painful — even more so when it squanders an elite pitching performance. They avoided such a fate Saturday — and need to continue to do so.