The question has arrived far sooner than expected this year – is there enough life in this season to salvage a playoff spot for the Seattle Mariners? It’s not even June and a combination of injuries and early under-performance has made it feel like the team has already played a full season. Indeed, the Mariners are currently in the midst of one of their most difficult stretches of the season. Sandwiched between a rough series against the NL East-leading Washington Nationals, and an upcoming series against the NL-leading Colorado Rockies is a three game series against the Boston Red Sox.
The team came into Sunday’s game having lost 12 of their last 16 games and without scoring a run in 20 innings. The Mariners sent pitcher Christian Bergman to the mound, who entered Sunday’s game following one effective start (7 innings, no earned runs) and one disastrous (4 innings, 10 earned runs).
Bergman delivered seven scoreless innings with an efficient 83 pitches. Still, the Mariners could not generate any offense over the first 3 innings. In the 4rth inning, however, Kyle Seager drove a sharp double off the Green Monster and advanced to third on a Danny Valencia single. With runners on the corners and Guillermo Heredia at the plate, Cy Young winner Rick Porcello spiked a pitch that skipped off the catcher and over the protective netting behind home plate. Seager easily made it home, giving the Mariners their first run in 23 innings.
Seattle clung to the 1 run lead until the 7th inning when Nelson Cruz drove in catcher Carlos Ruiz. The backup catcher caught fire with a 3 for 4 effort, which is notable considering that he had 6 hits on the season entering Sunday’s game.
In the 8th inning, Heredia hit a solo shot to make it 3-0 Seattle. James Pazos and Nick Vincent provided solid work holding the Red Sox off the board through the eighth, setting up Edwin Diaz to close in the ninth. Still, given the problems Seattle has had in late inning situations, there was no feeling of certainty that the 3-0 score would hold up against the Red Sox with Mookie Betts, Dustin Pedroia and Xander Bogaerts due up.
Fortunately, in the top of the 9th inning, Robinson Cano provided some insurance in the form of his 10th home run of the season. After working a full count, Cano’s two run shot gave the Mariners a more comfortable 5-0 lead. Diaz came in and looked to have sharp command of his pitches, throwing 13 of 17 pitches for strikes. Equally impressive is that he worked around two errors in the inning (Seager and Jean Segura), without surrendering a run.
So, for at least one day, the Mariners offense and defense showed up together and looked like a cohesive unit. The majority of the credit goes to Bergman, who provided some stability with seven strong innings of work. A 29 year old and 24th round pick who was used in relief during his time with the Rockies, Bergman has found his groove as a starter, delivering a 5-0 record with a 2.17 ERA with the Tacoma Rainiers. Time will tell whether Bergman has a place on the major league roster when (if?) the regulars get healthy, but it is clear that he holds more potential than a simple AAAA player.
Bergman’s performance was sorely needed in a season where injuries have decimated the starting rotation. The offense has been up and down at different points of time, but the lack of reliable starting pitching has caught up with the Mariners during this most recent losing streak. In many games, the team has been in an early hole (last in AL in quality starts), complicating the offensive effort. It has also been difficult to assess the vulnerable relief pitching when the starters have not been able to hand off manageable games to the over-taxed bullpen. For position players, the Mariners have lost a similar number games to injury as other teams (Red Sox, Astros), but have lost far more games from their starting pitching rotation (Fig.1). This has contributed to an AL-worst 252 runs against, compared to 205 and 186 for the Red Sox and Astros respectively.
In their absence, Ariel Miranda has proven that last year was not a fluke and that he is a solid rotation contributor. In contrast, the likes of Chris Heston and Rob Whalen have not been able to provide similar consistency in their starts. Ryan Weber deserves his own category, as he his chance to prove himself was cut short by his own injury three innings into his first start.
The hope is that the starting pitchers will be bolstered with the return of James Paxton, set to start Wednesday against the Rockies. Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Drew Smiley are all expected to follow, but exact timelines for their returns remain uncertain, as does the likelihood that all three will remain healthy through the end of the season. Until then, Seattle’s playoff prospects remain tied to performances from unlikely contributors such as Bergman.