Around the Horn

Does Scott Servais even want to win games?

The headline above is in jest. Sort of.

I mean, of course the manager of any Major League baseball team, even Your Seattle Mariners, prefers to win than to lose. Right? Unless it's Pete Rose in the '80s possibly betting against his Reds, you have to go in assuming that your manager not only wants to win, but, in his capacity as field manager of the team, will take actions in support of, you know, trying to win.

Unless that manager is Scott Servais.

Don't get me wrong, I do in fact think Servais wants to win games. I just think he doesn't know how to go about it since he rarely if ever seems to take such actions.

Servais must be good at some part of his job. He has to be. Otherwise there would be revolt. Maybe he handles the egos of rich young men in a clubhouse with a genius psychological deftness. Maybe he knows how to counsel young players in their first exposures to the high-rolling highly paid life of a big-league athlete. I hope so, because he doesn't seem to know how to strategize in a baseball game.

As fans, we only see the capabilities or lack thereof of our team's manager during the games. Maybe in pre- and postgame interviews, maybe in a few quotes in the sports pages. Sometimes these glimpses are telling, sometimes not, but by and large we form our opinions of managers based on what they do in-game. And what they fail to do.

This afternoon, the Mariners played a game in Cleveland, Ohio. The Mariners' starting pitcher, Yusei Kikuchi, turned in a fantastic effort, overcoming some command problems and holding the home team to just three hits and no runs over seven innings. He departed having thrown just under 100 pitches and with a four-run lead.

Relieving Kikuchi after seven frames wasn't necessarily a bad move on Servais' part, but because he is who he is, it was never in question that his starter would be hitting the showers as the eighth began. Servais manages, near as I can tell, by formula—he apparently plots out all his moves in advance of the game and rarely deviates regardless of what actually transpires on the field. The plan had Yusei pitching until he hit seven frames or 100 pitches, whichever came first, so even if our favorite Japanese southpaw hurler was raring to go another three outs, it wasn't going to happen. I guess if he'd not allowed a hit by that point he might have been allowed to go back out to the mound. Maybe. But going to the ’pen was not the trouble here.

The first reliever was Kendall Graveman, freshly reinstated off the COVID injured list after throwing all of one inning in a rehab warmup assignment to Tacoma. Now, the Undertaker had been perfect this year until that appearance with the Rainiers, allowing a total of zero runs, but surrendered one in that rehab inning. He was likely to get tagged for one in his first game back in the bigs after such a long layoff, but that's OK, here he had a four-run cushion and you knew he wouldn't let things get out of hand. Graveman gave up a solo homer to Cesar Hernández that made the score 4-1. Still not bad, things still well in hand. Then came the ninth inning.

With a three-run lead, Servais turned to none other than Rafael Montero to close it out. This was the first real mistake and, frankly, a predictable one. Servais has used Montero in a save situation sixteen times prior to today, which was really eight or nine times too many. He'd converted seven of those save opps, but blown five others and had racked up an ERA of nearly 5.00 and a WHIP of 1.280. These are not numbers that inspire confidence when it comes to nailing down victories. Nevertheless, Servais sees Montero as a go-to guy when the game's on the line.

But Montero being on the mound wasn't enough to make things dire just yet. There was a three-run lead and so long as you had a backup plan on standby this was still OK. Cleveland cooperated by hitting two grounders to put them down to their last out with nobody on, but we've learned not to breathe easy with Montero and sure enough, the next two Cleveland batters walked. Time for the backup plan, right? Any sensible manager would now go get the ball form Montero and give it to a fresh arm out of the bullpen.

But this is Scott Servais we're talking about, and his pregame plotting did not factor in having to relieve Montero so there was no Plan B on standby. No one had been so much as stretching in the bullpen, let alone gotten warm. So Montero remained out there to face pinch-hitter Bobby Bradley, and Bradley managed to dunk a base hit into right field and make the score 4-2. Surely NOW Servais would go to the ’pen, right? Even if whoever he'd gotten up and throwing wasn't ready he could go to the mound and stall for a couple of minutes before bringing him in, right? Well, wrong, because that presumes that he actually GOT ANYONE UP AND THROWING BEFORE THIS, which he did not. Only here, as the tying run reached base, did J.T. Chargois start moving around in the bullpen.

All was not lost yet, though, because the next batter was Cleveland catcher Rene Rivera, never known for his bat in his lengthy career and currently hitting a modest .233. Rivera is still a Major League hitter, though, and a former teammate of Montero's who knows from catching him what Montero likes to do, and if you hang a breaking ball over the plate for him he's going to hit it a long way.

Montero hung a slider over the plate and Rivera hit it a long way. Not enough to leave the yard and end the game right there, but enough to double in both baserunners and tie the game.

NOW Servias went to the mound to change pitchers, right? Well, no. Montero remained in the game to face one more batter, the guy who homered off of Graveman his last time up, and grooved a 2-1 fastball over the heart of the plate that Cesar Hernández drilled into short left field and that looked like it was going to be a game-winning hit until Jake Fraley ran in like the Flash to make a basket catch as the liner sunk toward the grass.

What happened in the 10th inning was a travesty, but that's not on Servais. Not entirely. It's the ninth inning that lost the game for the M's, for Kikuchi—who instead of a win got his sixth no-decision in the ninth quality start of his 12 games so far this year—and for Seattle's stalwart fanbase. It was lost because the Mariners' manager, in nearly five-and-a-half years on the job, has not learned to evaluate pitching, handle a bullpen, or adapt to in-game circumstances as events unfold. It has gotten to the point—gotten well beyond the point—that we fans can see the mistakes he will make before he makes them. It is surprising when he doesn't use the wrong reliever at the wrong time, when he doesn't fail to execute the obvious strategy, when he doesn't sit on his hands as the wrong reliever in the game at the wrong time gets predictably pummeled.

But as long as we're here, let's talk about the 10th anyway. With the abominable Manfred extra-inning rule, the frame opened with Fraley on second base and Dylan Moore at bat against a hard-throwing Cleveland right-hander. Though Moore showed bunt on the fourth(!) pitch to him, which went for strike two, he failed to move Fraley to third, looking at strike three pass him by. Jake Bauers did move Fraley along, but then there were two out and Tom Murphy due up. For a while there, Murph was on a hot streak, but that's well past and he's been back to his old .230-OBP self again for a week. This being Servais and Jerry Dipoto's M's, the bench was ultra-thin with just José Godoy and Shed Long available to pinch-hit, but if there was ever a time to use a pinch-hitter, this was it. Both of those guys swing left-handed and Godoy could take over catching duties in the home half of the inning. The odds aren't great with sending one of them up, but they're better than sticking with Murphy. Servais stuck with Murphy, who struck out for the fourth time in the game.

Still tied, though, and Montero finally out of the game as Paul Sewald took over to pitch the bottom of the 10th. We have the insipid Manfred free baserunner on second base, so the obvious strategy is to walk the first man up, Amed Rosario, to create a forceout at both second and third and try to get a grounder for a double-play. Instead, they pitch to Rosario, who bangs a base hit into right-center that didn't end the game only because the runner, Hernández, got a bad read on the ball and was the only person in the ballpark who wasn't sure it was going to land for a hit. Now with two aboard is when Servais opts for the intentional walk, except now it's to load the bases. The only other option was to try to strike the next guy out, and seeing as the next guy was José Ramírez, who is not prone to the K, you had to put him on. And it nearly worked, as Harold Ramírez grounded back to the pitcher, but instead of getting the 1-2-3 double-play Sewald threw wild for a game-ending error.

Servais cannot be blamed for Sewald's bum throw or for walking José Ramírez in that circumstance. He can be blamed for not walking Rosario, though you're gambling on getting a ground ball from Cleveland's best hitter. You also can't say that pinch-hitting for Murphy would have definitely scored Fraley from third, or that Moore would've been able to get a bunt down leading off the top of the 10th if asked, or if he had gotten a sac bunt down that Bauers would have driven Fraley home before Murphy even came up. But you can blame him for not trying anything.

Mostly, though, we can blame him for blowing it with the bullpen yet again, as he did so many times last year and so many times in the season prior and so many times before that. Will he ever learn?

Facebook user John Dillon, on the site's Mariners Fans group, summed up the mood following this self-inflicted defeat in a way that I think will resonate with many of the Mariner faithful:

 

I don't think that's going to change until Scott Servais learns from his mistakes or is replaced with a new manager.

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