Dramatic sweep of Rays gives M's some swagger

When I was at last Friday night's game between Your Seattle Mariners and the defending American League Champion Tampa Bay Rays, a woman sitting a few seats away from me tapped my arm for my attention. "Excuse me, you seem like you know baseball," she said, noticing me filling out the starting lineups in my scorebook. "Is Seattle favored to win this game?"

"Oh, hell no," I said. "Tampa Bay is the best team in the league, fresh off a World Series. Seattle is a schizophrenic team with a terrible batting line and a manager that sometimes seems like he's in a coma. That said, the Mariners are starting a good pitcher and anything can happen."

Well, anything happened.

Not only did the M's win that game, a relatively simple 5-1 victory behind yet another strong outing from pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, they won the remainder of the series, too. It sounds like a setup to a joke, but no, really, the Mariners swept the Rays in a four-game series, and they did it in dramatic fashion, winning three of the four in their last at-bat and one in the improbable fashion of walk-off grand salami:

What to make of all this? When the season started, there was guarded optimism here at GS.net HQ regarding the Mariners' prospects in 2021, but as the weeks wore on it looked like our hopes were misplaced and the M's were headed for another disappointing campaign. They remain a .417 team on the road—despite several M's having significantly better offensive numbers away from TMP—but at home they've caught fire. In the current homestand and the one prior, Seattle has 11 wins against three losses, and though some of that was against the Rangers and Twins (combined 32 games under .500), no one can say the defensively brilliant Rays are bottom-feeders. What's changed?

Well, it's June, for one thing, and shortstop J.P. Crawford seems to really like hitting in June. He's been raking to the tune of .364/.414/.584 since the calendar flipped and is overcoming his historical trouble hitting at home. For another, top prospect Jarred Kelenic was demoted to Triple-A and is no longer providing the opposition with a near-automatic out every time through the lineup. Three, Shed Long has torn it up since his return from the injured list—or, more accurately, since the team came home after his return from the IL; in debuting his season with four road games, Shed went 2-for-16, but on the homestand he's hit .320/.346/.600. It appears Long's futility last year really was due to playing in pain and now that his shin has been surgically repaired he's playing for keeps. Then there's Jake Bauers, the Mariners' 51st(!) player of the year, turning in the kind of performance the team thought they might get from José Marmolejos but didn't. In 11 games with Seattle, Bauers has a line of .326/.356/.419 while playing a more-than-adequate first base and corner outfield. (Granted, that includes three of the cheapest hits you'll ever see a player get, all in one game last week against the Twins, but those tend to balance out the hard shots that go right into someone's glove.) And let's not forget our other Jake, Mr. Fraley, who is finally being given the opportunity to play with some regularity; "Eagle-eye Jake" has proven his worth now that injuries have given Servais fewer options in the outfield; the minor-league standout had only amassed 19 big-league appearances before 2021 despite all the talk of him getting the chance to be a regular in 2020 that turned out to be empty promises. Though Fraley still hasn't hit lefties with any authority (.136 vs. LHP, .289 vs. RHP) he still gets aboard at a .367 pace facing a southpaw thanks to his talent for working deep counts and drawing ball four.

But there's one other thing that is a bit confounding, and that's manager Scott Servais. The regularity of witnessing head-scratching decisions, foolhardy pitching moves, and dumb lineup construction hasn't entirely disappeared, but it's become a lot less frequent. Some of the credit for that goes, of course, to general manager Jerry Dipoto for taking some of the bad options off the table in his neverending roster shuffle; Having Long in the lineup is a far cry from what we'd been seeing with the greatly-overmatched and still not-ready-for-prime-time Kelenic, and who here wouldn't prefer Bauers over discarded guys like Jacob Nottingham, Jack Mayfield, and Marmolejos?

It remains a nail-biter when Servais makes a call to the bullpen, but more often than not on this homestand he's made decent choices of who to bring in and when. It's actually kind of creepy, like there's something possessing the manager and Scott Servais is now a pod-person.

The club is still playing with fire by carrying far too many pitchers—for the last few games they've had ten, count ’em, ten relievers out there and only two bench players, severely limiting managerial in-game moves and inviting a world of trouble if someone gets hurt—but so far the team's versatility has made that a non-factor. Eventually, this fire-playing is going to result in some burns, but to date the fact that several Mariners are comfortable at three-plus positions has mitigated the danger. It remains unclear if that lopsided roster alignment is all Dipoto or at the request of Servais, but it's the sort of dumbness that is going to lead to the reinstatement, possibly as soon as next year, of the annoying rule mandating a 13-pitcher limit on rosters and the declaration ahead of time of who is and who isn't a pitcher. A "we must save the managers/GMs from themselves" rule that seems targeted directly at the Mariners (but probably isn't).

So, are the M's we've seen recently for real, or is this a blip in an otherwise typical Mariner underachievement demo reel? We'll find out, but sitting at two games over the .500 mark nearly halfway trough the schedule is rekindling some of that preseason optimism.