Failures send first big TMP crowd in ages home frustrated

I got a note early Friday afternoon from an employee at TMP telling me that the Mariners were expecting an attendance of over 40,000 at that night's game between the M's and Los Angeles Angels. Seattle's position in the Wild Card standings was generating a lot of enthusiasm, people were paying a premium for tickets. Only scattered singles were still available to buy, at least from official channels.

It prompted a two-pronged reaction on my part—on the one hand, yay! It's been forever since I'd been at TMP with a big crowd, and the energy and experience is worlds different when the crowd is 40,000 vs. 15,000. On the other, though, trepidation—the Mariners and TMP execs refuse to require vaccinations for people entering the stadium despite repeated requests for them to do so and the new County regulations that would force them to don't kick in for a couple more weeks.

Anyway, COVID concerns aside, it was a little bit surreal to be at a Mariner game that was crowded. It's been so long, you know. But the energy was fun. People were into it, there for the game and not for some vague "ballpark entertainment experience." Baseball was the draw, baseball and this team of upstart overachievers. Crowd noise generated itself, organically, and at times was actually diminished by the interference of music clips and sound effects on the public address system. Spontaneous chants for individual batters and of "Let's go Mariners" when the team was in the field—no prompting from a Pavlovian scoreboard or cartoon wild animal mascot required.

AL WC Standings 10/2/21
  W L GB
New York 91 69 +1
Boston 90 68
Seattle 89 69 1
Toronto 89 69 1

Shame the Mariners couldn't have rewarded us all with a well-played game, let alone a win.

A while back, I opined that though the playoff push was a fun exercise, it was illusory; the M's weren't actually going to make the postseason. They're still too raw, too flawed, too thin, too poorly managed (at least in terms of tactics and strategy). Of course, they went on a late September tear after that, trying to prove me wrong, but this game, this Friday game on Fan Appreciation Night no less, showcased why I was pessimistic a few weeks back. To wit:

  • The overloading of the bullpen means there is no maneuverability with position players. In this game, Dylan Moore was playing left field because the Angels started a left-hander on the mound. Manager Scott Servais is big on lefty/righty matchups. Sometimes it makes sense—catcher Tom Murphy, for example, has hit lefties better than righties by 50 points (and has an OBP vs. lefties 100 points higher than vs. righties), while the alternative, Cal Raleigh, is inexperienced and has even worse numbers; Moore also hits lefties around 50 points better than right-handers, but that just brings the average up to barely above Mendoza. The alternative in left field is Jake Fraley, who though not at all good against left-handers has roughly the same OBP vs. LHPs as Moore does and is the team's best defensive outfielder by a good margin. With a better-balanced roster, one would hope there would be a third option, a righty-batting outfielder that doesn't strike out 30% of the time. But that's not this team, so you have to choose between two .300ish OBP vs. LHP guys (and who have similar OBPs over the past couple of weeks): Moore, who's an OK outfielder, or Fraley, who is an excellent defender. In a critical game such as this, with the offensive particulars being so close, it makes more sense to go with your best defensive outfield. A critical play came in the third inning, when, with Seattle up 1-0, the Angels had managed to get two aboard (one on a very questionable walk to David Fletcher) and Brandon Marsh hit a deep drive to left-center. Moore gave chase and was unable to make the catch; Marsh had a double and both runners scored for the Angels' only runs. Had Moore caught the ball, it would have been a very good play. Had Fraley been playing the position instead, the ball is likely caught and the worst result is a runner tagging up and advancing form second to third. But that's not a certainty, it's possible the hit is still a hit with Jake out there. We'll never know.
  • Batting w/runner
    at 3rd, < 2 out, 2021
      RBI/PA Avg K rate
    Bauers .35 .267 17.6%
    Crawford .52 .167 13.0%
    Fraley 1.05 .545 5.5%
    France .58 .286 12.9%
    Haniger .61 .238 16.1%
    Kelenic .50 .217 45.8%
    Moore .61 .231 33.3%
    Murphy .35 .167 35.3%
    Raleigh .58 .182 41.7%
    Seager .72 .417 24.1%
    Torrens .60 .357 25%
    Toro .77 .333 7.6%
    Failure to execute fundamental situational hitting is an organizational problem with this club and has been for a long time. (Guys that came up through some other organization's minor leagues seem to have a better handle on it than those who "grew up" on the Mariner farm, but it's clearly not taught here.) In the home seventh, Luis Torrens led off the frame with a shot into the right-field corner that Juan Legares couldn't handle; Torrens wound up with a triple. So: One run down, runner at third base, nobody out. Looks good for the M's. Except...these are the M's. A couple weeks ago a friend and I were watching a game wherein Torrens scored Ty France on a sacrifice fly and I remarked, only half-jokingly, "I wonder if they'll fine him for that." Because that's just not the Mariner way—the Mariner way is to strike out in such situations and create more tension, necessitating the runner come home on a two-out hit. (Looking it up, I see the current roster has struck out 23% of the time in such circumstances, which shocks me—I mean, anything more than 20% is troubling, but I honestly thought it would be closer to 50%. I suppose the inactive and cast-off members of the club would kick it up some.)
  • So, what do you suppose happened here? Well, the next batter, Abraham Toro, drew a walk on a questionable ball four call that could easily have been strike three. But OK, a walk is good. Next up, Jarred Kelenic, who has improved so much from earlier in the season that you don't necessarily assume he's gonna K here, but he does. At least it took eight pitches; May's Kelenic would've been headed back to the dugout by pitch four. Murphy followed and proceeded to swing over a pitch down out of the zone, take a fastball down the middle, take another fastball on the outside half that should have been called strike three but wasn't, and swing through a fastball basically in the same spot as the prior one. Two out and the runners are still out there without a ball being put in play. Next up, charged with getting that exciting two-out RBI hit, is Moore. He of the barely-Mendoza average and 30% overall K rate. Moore takes ball one away, then is generously given two ball calls on clear strikes before running the count full and eventually looking at strike three.
  • Kelenic we can forgive. His situation is tough, a rookie rushed to the big leagues and learning on the job in the most pressure-packed game of his professional life. Murphy not so much—a 30-year-old veteran knows the situation and what needs to be done, but he was still up there taking massive swings and getting too cute with guessing what pitch was coming instead of just putting the bat on the ball for at least a shot at plating the tying run; it's not like he was facing Nolan Ryan in his prime out there. And Moore...well, with two out, it's no longer situational hitting, but at that point you've got to have a better threat at the plate. With a better-balanced roster, there would have been someone on the bench to bat for Murphy and/or Moore, but the minimalist bench of the M's meant the best (statistically, anyway) option was Raleigh and his .222 on-base mark and 50 Ks.
  • Marco Gonzales since ASG
    Date Dec IP ER WHIP
    7/20 @ COL W 5 2 1.800
    7/25 vs OAK W 523 2 1.235
    8/1 @ TEX ND 6 1 0.833
    8/6 @ NYY ND 623 0 0.750
    8/12 vs TEX W 9 1 0.333
    8/18 @ TEX W 513 0 1.312
    8/23 @ OAK ND 6 3 0.833
    8/29 vs KC W 7 2 1.000
    9/4 @ ARZ W 5 5 1.800
    9/10 vs ARZ W 6 2 1.000
    9/15 vs BOS ND 6 3 0.833
    9/21 @ OAK W 6 2 0.833
    9/26 @ LAA W 7 1 0.857
    10/1 vs LAA L 6 2 0.833
    Too many weak batters in a row. It's nigh impossible with this roster not to, but when the bottom of your order is three guys aspiring to be .200 hitters you're often going to be in trouble. Now, the M's have gotten away with this a lot, and that's thanks to their exceptional pitching keeping them in low-scoring games. But man, does it hurt when you've only got one run on the board.

I feel badly for Marco Gonzales. Here he turned in yet another fantastic start—six strong innings with just that third-inning double to taint it, navigated a tight and inconsistent strike zone, and posted his 13th Quality Start of the year (10th since the All-Star break), and what does he get for his trouble? A loss. His only loss of the second half and the third time in that stretch that he allowed no more than two runs over 6+ innings and didn't get a win. Marco's 9-1 second half is great, but when you look deeper and see that, if not for a few blown saves here and failures to get runners in there, he easily could have been 13-0... He deserved better, is what I'm saying.

It's not over, of course. The M's are still alive in the Wild Card chase, one game back of Boston with two games remaining. Tiebreaker scenarios abound. But Seattle now needs help—not only do they need to win their final two games here, they need the Washington Nationals to beat the Red Sox at least once in DC. (Ideally twice, but let's manage expectations.) Plus the Blue Jays will have something to say, and I still hold out hope that the Yankees will lose their final two games.

But this night was a blow. A reminder of what problems this team continues to have and how critical it is to overcome them.

Still... some of us believe.

believe

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