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Mariners limp into the break with series loss to A's

Friday night the Mariners were undone by a defensive error and a poor relief choice. Saturday Marco Gonzales turned in a gem. And Sunday Scott Servais played with matches and gasoline again by using an "opener." So went the final series of the unofficial first half of the season, the Oakland A's taking two of three as we head into the All-Star break.

Yusei Kikuchi started for Seattle on Friday and took a hard-luck loss. The Japanese star has been inconsistent in his first Major League season; this day, though, he was sharp, turning in his ninth Quality Start with just two earned runs allowed in seven innings. He nevertheless left with the A's ahead 3-2 thanks to two errors on one play committed by Domingo Santana—Oakland DH Khris Davis singled with a runner at first in the seventh inning, Santana fielded the ball poorly, then threw wild to the plate trying to get the runner he'd just allowed to advance to third from scoring. So rather than tied, the M's turned to the bullpen in the last two frames behind, and manager Servais again made questionable decisions with his relievers. Instead of trying to keep things close with, say, Cory Gearrin or Matt Carasiti, Servais went to Anthony Bass, whom we last saw getting hit hard by the Cardinals a few nights prior. Bass' conventional numbers look OK, but they are misleading; more telling is his Fielding-Independent Pitching (FIP) mark, a sabermetric stat similar to ERA that discounts actions of the defense, which was over 6.00. Bass escaped trouble in his inning, though he was again lucky—a lineout to first base and a couple of strikeouts with fat pitches taken instead of crushed—and next on the hill was Dan Altavilla. Altavilla had been better since returning to the big-league club late last month, but unbeknownst to most, he was now playing hurt; he clearly had no control from pitch one here. After a fly ball to the center field wall and a walk to one of the hardest guys to walk in the bigs (Davis), Servais should have had someone heating up in the 'pen, but as we've observed all year, Servais is slow to recognize events unfolding before him, so Altavilla gave up another walk and a hard groundout before Servais decided to get someone up and Altavilla had to stay in and serve up a double to the wall to hot-hitting Robbie Grossman scoring both runners before finally getting out of the inning. Altavilla would acknowledge his sore arm and go on the 10-day injured list following the completion of the 5-2 defeat.

Assuming Servais did not know about Altavilla's arm pain, it's hard to criticize the choice to use Altavilla there, though the slow reaction to the obvious trouble is frustrating. But Bass is another matter—Bass should have been DFA'd a while ago, but he's still here, still getting called upon, and still being hammered; he's skating by on luck, with line-drives hit right at infielders and, in this case, batters taking the fattest of fat pitches instead of putting them in the upper deck. (The only active Mariner reliever with a worse FIP is Altavilla's roster replacement, Parker Markel, who has just 323 Major League innings, and in his case his FIP is better than his ERA.) Even after the lucky scoreless inning, Bass' FIP is nearly two runs higher than his standard ERA, and though his 20 innings pitched do make up a smallish sample size, it's large enough for a middle reliever to spell trouble. Fortunately, injured relievers Connor Sadzeck, Hunter Strickland, and Brandon Brennan are close to returning, so Bass' days as a Mariner may well be numbered; sadly, we seem to be stuck with Servais for a much longer period.

Moving on to Friday night, things looked bad for Marco Gonzales after a 28-pitch first inning. He managed to escape allowing just one run on a sacrifice fly, but with over a quarter of his likely pitch limit gone after one frame it appeared we'd be seeing a lot of that combustible Seattle bullpen. Instead, Marco took charge and threw just 76 pitches over the next seven innings, cruising through the seventh and convincing Servais to let him keep going in the eighth. Aside from one third-inning hanger to Matt Olson that went for a solo homer, Marco was as good as we've ever seen him for those seven frames, dominating the A's and earning his tenth win of the season thanks to more than enough offense—two-run homers from both Daniel Vogelbach and Kyle Seager in the fourth, plus a bases-loaded walk to Omar Narváez and a Seager sac fly in the fifth. Roenis Elías would give up another home run in the ninth, but that was it for the A's. This game featured all that is good about the 2019 M's: Marco at his best, timely home runs, even a little situational hitting. A refreshing change of pace with no blunders, bad in-game changes, or even poor lineup choices. (Though one minor missed opportunity: In attendance for Friday night's contest, I chided the ballpark sound booth—not to them directly, just to the people in my row—for not playing Smashmouth's "All-Star" after Vogelbach's majestic home run. A blown chance to have some fun with the crowd.)

Sunday afternoon's first-half finale featured yet another failure with "the opener." Why, why, WHY does Servais continue to go down this road?! It makes zero sense even when it "works," and this day it most assuredly did not. Matt Casariti took the mound in the first, faced six batters, and got one out. Wade LeBlanc was geared up to start his day in the second inning, but instead came in after just a third of an inning was in the books. He did well, turning in a typically fine Wade LeBlanc performance—623 IP, one earned run on a solo homer—but once more Frenchy gets nothing to show for it because of the five runs given up by Carasiti. Matt Wisler, the latest entrant in the Mariners' season-long bullpen tryout camp, served up a home run in his debut inning, giving the A's the last of their seven runs. Meanwhile, Narváez had the game of his young career—the Seattle catcher went 4-for-4 with two homers, drove in all four Mariner runs, and even managed to avoid being charged with a passed ball when the official scorer chose to tag Carasiti with a wild pitch on a ball off of Narváez's glove in the first inning. Too bad it wasn't enough to climb out of the needless hole dug by Carasiti and, by extension, Scott Servais.

Servais has now used an "opener" in a dozen games. Openers have combined to post these numbers: 0-3, 15.68 ERA, 3.194 WHIP, and 4 homers allowed. They have failed to finish the first inning five times. On three occasions, the game went to extra innings having used a reliever in the first. Meanwhile, the "headline" pitchers for these games who would otherwise have been the starters—always Wade LeBlanc or Tommy Milone so far—have a 3.06 ERA and have averaged nearly six innings per non-start. It's not a stretch to posit that at least three of the Mariners' losses are tied directly to an opener performance and two indirectly, while zero games have been won with the help of an opener. The practice is indefensible, particularly when your relief corps is as unstable as Seattle's is.

The M's reach the break 16 games under .500. There have been good things to take heart in—the Future Mariner corps looks like they could be a fine team—but the managing does not inspire much confidence.

 

Mariners vs. A's, by the numbers

  • Total runs scored: 27 (SEA 12, OAK 15)
  • Home runs hit: 11 (SEA 5, OAK 6)
  • Bases stolen/attempts: 3/5 (SEA 2 - Smith, Santana; OAK 1)
  • Errors committed: 6 (SEA 4 - Moore, Gonzales, Santana 2; OAK 2)
  • Quality starts: 3 (SEA 2 - Kikuchi, Gonzales; OAK 1 - Anderson)
  • Pitching changes: 16 (SEA 6, OAK 10)
  • Starters ERA (includes “openers”): 5.46 (SEA 4.70, OAK 6.19)
  • Bullpen ERA (includes “headliners”): 2.49 (SEA 3.86, OAK 0.90)
  • Runners left on base: 24 (SEA 12, OAK 12)

"The Opener"

What do you think of teams using an "opener"?

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