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Mariners surprisingly competitive against former Colt .45s, but shoot themselves in the foot repeatedly

No one had much hope for success in the just-completed four-game series versus the first-place Houston Astros. The M's had just dropped five straight series with an overall 3-14 record and were looking like the 1962 Mets, while the Astros were 21 games over .500 having won 20 games in the month of May. And in the end, the results were pretty much what was expected—one win and three losses. Still, the Mariners were very much in all four games and could have had an unlikely sweep.

Of course, there's no way to really know how a game would have played out had one managing decision here or there been different or if one particular swinging strike three been fouled off. But consider these points:

  • Scott Servais opted to try the "opener" strategy, one of the dumbest fads baseball has ever seen, not once but twice in the series. Both times the "opener"—Cory Gearrin on Monday, Austin Adams on Thursday—gave up three runs in brutal first innings before giving way to the "headline pitchers," who were good to great. Wade LeBlanc pitched eight brilliant innings Monday night, but Gearrin had already put the M's in a hole they weren't able to climb out of. Thursday, Adams didn't even get through the entire first inning before rightful starter Tommy Milone came in gifted with a three-run deficit. Seattle lost Monday by two runs, Thursday by one.
  • Monday featured one of the weirdest non-errors ever seen when shortstop Dylan Moore fired a throw to home that would have nailed the runner coming in to score if only a fielder had been there to catch the ball. Catcher Omar Narváez had run up the line to back up first base, anticipating Moore would throw there, and the pitcher did not cover the plate (in fairness, there wasn't enough time for the pitcher or anyone else to cover; Narváez just had a brain cramp and neglected to observe a potential play at the plate). Officially scored a fielder's choice with no out recorded, this was another in the ever-growing tally of unofficial errors committed by the M's this year.
  • Tuesday night Double-A callup Andrew Moore started for the M's and did better than anyone could have expected, only getting into real trouble in the fifth inning when he was bounced out of the game with the score 4-1 Houston. The Mariners scored four runs in the sixth to take the lead on a bases-clearing Daniel Vogelbach double off the top of the center field fence, a real accomplishment against an outstanding Astro bullpen. But Servais was asleep at the wheel when, in the very next frame, reliever Brandon Brennan immediately got into trouble and was clearly ineffective—no one began throwing in the bullpen until the seventh batter of the inning came up, time that included a lengthy replay challenge that would have been well used for warmup time. Three runs were in by then. A new reliever was on the mound for the eighth inning, Jesse Biddle, and he was also in immediate trouble; it was too late by then, but once again no action in the bullpen the entire inning in which all nine Houston lineup slots came to bat. Houston might have retaken the lead anyway, they are an excellent team, but Servais didn't even try to hold it and just left Brennan out there to get hammered. Why? Is it just that Servias plots out his game plan ahead of time and refuses to deviate no matter what happens on the field? We've seen him actually pay attention once or twice in recent games, but this day he was back to playing Candy Crush on his phone or whatever.
  • Thursday afternoon Houston sent Justin Verlander to the mound, so a blowout loss would not have been surprising. Instead, though Verlander was good, the M's came alive as soon as the Astros went to their relief corps and came back to make it first a one-run game and then a dramatic tie with a two-out, two-strike home run in the bottom of the ninth. Extra innings gave the M's a golden opportunity to win when, in the bottom of the 11th, the previously intimidating Houston bullpen walked the bases loaded with one out. Vogelbach came up and struck out on a 99mph fastball just off the center of the plate. No criticism to Vogey on that one, but you look at that pitch as the one that did the M's in; had Vogelbach managed to foul that one pitch off, who knows what happens next given how wild pitcher Josh James was. Seattle would load the bases again in the 14th, but with two out—and Houston had gone ahead in the top of the frame off of reliever Matt Festa on a triple to right field that was less-than-ably played by defensive novice Domingo Santana. Shed Long flied out to end it. This game was yet another example of the folly of the three-man bench, as despite the fine performance of the M's in coming back and taking the game all the way to 14 innings, there was no real opportunity to (a) put in a defensive replacement for Santana, as the one bench outfielder (Mac Williamson) was already in the game replacing Mitch Haniger (who left with pain from a "mid-body contusion"); or (b) pinch-hit for Long without losing their DH, as if the game continued the only infielder left was Tim Beckham, who had run for Vogelbach and was in the DH spot. That would sill have been the smart move, using backup catcher Tom Murphy to bat for Long, but the logic in not doing it is sound given the lack of bench depth.
  • Thursday's game going 14 also exposed another flaw in the "opener" strategy. Having burned Adams needlessly in the first and with six relievers already used behind "headline" pitcher Milone, all that was left was Jesse Biddle, the next guy to flunk out of the Seattle bullpen tryout camp any day now. (I suppose that's another reason not to pinch-hit Tom Murphy, you might well need him to pitch.)

Of course, Wednesday night's contest was a brilliant display of pitching from Mike Leake, who went the distance for his first complete game since 2015. Leake benefited from a big three-homer sixth inning that blew the game open for the M's and sent them on their way to the eventual 13-1 final.

So, how you look at this series depends on if you have a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty sort of attitude. On the one hand, hey, the M's surprisingly went toe-to-toe with a great team and if not for the dumb manager could have taken the series. On the other hand, the dumb manager and terrible bullpen and sloppy defense and poor roster construction just spells doom for this team no matter what. So...make of this set what you will.

Mariners vs. Astros, by the numbers

  • Total runs scored: 52 (SEA 28, HOU 24)
  • Home runs hit: 15 (SEA 9, HOU 6)
  • Bases stolen/attempts: 9/10 (SEA 6 - Long 2, Moore 2, Smith 2; HOU 3)
  • Errors committed: 1 (HOU - Reddick)
  • Quality starts: 2 (SEA 1 - Leake, HOU 1 - Verlander)
  • Pitching changes: 29 (SEA 12, HOU 17)
  • Starters ERA: 6.49 (SEA 6.46, HOU 4.66)
  • Bullpen ERA: 6.02 (SEA 5.40, HOU 7.84)
  • Runners left on base: 60 (SEA 33, HOU 27)
  • Position players pitching: 1 (HOU - Tyler White, 2IP, 1 ER, 1 HR)

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