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M's lose series to Orioles despite the unheralded greatness of Marco Gonzales

The Baltimore Orioles are, by record, the second-worst team in the Major Leagues, behind only the 4½ games worse Detroit Tigers. The Mariners had already beaten them three out of four times earlier in the summer, and coming off a sweep of the not-as-bad-but-still-not-good Pittsburgh Pirates, one could be forgiven for thinking the M's would take their final road trip of the season in impressive fashion. Instead, Seattle dropped two of three to the hapless Orioles and come home having recorded a 4-2 road swing.

It began with Felix Hernández's penultimate start in a Seattle uniform. The King took the mound on Friday night in Baltimore hoping to build on his last appearance, a throwback Felix performance that was his first quality start since April 13th, but it wasn't to be as the Orioles teed off on him for five runs, four in the first inning. The five runs included two homers, giving Hernández a season rate of 2.2 home runs allowed per nine innings to go with his six-and-a-half ERA. The M's wouldn't recover from that, treating Felix to yet another start with poor run support, mustering only one run off of Oriole "headliner" Aaron Brooks, who was brilliant and pitched seven innings of one-hit ball. Seattle had tallied two off of "opener" Richard Bleier thanks to another Kyle Lewis home run, accounting for the rest of their runs, and 5-3 O's would be the final.

Saturday's tilt saw both starting pitchers—Justus Sheffield for the M's, Asher Wojciechowski for Baltimore—last a mere 41/3 innings, leaving things to the bullpens with the M's trailing 4-3 after five frames. Seattle would take the lead in the eighth thanks to J.P. Crawford belting a two-out, three-run bomb down the right-field line, but the Orioles would tie it up in the bottom of the inning on a longball of their own, a two-run shot off the bat of recent callup Austin Hays against the usually-reliable Sam Tuivailala. Tied at 6, the game would go into extra frames and the M's would score the go-ahead run in the top of the 13th. They needed help to do it, though—with two outs, Mallex Smith reached on an error by Oriole reliever Tanner Scott and promptly stole second base for his league-leading 45th theft of the year; he scored on Tim Lopes' ground-ball infield single, dashing to the plate from second base on a would-be 5-3 putout and sliding in just ahead of the slightly-high throw home by first-baseman Trey Mancini. That set up the second save opportunity for Erik Swanson, who nailed it down easily despite hitting Baltimore shortstop Jonathan Villar with a pitch. Manager Scott Servais is a bit late to the realization that Swanson's path to success is as a short reliever, but hey, getting there in the last two weeks of the season is better than not getting there at all.

The final road game of the season—and the Orioles' final home game of 2019—pitted Marco Gonzales against Baltimore rookie John Means. Both gave up hard-luck single runs in the first inning: the M's scored when Crawford singled in Shed Long, who had led off the game with a fly ball to deep center that eluded center fielder Austin Hays; the Orioles plated one when Hays dunked a cheap single over shortstop and came around on a double down the right-field line by Renato Nuñez. After that, though, it seemed both southpaws were untouchable. Marco cruised into the seventh inning, retiring 18 of 19 Oriole batters until, with two gone in the 7th, Chris Davis connected on an inside fastball for a solo homer. True to form and unfairly, Servais relieved Marco to start the eighth despite a pitch count of just 87. In the end it didn't matter, as the M's couldn't mount anything resembling a threat and the game ended in a 2-1 defeat. Seattle's best chance at plating a second run was way back in the second inning, when Tim Lopes led off with a double and was stuck there as Dylan Moore and Braden Bishop failed to execute anything resembling fundamental baseball (strikeout, foulout) and Shed Long nubbed a routine grounder to short. Means (who was Baltimore's All-Star rep this year), and later Bleier, were just too good this day.

It's a shame that the M's couldn't find a way to score a couple more runs for Marco, as once more he deserved a win in a game that went south. In the Orioles' TV broadcast of the game, announcers Gary Thorne (who is very good) and Ben McDonald (not so much) were dismissive of Gonzales as the game began, wondering aloud how someone with such modest numbers and unimpressive stuff could possibly have won 16 games. As things progressed, though, they gained some appreciation for the abilities of Seattle's top pitcher; still, the prevailing "wisdom" in their booth was that Marco must merely have "pitched on the right days," i.e. when the team scored a bunch of runs. This offended me as a Marco Gonzales booster. Let's lay out the facts for Messrs. Thorne and McDonald, shall we?

  • Marco Gonzales' quality starts in 2019: 18 of 33 (54.5%). (Baltimore Orioles: 38 of 156, 24.4%.)
  • MG starts in which the M's scored four or fewer runs: 17 of 33 (51.5%). Over half the time Marco did not benefit from pitching "on the right days."
  • MG starts in which the M's scored seven or more runs: 10 of 33 (30.3%). Less than a third of the time did he luck out with "the right days."
  • Gonzales' 4.14 ERA includes back-to-back horrible starts at the end of May/beginning of June in which he gave up 16 earned runs as the M's were blown out 11-4 and 13-3. Take those two games out of the equation and Marco's season ERA would be 3.51. Oriole All-Star John Means' season ERA is 3.54 in three fewer starts and 46 fewer innings. Texas' Mike Minor has the AL's 6th-best season ERA among qualifiers at 3.52 (in two fewer starts). Now, those two games did count and can't be ignored, but the point is they were aberrations and not indicative of Gonzales' ability.

Marco Gonzales is good. He is a smart, crafty left-hander in the mold of John Tudor and Mike Flanagan. His 16 wins are not a fluke, and if he had indeed been benefiting from decent luck, he'd have 18 or 19 wins. A 20-win season is in his future. Hopefully next year or in 2021, and hopefully he'll have some company in that year's Mariner rotation with 18+ wins (looking at you, Yusei—where's that awesome dude from Tokorozawa?—and young'uns Sheffield and Logan Gilbert).

Next up, the M's return home for their final homestand of 2019, two against those abusive monsters the Houston Astros and four against the Astros' possible first-round playoff opponents, the Oakland A's.

 

Mariners vs. Orioles, by the numbers

  • Total runs scored: 24 (SEA 11, BAL 13)
  • Home runs hit: 7 (SEA 3, BAL 4)
  • Bases stolen/attempts: 2/5 (SEA 1 - Smith, BAL 1) 
  • Errors committed: 6 (SEA 4 - Murphy, Sheffield, Seager 2; BAL 2)
  • Quality starts: 2 (SEA 1 - Gonzales, BAL 1 - Means)
  • Pitching changes: 21 (SEA 13, BAL 8)
  • Starters ERA (includes “openers”): 4.85 (SEA 6.06, BAL 3.38)
  • Bullpen ERA (includes “headliners”): 1.78 (SEA 1.42, BAL 2.04)
  • Runners left on base: 34 (SEA 17, BAL 7)

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