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M's Go Hitless With Runners in Scoring Position, Lose in 11

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The Mariners waste a solid start from Roenis Elias, and come up empty in scoring situations.

Jennifer Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

This was the perfect time to get fat. After battling three tough teams out of the chute, the schedule makers gave the Mariners a fluffy nine game home stand against the belly of the American League. The Mariners couldn't have asked for a friendlier stretch, and after a rough start to the season, we were all guilty of licking our chops with Texas, Houston, and Minnesota on the docket.

I can't be the only one who mentally pegged the Mariners for a 6-3 home stand. This is a good club, a potential playoff team, and playoff teams historically kick the crap out of the dregs of the league. Texas, Houston, and Minnesota sounded like six wins, maybe seven or eight if the M's caught a few breaks. That misplaced cockiness is what makes the past week and a half so frustrating, and today's 4-2, extra inning loss particularly deflating. Mentally, I'd already accounted for the win. Even when the M's lost yesterday, I talked myself into thinking that taking five out of nine wasn't too bad, luring myself back into the same trap I fell for yesterday.

With today's defeat, the Mariners fell to four games under .500 and head out of town in worse shape than when they returned from the last road trip. As with any close loss, there's plenty of blame to go around. Will it be directed at Tyler Olson? He was on the mound when Joe Mauer came up with two on and two out in the eleventh. He's the man who hung the curve that Mauer roped into the right center field gap for a back-breaking triple. He's the reliever sporting a 5.00/4.81/5.85 pitcher slash in his first spin around the league.

Or should it go to the braintrust, the men who designed and built the roster in such a fashion that the Mariners were all but forced to hand the ball over to their overmatched rookie in a close game? This team was built to compete for the playoffs: allowing Olson to learn on the job nearly cost the Mariners a game in Oakland, and it certainly didn't help today. He's now walked nine hitters in nine innings, and opponents are batting about .400 when they make contact. There's a lot of noise in that stat, but there are plenty of hung curves and grooved fastballs in it too. Why is he in Seattle when there are better options available in Triple-A?

Should some of the blame fall on the manager -- whether Lloyd McClendon or Trent Jewett -- who ordered the bunts? Jesus Sucre sacrificed with a runner on second and nobody out in the fifth and Brad Miller advanced Dustin Ackley to second for the first out of the ninth; nothing came from either play. Sucre's bunt was agonizingly conservative while Miller's effectively swapped the platoon advantage, an out, and worse hitters for a single base. Should the Mariners have rolled the dice and let their hitters swing away?

Some credit should be doled out to Kyle Gibson -- who pounded the lower half of the zone with an effective sinker and made no mistakes with runners on base -- and Aaron Thompson -- who tossed slider after slider as he battled his way through the eighth -- for preventing the Mariners from capitalizing on their best chances.

But there was also some bad luck and plenty of poor at-bats. It's unfortunate that Robinson Cano's two out liner with runners on the corners found a glove, but if Austin Jackson had been able to do more than weakly pop up to second base earlier in the inning, he could have plated a run sooner. At the end of the day, the M's only scored nine runs in twenty-nine innings against arguably the league's worst pitching staff. They had to do more.

One player who doesn't deserve any blame is Roenis Elias. He's had a rough go in Tacoma so far this year, but he worked through sloppy command early to post a fine start in his 2015 debut.

Elias got off to a shaky start in the first. After walking Shane Robinson, the southpaw caught too much plate with a 1-2 fastball to Joe Mauer, and the former MVP laced it for a single. Trevor Plouffe followed with a long fly ball on a dead fish changeup; it plated Robinson, but Elias was lucky the damage wasn't worse. Throughout the inning, he had trouble hitting the glove and keeping his offspeed in the bottom part of the zone.

Elias shook off the rust in the second and worked one of the finest innings he's thrown as a Mariner. He fanned Oswaldo Arcia, hitting the top of the zone with two fastballs before pushing him off the plate with an inside heater and earning a swinging strikeout with a curve that dove down and out of the zone. Chris Herrmann followed, striking out on two sweeping curves, and the Cuban got out of the inning on a weak tapper from Brian Dozier. In the frame, Elias induced whiffs with all three of his pitches, as he deliberately peppered the fringes of the strike zone. From there he worked another 3.2 innings, allowing two runs and three walks, while striking out six. He touched ninety-four on the gun, and his curve looked as good as it ever has.

Unfortunately, Elias's strong effort wasn't enough. Seattle only mustered two runs of their own and despite a plethora of scoring opportunities, couldn't get to Gibson or the Twins bullpen after the fourth. In games like this, winnable contests against poor opposition, it's so tempting to play the blame game when events spiral out of control. It's easy and cathartic to demand changes, chastise poor execution, and rip managerial decisions.

But such a reaction is fatalistic and overlooks the simple truth that Seattle was really close to winning this game. With all of their opportunities, the Mariners were one differently angled ground ball from taking the game and the series, and heading onto the road as winners of three of their last four. That the breaks favored the Twins this afternoon should have little bearing on this team going forward. With Texas and Houston first up to start the road trip, there's still time to take advantage of the soft part of the schedule.

Bullets:

  • Add Robinson Cano to the list of Mariners who have tried to bunt for a hit against the shift this year. He's done it before.
  • Sean Barber was the home plate umpire today. You might remember him as the umpire who worked the plate in Elias's debut, or more likely as the guy who couldn't tell a ball from a strike last April. You'll be shocked to hear that he's still struggling:

    It was Barber who ran McClendon from the game in the top of the fourth. I haven't been able to find out what made McClendon so upset, although it looked like Barber tried to break up the meeting early, and that he didn't take kindly to Lloyd just walking onto the field without asking for time. Petty if true, but umpires have made more from less. Surprisingly, this was just Lloyd's first ejection of the season.
  • Seth Smith hit his first bomb, punishing one of the few mistakes Gibson left in the zone: 

    <iframe class="imgur-embed" width="100%" height="361" frameborder="0" src="http://i.imgur.com/vxcxEl3.gifv#embed"></iframe>
  • Carson Smith's ERA remains unblemished. He retired all three hitters he faced, striking out one. Jewett pulled him with two outs in the top of the eighth, with nobody out and Mauer due up. I didn't like the call. Smith is one of the best -- if not the best -- relievers on the club, and he's capable of getting a lefty out in that situation. With nobody on and Mauer unlikely to go deep, I'd have let Smith earn his stripes. Instead, the move effectively burned Furbush and left Olson as the only fresh reliever capable of throwing multiple innings.