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Mariners crawl back towards .500, beat Rays 4-1

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Roenis Elias continues to impress and Robinson Cano drives in a pair.

Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Maybe they won't just flip a switch. Many people envisioned the Mariners would be one of the better teams in baseball, and some of us still hold out hope that they'll turn into the team they were supposed to be—but maybe, if it happens, the change won't be sudden.

We'd all like to see an extended hot stretch, a string of games where the lineup, rotation and bullpen perform to their perceived talent levels—one of those "they've won 12 of 14!" streaks that produces the Here Come the Mariners headlines. Maybe it comes eventually, as they're certainly capable of it, but it isn't absolutely necessary for a climb up the standings.

The Mariners have won ten of their last sixteen games. It doesn't seem like that, for a couple reasons. For one, "ten of their last sixteen" sounds a lot better than 10-6. For another, they're aided a bit by a three-game sweep of the worst team in the American League—and are only .500 since the four-game winning streak that contained.

But ten of sixteen is still ten of sixteen. At minimum, it's competence, and competence is a lot better than what we've seen at many moments this season. If you want to be optimistic, it's starting to round a corner—but maybe we shouldn't go there yet.

Speaking of competence, and the hopeful rounding of figurative corners, Robinson Cano had a pair of RBI singles today. The first of the two opened the scoring in the first inning, following Seth Smith reaching on an error and Brad Miller taking a nice walk.

CanoRBISingle

This is the type of hitting that made Cano a $240 million man. People frequently talk about Cano's balance in the box, and this is exactly to which they're referring—the ability to keep the bat in the zone against a decent breaking pitch and make solid contact.

We've talked here before about Cano's struggles against pitches outside the strike zone, but the bottom of the zone has been almost as much of a problem—as he's been just 3-for-17 against non-fastballs in the lower-third of the zone. So yes, this was good to see. The same holds for his ground ball RBI single in the eighth, though for different reasons—for all the hard-hit balls that have found gloves, it was nice to see the guy have a little luck.

In-between, there was Roenis Elias being Roenis Elias. Well, Nelson Cruz hit an RBI single too—right after Cano's, actually—but yeah, Elias. He did allow home run, as those tend to happen with him, but this marked the twelfth straight start Elias has held the opponent to three or fewer runs.

I mentioned this on the podcast, but you can take so many different adjectives and throw them at Elias—similar to everything Elias throws up at hitters. He's crafty, he's a competitor, he's a junkballer. There are better Mariners players, obviously, but I'm not sure there's any I enjoy to watch as much as Elias.

The essence of Roenis Elias was captured in a fourth-inning at bat against Kevin Kiermaier. A walk, a force out and a double would bring the only lefty hitter in the lineup to the plate with runners on second and third and only one out.

It was then that Elias decided he was going to transform into a LOOGY. For those who don't know, Elias likes to switch up the arm angles. In the AB against Kiermaier, Elias dropped way down for the first two pitches, spotting a change and a curve right on the outside corner to jump ahead 0-2. After that, it was back to the normal arm slot—and a hook that conveniently spun him back towards the Rays' dugout.

Here's the full AB:

That was one of Elias' six strikeouts. And while six Ks isn't overly impressive, Elias did really have it working today, as his 15 swinging strikes represented the second highest total of his career. He threw ten curves, and six were swung on and missed. But what's more interesting is the continued increase usage of what's turning into quite the useful third pitch—that changeup.

Elias threw 36 changes tonight, which represents the second highest total of his young major league career. He's now thrown more than 30 in three of his five starts this year—something that only happened once last year. He's also generated seven whiffs on the change in back to back games now, something that only happened in only four of his 24 starts in 2014.

It's something to watch with Elias, as you're enjoying the rest.

And really, as most of you know, I could talk all day about the kid. We around here talked all offseason—and continue to talk more since Hisashi Iwakuma's injury—about how the Mariners are in desperate need of starting pitching depth. And while I agree, that they could use another arm, are we really talking about depth? They entered the season with a #6 that would be the envy of most teams and when Kuma went down—the reason you have depth—Elias has stepped in admirably and then some.

Could they use another starter for the top half of their rotation? Most definitely. But I'm not sure we're talking about depth here.

Now, it's too late to fake a transition so I'll just say we should talk about Mike Zunino's home run, and then we're going to talk about Mike Zunino's home run.

For a guy who doesn't have all that many really good ones, that was probably the best AB of the season for Z. Here's how it played out:

Zpitches

He went down 0-2 but ended up extending the at bat to nine pitches. As I mentioned in that O-Contact% piece about Cano, plate discipline and pitch recognition isn't only about taking walks or being able to do something with tough pitches. Sometimes it's just hanging in there long enough for the pitcher to make a mistake. And boy did he make one, with a hell of a cement mixer slider.

Watch this thing come in, slow down and just stop in Zunino's wheelhouse.

Alright, let's just do bullets already.

  • Not too long ago, I tweeted out that it'd be the most Mariners thing ever for Mark Lowe to turn back into a valuable reliever—and it seems he has. He's walking more guys than you'd like, but he's also striking out 11.57 per nine as well. We'll see where this goes, and it may go downhill, but Blowers pointed out that he's just about your seventh inning guy, with Carson Smith going in the eighth and Fernando Rodney obviously handling the ninth. With Tom Wilhemsen and Charlie Furbush mixed in there, I'm pretty fine with this arrangement.
  • Speaking of Fernando, that was a nice outing for him—an okay single, two grounders and a flyout.
  • Kyle Seager's just about back. Not only did he extend his hitting streak to 11 games with a double, but he had a couple outstanding plays on defense.
  • Brad Miller started in left and looked just fine. He made a nice play getting to a ball and getting it in quickly on a double down the line. He also moved naturally towards the final out of the game, over in left center. The idea of him being average or slightly above average defensively very soon is not far-fetched. He's bound to misplay a ball or two around the wall, but he looks like a natural on nearly everything else so far.
  • Speaking of defense, Dustin Ackley was a defensive replacement for Justin Ruggiano in center and that seemed weird. Ruggiano entered the season as the named backup in center, so to see him replaced by Ackley has to make you wonder at least a little about the hierarchy there.
  • And you wonder about the hierarchy because that roster crunch is coming. The Mariners delayed it a couple days by sending Danny Farquhar down to Tacoma as the corresponding move to bringing Austin Jackson off the disabled list, but before long they're going to have to—barring injury or Miller/Taylor demotion—bid adieu to one of Ruggiano (really doubt it), Ackley, Rickie Weeks or Willie Bloomquist. Given the procrastination, you have to wonder if a trade is in the works.

Tomorrow, it's J.A. Happ against righty Alex Colome. With a win, they'll secure a winning road trip with Felix going Wednesday before the team heads back to the Pacific Northwest.

Go M's.