A quick glance of the calendar reveals that 2016’s most trying month will be over in two days. A good portion of my writing this month has been an attempt to rationalize, understand, and/or to grapple with June's free fall. As the Mariners have limped to a 9-17 record the Astros and Rangers have gone 17-8 and 20-6 this month, respectively. That’s correct, the Mariners have lost nine and eleven games in the loss column to two division rivals, in the span of four weeks. While the season isn’t over, May’s promises of a Mariner team to right all wrongs, and to bring justice to the injustices, feels far away.
Yesterday afternoon seemed ready to be more of the same. Greg Johns tweeted vaguely about Taijuan Walker’s absence on the list of upcoming probably starting pitchers. I have a "Taijuan Walker to the DL" draft in the editor simply waiting for a confirming tweet to embed, and push publish. But, then, news started to break, and that story never go published:
Furbush threw a 35 pitch bullpen and said he felt great. Plan is to throw live bp Sat.— Shannon Drayer (@shannondrayer) June 28, 2016
Sounds like there's a real chance Furbush gets back in July. https://t.co/WcQl81TPs4— Jason A. Churchill (@ProspectInsider) June 28, 2016
After so many delays and setbacks I had all but given up on Charlie Furbush pitching meaningful innings in 2016. His return theoretically provides the team not only with a true LOOGY and effective arm, it pushes all the depth down a spot, and puts a better arm in the 6-7th innings that have been killing the team all month.
Speaking of bullpen:
Nate Karns going to the bullpen. Walker will start Thursday and LeBlanc on Friday— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) June 28, 2016
I like Nate Karns, quite a bit. He's shown terrific stuff, with a mid 90's fastball and sharp, biting curveball. He is not even arbitration eligible until 2018, and not a free agent until 2021. But he has gone more than five innings once since May 19th, and his inability to get through a lineup more than twice was putting a huge strain on the bullpen. With the possibility of Wade LeBranc being Captain Whelm, Karns provides yet more depth for the bullpen. Like Edwin Diaz and Mike Montgomery, two other recently converted starters with big fastballs, Karns' stuff potentially benefits from shorter outings at max effort.
If Wade LeBlanc can survive the rotation, the Mariners' bullpen just got another big arm. If he cannot, the team will cycle Karns back into the rotation. It's a move that costs nothing longterm, and has potential to further bolster a faltering relief corps for the remainder of 2016. After originally being a bit non-plussed by the news, I like it quite a bit.
At the same time this move made it official that Taijuan Walker would not be going on the disabled list, and would in fact start tomorrow against the Orioles. When healthy Walker has shown the ability to dominate, and his velocity along with James Paxton's gives the Mariners two of the biggest fastballs in the game.
This was all a precursor to the sweetest baseball news this humble blogger has heard this month:
The King prepares for his return. pic.twitter.com/uzwGj914VU— Mariners (@Mariners) June 28, 2016
@LookoutLanding For the record, Felix did actually hop up and do his traditional spin/dance upon completing the session.— Mariners (@Mariners) June 28, 2016
In a weird way, I'm almost grateful for June. I want the team to win, obviously, but I also want them to win because of Felix. Almost every fan allows them the indulgence of shaping narratives onto a baseball team, and mine is that the 2016 Mariners are simply not the same without Felix Hernandez pitching every fifth day. I understand he's only one pitcher, and I understand he was a shadow of his full glory the first two months of the season, but dammit I don't care. Felix went on the disabled list on June 1st, and the team has gone 9-17 in his absence. They need him, they need their king. I need him, and he's coming back.
The visit to the disabled list grants us the space to question, and to dream. What if Felix really did do something to his leg against the Yankees last May? What if he has really been dealing with a gimpy lower half on and off for almost a year? What if he's healthy now? What if he's Felix in the 2nd half of 2016? What if he's standing on the rubber in Safeco, under a crisp but clear October sun? What if we're there? What if?
The Mariners went out last night, and played the way they played for the season's first two months. Despite some bad baserunning and wasted opportunities, the depth of their lineup and efficiency of their starting pitching slowly overwhelmed Pittsburgh in a 5-2 win. Before the game, we got news that many of the team's injured arms are close to returning. It was the reminder we needed, June isn't forever, and despite the current standings, nothing is won or lost yet. This can be a good team, they have been a good team, and they're about to be a whole lot healthier. Wade Miley starts tonight. Taijuan Walker starts tomorrow. Charlie Furbush is close.
Felix is coming, hopefully like a vengeful, jealous god bent on shaming his many apostates, myself included.
It all gave us a night to hope. After the past four weeks, that's a welcome change.