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It’s the pitching, stupid

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As the Mariners have struggled over the past week against the AL's finest, it's pretty clear where their biggest weakness remains.

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

The Mariners’ season is dying. Again. It feels as though there have been at least four or five stretches this season where the team’s play has sent the majority of its fanbase to the familiar, comforting vices of dark humor, despair, and, of course, alcohol. After starting August with a 15-6 record, the Mariners have dropped six of their last seven. While we, rightly, question ideas like momentum, and the ex post facto desire to turn singular events into "turning points", the team has not looked the same since last blowing a three-run lead in the ninth to Milwuakee a few Sundays ago.

With the Mariners losing, failure will always feel inevitable, because that has been the defining takeaway from ninety percent or so of the years they have existed. This is, defined purely by an ability to make and win games in the postseason, the least successful franchise in Major League Baseball. So when a storm blows six losses in seven games through the door, I understand why fans run for the basement, and tie their belt around a well pipe. We’ve seen some storms.

The Mariners’ season, indeed, may be headed towards another finish without the postseason. However, at the risk of over-distilling baseball’s thousands upon thousands of chaos factors into a simple thought, the story of the past week is about opposing pitcher quality.

To be clear, a 1-6 stretch does not happen without suboptimal play from large swaths of the team. The offense is struggling, and the bullpen is blowing what few leads the team achieves. However, here are some of the pitchers the Mariners have faced the past week:

CC Sabathia, Masahiro Tanaka, Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, and Yu Darvish. Of those five only Sabathia fails to rank among the American League’s finest pitchers. Great, truly great pitching, is baseball’s singular equalizer of talent. Like a hockey goalie standing on his head, a Cy Young caliber starter can render whatever talent disparity (not that much of one exists in this case) exists between the rest of the rosters irrelevant, and while the Mariners have an above average offense, they do not have the starters to go toe to toe with that kind of firepower. Over the past week, here is the average start for opposing pitchers:

7 IP, 5 H, 2.3 R, 1.1 BB, 7.6 K

And here is the same average, but for Mariner starting pitchers:

5.4 IP, 6 H, 3.3 R, 1.9 BB, 3.4 K(!)

There are no all-encompassing simple answers to why wins and losses happen in baseball, but this one is pretty close. The Mariners have faced great starting pitching over the past week, and their starters have largely been unable to keep pace.

It doesn't get any easier, at least not today. Tonight the Mariners’ face Cole Hamels, another one of the AL’s best starters. The team will need James Paxton to return to the form he showed before his DL stint, hope for some timely hits, and that Steve Cishek and co. can form a bridge to Edwin Diaz. That’s obvious, and simple, but also true.

This week was a glimpse into baseball beyond the regular season. In the playoffs tough starting pitching is an almost daily occurrence, and without your own elite starters it can feel like starting every game down 2-0. I know that’s how most of these recent games have felt for me. Clearly, if the Mariners somehow sneak into the postseason they will not have the pitching advantage, more nights than not. But a week of struggle against elite arms doesn’t doom the rest of the season. After today's game, nine of the next thirteen are against the Angels and A's. If the team goes .500 or below over the next two weeks, that will doom the season.

The time for lighting bonfires, being silly drunk, and toasting the death of another season is probably coming. It may be coming very soon. But it isn’t here yet, even if the last seven games showed us, once again, that the Mariners aren't truly great. In baseball's new world of the second wild card, they don't have to be. "Sort of good" can be good enough, and they may yet be that.

gobiz