Yesterday in the comments on the recap, friend of the site/terrible opinion haver Peter Alexieff said he was suffering from “tonal whiplash,” as he enjoyed the win but hates brunch (hates brunch! Hates brunch, he says! Breakfast’s more fun, debauched older sibling!). I fear that the upcoming series against the Astros will cause Mariners fans a similar kind of tonal whiplash, as they go from playing one of the worst offensive teams in the AL to the best in all of baseball. These slippery eel 2017 Mariners are so hard to get a handle on. Just when you think they’re cooking with gas, they forget how to baseball against two of the worst teams in baseball, the Phillies and the A’s. And seemingly every time they get a little momentum and the crest of Mount 500 comes into view, they run into a buzzsaw called the Astros.
There is no shame in the Astros being a better team than the Mariners. The Astros are a better team than basically every team in baseball, and I am already deciding for whom I should root in the Dodgers-Astros World Series. Seriously, though, this series is going to be hard, and the Mariners will lose at least one, and probably several of these games. They might look very, very bad at times while doing this, because the Astros have a tendency to make other teams look very, very bad. Over the All-Star Break, I outlined three things I think the Mariners must do moving forward in order to address their biggest points of weakness from the first half. They might not win all or most or any of the games against Houston, but things might not be as dire as they look if the Mariners can show improvement in some of their major areas of need. Let’s check in with what we saw from the White Sox series:
- Not giving away outs - I was distressed to see the bad baserunning continue over the White Sox series. The series opened with Jean Segura getting thrown out trying to cash in the coupon he had for one free double, only to find out it was expired. I don’t know if Segura—relatively unfamiliar with playing at Bath and Body Works Field or whatever it is—thought he’d have more time to make it to second, or if his running really is impaired that much, or what, but it was exactly the opposite of what I’d hoped to see to open the second half. Back in May I wrote about Segura’s speed sap after the hamstring injury; his BsR was a -2.2 then and it’s only gotten worse since, to a -3.3. And it’s not just Segura: in yesterday’s game, Guillermo Heredia made a poor read on a ball and aggressively took third. A good throw would have gotten him and snuffed out the Mariners’ chance to go ahead in a tied game. Idea: give Manny Acta a rolled-up newspaper and a spray bottle. Or maybe make a TOOTBLAN jar? I don’t know, just brainstorming. Get better at this, guys. It’s not hard. The White Sox may not have punished the M’s baserunning errors, but the Astros sure as heck will.
- Consistency on the pitching staff - The pitching staff shoulders much of the blame for the poor first half performance, as it should (remember Rob Whalen, starting pitcher?), but it’s important to remember that with this offense, the pitching staff doesn’t have to be dominant worldbeaters; just no more eight-run holes in the first inning, please. Small sample size but: so far, so good. Moore struggled in his first start away from the friendly confines of Safeco Field, but both Paxton and Félix turned in performances that were—Paxton-y and Félix-y. Neither performance was either pitcher at his best, if you can believe that a 9-strikeout, two-earned-run outing from Paxton wasn’t his absolute best (those strikeouts cost him in his pitch count, as he needed 103 pitches over just six innings). Meanwhile, Félix delivered five innings in which he allowed just one run, on a solo home run, but he too was the victim of a high pitch count. The real story was the bullpen, which showed signs of what it can be when all the pieces are in place and running smoothly. The bullpen worked through the White Sox like a nighttime road crew, hurrying in, slicing through their section of the lineup, and then stacking up their orange cones and scurrying down the road half a mile to do it all again. Zych, Pazos, Cishek, Vincent, Díaz, and Emilio Pagan combined to throw 14 innings of one-run, 16 K ball, with 5 BB. Maybe what’s been missing with the bullpen is any sense of consistency—of those relievers, Pazos, Vincent, and Díaz are the only three who have been with the club since the start of the season, and that’s without taking into account Díaz’s brief demotion from his closer role. The Mariners have used 29 different pitchers this year (31 if you count Mike Freeman and Carlos Ruiz, but let’s not), and of those, 19 have pitched out of the bullpen. Remember Chase De Jong, bullpen pitcher? Or the brief time where they thought they could make Dillon Overton a reliever? Good gravy. Anyway, I’m hoping the mentality we saw in place in the Chicago series—“This is my inning, there are many other innings like it but this one is mine”—is one we see throughout the rest of the season, with similar results.
- Big bats must continue to carry the water - In the ASB piece, I specifically targeted this at Kyle Seager, who has been the most underachieving of the Big Three. Always receptive to criticism, Seager has already hit two home runs since the break, which is one more than he hit in all of April. But it’s not just Seager, of course; during the White Sox series, Canó and Cruz both had game-winning moments with clutch home runs. Segura has been consistent even if he makes me scream TAKE A WALK SOMETIME, JEAN at least once per game, and it’s fun to see Mike Zunino hit the occasional towering home run, and Danny Valencia has been one of the more reliable bats in the lineup, and the outfield crew can usually scrape together a hit or two between them (although they should really stop sticking Ben Gamel with the bill every time). But the heartbeat of the offense is in those three, and they have to continue to deliver consistently. During this series, the trio went 10-for-35 with five home runs. Five home runs a series is a bit much to expect (although maybe some of those are doubles at other parks; there was just one double, hit by Seager, in this series), but the contributions each made over the White Sox series—literally the difference between winning the game or not—show how critical each member of the Big Three is in stacking runs on the board for the Mariners.
There might be some ugly moments in this Astros series. Jean Segura is batting .185 off Charlie Morton, Brad Peacock is suddenly the strikeout king of the world (12.26 K/9! Obscene!), and Lance McCullers throws Mariner kryptonite. Oh yes, and there’s the part where the Astros hitters are doing things to baseballs that are not for discussing in polite society. [does Hunger Games gesture in Sam Gaviglio’s general direction.] But smart baserunning, a ‘pen that doesn’t go into meltdown mode, six innings of three or four (or okay, five, it’s the danged Astros)-run ball out of the starters, and the Big Three chipping in their share of runs will tell us a lot more about what kind of baseball we’ll be watching over the next couple of months. In other words: take the long view, because the short view is likely to be like faceplanting into a nest of porcupines.