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Growing pains reward the Seattle Mariners

The Mariners run the full gamut to walk off the White Sox.

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Seattle Mariners Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Time is the key to so many things - a well-groomed garden, healing heartbreak, properly cooked ribs. It’s what is integral in the development of baseball players as well. September call-ups will change for good next year, and after several years of mere bullpen depth and bench bats, the Mariners have filled their roster this week with seeds of the future. But watching those players these final weeks, and the next couple years, is an exercise in patience and process over immediate returns. The fact that many of the features of this recap needed no alterations when Seattle launched their late comeback attests to that.

But come back they did, like seagulls to a half-eaten bag of fries, relishing their loot at the expense of a careless luncher. When Tom Murphy held for ball four to drive in pinch-runner Braden Bishop, he capped a total reversal of fortunes bringing in six runs in the game’s final two innings. 37 players touched the field between the two squads, including the entire Mariners bench, 13 pitchers, and an utterly indefensible number of handedness-based bullpen moves for two teams well out of contention. The 11-10 final correctly hints at an exciting ballgame, but through the first four innings it seemed like Rob Manfred’s dream.

Justus Sheffield looked fantastic through 4.0 IP. He struck out eight without a walk, replicating the form he showed in AA-Arkansas, mixing his fastball, slider, and changeup with aplomb. Even at 87-88 mph, the changeup had late bite and drop that made it deceptive. Between the slider and the changeup, Sheffield got 12 of the 14 whiffs he earned on the day. By working all three pitches at or below the knees repeatedly, he offered hitters three possible pitches out of the hand that all present their own challenges. By my count only five (give or take with hitter height) of his 48 off-speed pitches ended up at the belt or higher.

Baseball Savant

The command, for four innings, was a dream, and Sheffield knew it.

More like Ryan Ohwelllllll

And then came the 5th. After a 30 minute layover thanks to Seattle dropping five runs on Iván Nova through a Kyle Lewis double and the tyranny of singles, Sheffield came out with his blade dulled. He walked Yolmer Sánchez on a 3-2 count despite executing a few pitches well, then got no outs after Austin Nola booted a sharp grounder. Adam Engel turned on a flatter slider in off the plate and the unblemished image was shattered. And then... a pop out, and another pop-up, only the latter was strangely not gloved by Kyle Lewis, who pulled up at the last moment, then booted the ball further. The White Sox returned the favor from the previous frame and slapped two more singles, and Scott Servais pulled the plug.

It was a tough moment, seeing 5-0 become 5-4 with just one out, but an intriguing point as we look to see process over results. My immediate reaction was frustration, wanting to see Sheffield keep grinding, seeing this challenge in one of his final starts of the year to salvage his command and minimize any further damage. It’s also near the conclusion of the season for the 23 year old, and Servais’ choice reflects an effort to incrementally build experience. Sheffield’s outing was better than his results, which is a common refrain but unequivocally true, and yet not seeing him get the chance - at just 82 pitches - to bear down and stop the bleeding, was a mild disappointment. Still, no player’s youthfulness escapes my mind as often as Sheffield, who is a full year younger right now than James Paxton was when the Big Maple debuted in 2013. The ending was disappointing, but the confidence in all three pitches is what may make or break Sheffield as a rotation piece, and today was a positive step in that direction.

Brandon Brennan’s allowance of a grand slam to Welington Castillo (thanks again, Jack Z) seemed to seal the deal, and that was alright. The Mariners’ primary export for much of my lifetime has been moral victories. But diversifying your portfolio is important, I’ve been told, and clearly so had the Mariners. Singles, walks, and more singles brought the hottest rookie this side of Aristides Aquino to the plate. Kyle Lewis, it seems, has had enough of growing pains, and is skipping to the good part.

Along with that 104 mph blast, Kyle Lewis finished the game with another single in the 9th at 100.6 mph, meaning every big league hit he’s had thus far has been >100 mph off the bat. The swing, which we’ll have more on tomorrow, looks so vastly improved from where he was when first returning to play a couple years ago that it’s nearly unrecognizable.

Lewis struck out twice as well, showing a predictable proclivity towards whiffing both for a guy leaping straight to the bigs from AA and considering his numbers there, but the persistent talk from Jerry Dipoto about Lewis’ exit velocities being consistently exceptional has borne out so far. We saw Lewis crush the ball three times more today, whiff twice, and look both graceful and trepidatious in the outfield at times while showing off his plus arm once. It’s the package in all its foibles and majesty, and the process came with results today.

  • Also of note: Shed Long added two singles on the day, and has continued looking like a reasonable big league hitter. He’s not likely to be the long-term leadoff guy, but getting him extra reps there is great.
  • No team wants to pride themselves on a glut at utility, but Seattle is flush with options going forward. Austin Nola went 4-for-5 with a walk, and has looked good defensively despite his costly error on the sharp hit in the 5th. The combination of Long, Nola, Dylan Moore, Donnie Walton, and Tim Lopes each reached base at least twice on the day, going 8-for-16 with five walks.
  • Austin Adams and Dan Altavilla both bounced back, striking out three and two respectively in shutout innings of work.
  • At one point Omar Vizquel was in the booth, and the clip of his bare-handed play to seal Chris Bosio’s no-hitter was played at least four times, giving me posthumous anxiety.
  • With just 12 games remaining and the Rockies and Blue Jays winning today, the Mariners are separated by three games from both the 5th and 7th/8th spot in the draft order. Seattle seems likely to stick at the 6th spot, though the off-day tomorrow leads into a six-game set against the Pirates (tied with Colorado) and the Orioles (just absolutely horrible). The likeliest outcome remains the Mariners being the >.400 record club with the worst record, but plenty of jockeying remains possible at the top and the bottom of the standings in these final weeks.