Despite the Mariners’ shockingly good start to the season, it seems like most of us have been sober about their chances to make the postseason this year. Has the team been good? Yes. Sustainable? Maybe. Good enough? Probably not.
With that said, the Mariners were already facing an uphill battle going into the deadline. When their main competition in the Yankees went out and added Anthony Rizzo and Joey Gallo, the Mariners’ chances went from merely unlikely to borderline impossible.
The gap between the two teams (and their respective approaches to the trade deadline) was evident after Thursday’s and Friday’s games. Gallo singlehandedly won Thursday’s game for the Yankees, while the Mainers were undone in part by their new found lack of bullpen depth last night.
The Mariners really needed a win coming into today — if not for their postseason chances, then for their own morale. For a moment, it looked like Yankee Stadium was on their side. Abraham Toro, who has continued to be the most valuable player in baseball since becoming a Mariner, led off the game with a hard-hit double into center field that the husk of Brett Gardner was unable to field cleanly. Two batters later, Kyle Seager got under a lazily hung curveball, skying a can of corn to right field.
Or, it would have been a can of corn literally anywhere else. Per Statcast’s calculator, Seager’s fly ball had a hit probability of just 2%. Per Dan Morse’s Twitter bot, @would_it_dong, the ball wouldn’t have been a home run at literally any other stadium. But a home run it was.
With the Mariners out to an early 2-0 lead, Chris Flexen was tasked with the unenviable job of pitching to the Yankees in their tiny, pretend baseball stadium. From the very first pitch, Flexen felt as if he was being squeezed by home plate umpire Alfonso Márquez. A couple of pitches toward the top of the zone to leadoff hitter DJ LeMahieu were called balls, as well as two to Anthony Rizzo. Fortunately, Flexen got Rizzo to ground into a double play, which limited the damage from what happened next.
What happened next was Aaron Judge obliterating a hanging curveball, sending it 421 feet for a solo dinger and halving the Mariners’ lead. Flexen’s issues with the zone were brought to a head during the next plate appearance, when three more borderline pitches to Joey Gallo were all called balls. Flexen barked several times at Márquez, who finally was provoked into responding with something along the lines of “shut the fuck up, dude”.
Despite the tension, it’s possible Flexen’s self-advocacy was effective. With runners at first and second, Márquez called strikes on two more borderline pitches to Rougned Odor. Of course, it’s also possible that, like everyone else in the world, Márquez hates Rougned Odor.
Flexen ended up retiring Odor to end the inning and seemed to have a nice, productive chat with Márquez afterward, during which they both motioned at Scott Servais to tell him “nah, it’s cool, your midwestern dad energy will not be helpful here”.
On the other side, Yankee starter Andrew Heaney’s struggles continued into the top of the second. Heaney walked Luis Torrens and gave up a double to Jarred Kelenic before walking Dylan Moore to load the basis. Abraham Toro worked a walk of his own to score Torrens, and then Mitch Haniger hit a lazy fly ball to right field. After Seager’s lazy fly ball in the first inning had ended up being a dinger, visions of a grand slam briefly danced before everyone’s eyes. Unfortunately, the ball died right in front of the fence. Instead of four RBI’s, Haniger managed just one, with Kelenic scoring on the sacrifice fly. Ty France hit his second hard-hit grounder of the game directly at the shortstop, ending the inning, killing the rally, and leaving the Mariners with just a 4-1 lead.
For as terrible as Heaney looked during those first two innings, he managed to settle down. The Mariners weren’t able to make good contact off of him for the rest of the game as Heaney somehow managed to parlay what had initially looked like a disaster into a respectable start.
Flexen looked good for the rest of his time as well, aside from surrendering two more extremely hard-hit balls to Aaron Judge. Fortunately, those balls didn’t leave the stadium, and the Mariners lead was left intact until the sixth inning. That, unfortunately, is when the wheels came off.
After Giancarlo Stanton looped a line drive for a single, Rougned Odor golfed a low changeup lazily down the right field line. The exit velocity on Odor’s hit was just 89 MPH — as much a can of corn as Seager’s hit earlier in the game. Lo and behold, the ball somehow ended up on the other side of the fence, cutting the Mariner lead to 4-3.
With both teams having recorded 2-run dingers that, by all rights, should not have been dingers, the game was mostly evened out. Still, as fans that don’t often witness games in this fucking college baseball stadium, it left a bad taste in the mouths of many Mariner fans.
That baseball stadium dimensions are variable is part of what makes the game special. But the right field power alley in Yankee Stadium is ridiculous. It feels akin to the New York Knicks saying “hey, we’re going to shorten the three-point line in Madison Square Garden”. Or a soccer team saying “actually, at our stadium, the goal is bigger”. The New York Giants saying “here at The Meadowlands, the field is only 80 yards long”.
After Odor’s dinger, which had a hit expectation of 3%, Flexen was pulled. Anthony Misiewicz got Brett Gardner to fly out for the first out. Gleyber Torres then hit a fly ball to Mitch Haniger, who seemed to trip on the warning track dirt while trying to catch it, losing the ball in the process. Torres ended up at third base, and then scored on a Kyle Higashioka ground-rule double. That was it for Misiewicz’s day.
Scott Servais brought in Casey Sadler, who didn’t have much better luck on balls in play. DJ LeMahieu singled to put runners at first and third. Anthony Rizzo hit a hard grounder right to Ty France at first base, setting up what could have been another inning-ending double play. France seemed to make a mental miscue, stepping on first to retire Rizzo, which meant that he could no longer throw to second to force out LeMahieu. The Mariners were able to easily retire LeMahieu in a run-down, but Higashioka scored from third on the play, giving the Yankees a 5-4 lead.
And... that was pretty much it. The Mariners were completely hapless for the final three innings, striking out four times and recording just one hit. The ninth inning was especially revelatory of the team’s weakness. Interim Yankees closer Jonathan Loáisiga is a righty, and Scott Servais pinch hit for Luis Torrens with the left-handed Jake Bauers.
Torrens has had a drastically worse performance against righties this season than against lefties. But you know who has been even worse against righties? The left-handed Bauers. Even with a favorable platoon matchup, Bauers has been utterly abysmal.
Bauers rolled over against a pitch from Loáisiga, grounding out. Kelenic and Cal Raleigh followed in short order, and the Mariners found themselves on the wrong end of a one-run baseball game for the third time in four days.
Many people will point to the bullpen for the team’s sudden run of ineptitude in one-run games. Most of them will likely contrast that run of ineptitude with the team’s pre-deadline success in those same situations, saying that Dipoto was wrong for trading closer Kendall Graveman.
This series has been revelatory yes, but not as an assessment of the team’s deadline strategy. Rather, this series has laid bare the deficiencies existing at the bottom of the roster. Jake Bauers (whose wRC+ is 58 this season) has had high-leverage plate appearances in two consecutive games. Cal Raleigh (whose wRC+ is 31 this season) made the last out tonight. Of course, it’s unfair to blame Raleigh, who probably shouldn’t even be on the Major League roster.
Rather, this series has shown that the Mariners have a lot more work to do this offseason than sign a couple of starting pitchers and maybe replace Kyle Seager. The splashy signings will be absolutely necessary, yes. But there exist black holes on this roster that are simply incompatible with a team that has postseason aspirations. This team doesn’t seem to have postseason aspirations for 2021, which is fine. But I’ll be looking for a lot more than three acquisitions this winter.