Mariners put it all together for a win to close out the first half, but Cruz, Cano and Hernandez, all on the backside of their careers, need health and consistency to be taken seriously.
For a game, all was right. Felix Hernandez pitched a two-hit shutout over six innings, closer Edwin Diaz had a perfect ninth and DH Nelson Cruz homered. The 4-0 win Sunday salvaged a series split with Oakland.
Then again, the foe was the 39-50 Athletics. The homestand was 2-5. The record heading into the All-Star Game break is 43-47. And the Mariners’ two All-Stars, Cruz and 2B Robinson Cano, were hobbling around the field as if it were made of broken glass and they were bare-footed.
If it’s possible turn up the volume to 11 and still say, “Meh,” it would summarize well the first half of the 2017 season.
Even manager Scott Servais, delighted as he was with Hernandez throwing a throwback game, was a little downcast.
“We’re better than (43-47); we keep saying that,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we are what we are . . . You’re talking to deaf ears.”
Among long-time fans, he certainly captured their sentiment. None of them want “meh” from a $150 million payroll 15 years gone from the playoffs. They don’t want to hear about injuries. They don’t get why such a roster can distinguish and extinguish itself with equal adroitness.
The club can draw 32,661 for run-around-the-bases day at Safeco Field, but it was startling to recognize that nearly every kid in that post-game ritual could out-run Cruz, 37, and Cano, 34.
Given that it’s taken until the All-Star break for Hernandez, 31 with nearly 2,500 innings, to pitch, as Servais put it, “absolutely the best we’ve seen him all year,” it is hard to see past that fact that the three guys expected to carry the club are all past their primes and down to merely hoping that they somehow get healthier and younger over the final 72 games.
But instead of taking advantage of rest during the All-Star break, all three will engage in the longest flight in U.S. domestic sports, a Seattle-to-Miami round trip. Cruz, whom Servais said has “something going on with his knee all year,” and Cano (re-tweaked a quadriceps strain last week) will fly to play in the meaningless exhibition game. Hernandez isn’t playing, but he’s going anyway because he has a home in the Miami area.
“Probably I take one or two at-bats,” said Cruz, selected as the AL’s reserve DH. “I don’t run hard anyway.”
He was smiling when he said it. Servais was closer to a grimace.
“I hope both of our guys don’t play much,” he said. “Give them one at-bat, and get them out. They need the rest.”
Suggesting that the All-Star game is a nuisance for Seattle sounds like an over-reach. But this is a club that already lost for the season a rotation starter, Drew Smyly, to injury in the World Baseball Classic in March, an exhibition that also taxed Hernandez.
The extra wear is compounded by the relative shallowness of the major-league-ready pool of farm talent.
The Mariners have needed all hands, including a club-record 30 pitchers that leads MLB, to get this far, the outskirts of wild-card contention. But the 2017 club is dominated by the $65 million combined paid to Hernandez, Cruz and Cano, all of whom have had grand moments of production interspersed with periods of gimpiness that is typical for those over 30 in MLB.
The best first-half news for Seattle is that it has three rookies that have helped produce the best defensive outfield in baseball. Not only do Ben Gamel, Guillermo Heredia and Mitch Haniger (along with veteran Jarrod Dyson) lead MLB in defensive runs saved and Ultimate Zone Rating, they are keeping Tyler O’Neill, 22, perhaps the best of them all, in AAA Tacoma, where he is crushing the Pacific Coast League.
Keeping O’neill from starting early his MLB service time is a long-term benefit, but that could change if general manager Jerry Dipoto chooses to bust a trade-deadline move with one of the Fab Four for a veteran starter.
The worst first half-news is not the injuries to starting pitching, about which little can be done. It is the erratic performances of Diaz, who despite the 1-2-3 ninth Sunday has blown three saves, has four losses and a 3.53 ERA with eight homers surrendered, all up from his remarkable rookie debut.
He’s still only 23, but that was the same thing said of another prodigy of the Mariners rushed to the majors out of screaming desperation — C Mike Zunino. The club’s No. 1 pick in the 2012 draft, Zunino was needed as urgently in 2013 and Diaz was in 2016, when he was a starter in AA until an abrupt conversion to the bullpen.
It’s taken Zunino four years to grip the art of hitting major league pitching. The grip remains fleeting. After a a torrid June (10 HRs, 31 RBIs), Zunino is regressing again, with a two-for-17 homestand.
The scouts have Diaz figured out — sit on his 98 mph fastball until he brings it over the plate. His slider is good, but he doesn’t trust it, and his fastball lacks enough movement to fool most MLB hitters. He’s too inexperienced to be a major league closer.
The Mariners would be well-served to rent a veteran closer for the second half, but the need for a starter is more urgent.
Absent a veteran, the Mariners hope Diaz can learn on the fly. Again, there’s the hope word.
They also hope Hernandez can recognize he’ll never be the power guy he was. He proved he can be effective Sunday as a craftsman, striking out a season-high eight without reliance on speed.
He even gave a signal that he understands the need to adapt to his new reality. He recounted the conversation he had pre-game with C Carlos Ruiz, who started in place of Zunino.
“As we walked in from the bullpen, Chooch said, ‘First pitch: Curve ball,'” Hernandez said. “I said, all right, let’s do it. It was a strike.”
Not sure if that was a career first on his opening pitch, but The King stooped to deliver a breaking ball where once he bullied.
A hopeful sign for the Mariners. They are relatively few for the second half.