Jean Segura’s walk-off single in the 11th inning decided the game, but the Mariners may have solved for a larger problem with starter Matt LeBlanc.
We interrupt the Seattle hoo-hah around reaching a season-high eight games above .500 (27-19), following a 3-2, walk-off win in 11 innings over Detroit Sunday at Safeco Field, with three words of greater significance for the Mariners season: Wade Bleeping LeBlanc.
Post-game attention deservedly piled upon SS Jean Segura, who hit the game-winning single, and RF Mitch Haniger, whose two-run homer in the ninth brought the Mariners back from the deader-than-Blockbuster-Video category. And the bullpen delivered 5.2 innings of shutout ball, allowing only two hits.
But it was LeBlanc, picked up on a barely-noticed waiver claim March 25 from the Yankees, who is providing the kind of every-fifth-day reliability for a starting rotation that assuredly was the biggest vulnerability coming out of spring training.
Much was expected from, and is being delivered by, the big-ticket guys. But the Mariners were going nowhere this season without unexpected production from guys filling in, well, le blanks.
He gave up two runs on a first-inning homer to ex-Mariner John Hicks, then shut down the Tigers on five hits into the sixth inning, turning over the game to the bullpen that was fully available following James Paxton’s complete game in a 7-2 win Saturday night.
LeBlanc was clear about his post-homer recovery: “You take a punch in the mouth, and you fight back, or you back down.”
Spoken like a 33-year-old whose been with seven teams in 10 MLB seasons and has a 30-35 record to show for it. LeBlanc is the journeyman’s journeyman — he was a Mariner for most of 2016 — so he knows the team, the game and his role.
“Keep us close until the offense takes over,” he said. Although he is left-handed like Paxton, the styles — one throws 100 mph, the other drives on the shoulder — are so different that it seems almost complementary.
“(Opponents) probably run to the bat rack when I’m following Paxton,” he said. “Two different styles, different arm slots . . . We’re left-handed but they have to approach us a completely different way. They may be a little jumpy, ready to swing at a guy like me. Three of the first four guys swung at the first pitch. They were jumpier.
“I start off slow, and kinda work back.”
Here’s how effective that has been: In four starts this season — nine appearances total — LeBlanc has a 1.33 ERA over 20 innings. Paxton’s ERA over the same period is 1.70.
LeBlanc may have to ask Paxton to jump in the sidecar and let him drive.
“Wade threw the ball really well,” manage Scott Servais said. “Made the one mistake. .He did what he does all the time — he changes speeds. Today, he had a better change-up than cutter. Last time the cutter was better.”
In the fashion of Jamie Moyer, LeBlanc kept hitters off-balance and guessing until his counterpart, Francisco Liriano, blinked. The Detroit starter, who was in the bullpen for Houston last year when the Astros won the World Series, had a no-hitter until the seventh, when Haniger singled.
After the eighth, he was up to a season-high 102 pitches. Tigers manager Ron Gardenhire brought in closer Shane Greene, who gave up a single to Segura before Haniger launched into the upper deck in left.
In the 11th, when Segura singled home Dee Gordon, who singled and stole second despite a sore toe, the Mariners had the series 3-1 and their 12th come-from-behind triumph, third-most in the American League.
“The heart on this club has is pretty impressive,” Servais said. “We had injuries, we had guys out of the lineup, (Gordon) hobbling around out there.
“Nice way to wrap up the homestand. After the way it started, I didn’t know what would happen.”
He referred to Tuesday, when he, the franchise and all of baseball were shocked by the 80-game suspension of 2B Robinson Cano for violating baseball’s PED policy. But the Mariners have gone 4-2 since then and seem to have patched well for now.
Gordon has made a seamless transition from centerfield to his natural position of second base. Guillermo Heredia, the platoon left fielder, shifted to center, where he is an above-average defender who entered the game hitting .318 against right-handed pitching and .294 against lefties. So much for the alleged need to platoon him. And Gamel in left entered the game hitting .353 since May 5.
How long the patch will hold is unknowable. But independent of the lineup shuffle, the post-suspension Mariners are getting a boost where it was most needed.
Servais was coy answering a question about whether LeBlanc’s games as reliever and starter make him a serious figure in the future.
“He pitches every fifth day,” he said. “He’s pretty good.”
All successful teams need unexpected help from some of the non-stars. Even at 33, LeBlanc could be that guy. He almost has to be. The Mariners have almost no major-league-ready prospects to advance into the lineup or the rotation, nor do they have the depth to trade any of their expensive veterans for short-term help.
They seemed to have patched for Cano’s absence. If LeBlanc keeps punching back as he did Sunday, they have a patch for the No. 5 spot in the rotation.
Walk-off wins are cool. Two starting lefthanders who dominate from different worlds are rare.