BY Art Thiel 04:53PM 06/24/2018

Thiel: Mariners’ earlier hot run buys them slack

Sunday’s 5-0 loss in Boston was the sixth in seven games, but the Mariners’ earlier dominance bought some time, instead of the usual summer panic.

Nelson Cruz is hitting so well that there’s no room at DH for Robinson Cano. / Alan Chitlik, Sportspress Northwest

Well before spring training, the Mariners knew the schedule in June was full of fast-moving lava — three at home with the Angels, four with Boston, then on the road for three against the Yankees and three more against the Red Sox. The foes have largely lived up to the hype.

The Mariners have exceeded expectations. Despite some crispy moments the past week, post-season aspirations have not burned up.

Against three of the American League’s four best teams, Seattle finished at 6-7 after Sunday’s 5-0 loss (box) to the Red Sox at Fenway Park against Mariners killer Chris Sale. Seattle starter Marco Gonzales matched him nearly pitch for pitch for four innings, then in the fifth gave up four hits and two sacrifice flies for three runs.

Manager Scott Servais, who has raised his expectations considerably, was a bit melancholy after the game in which Sale’s slider and 100-mph fastball throttled the offense — he didn’t even reach a three-ball count until the seventh inning,

“We didn’t have a great week,” Servais said after his guys struck out 13 times for their sixth loss in seven games. “We’re all a little disappointed. We had a couple games within our reach we let get away.

“Sale is one of the league’s best for a reason.”

All true. The Mariners blew five-run leads twice, once in New York and once in Boston, and Sale is the new Pedro Martinez of Seattle nemeses. But at 46-31, the club approaches the calendar midpoint Wednesday with MLB’s fourth-best record, and now has seven games against the season’s worst teams, four at Baltimore and three at home against Kansas City.

As familiar as the trip, 1-5 so far, seems to fans long accustomed to anvils falling from the sky, the run the Mariners made from May 18 to June 15 — an astounding 22-6 — is a check they can cash repeatedly all summer. A burst like that hasn’t been seen here since the 2001 unicorn season, which ranks somewhere between Easter Island and Atlantis among mysteries anthropologists have yet to fully explain.

In a weird year in which fewer teams are competitive — the threat of NBA-style tanking  apparently is a full-on trend — the identity of the league’s five post-season teams draws closer to certainty. After the three division winners and the second-place team in the East, the second wild-card spot seems to be a race between the Mariners and Angels (41-37), whose injury chaos may be worse than Seattle’s in 2017.

The Mariners also played the past four games without SS Jean Segura, the AL’s third-leading hitter (.334), out with an infection in his right forearm as a result of a slide at home plate.

If you have a high tolerance for ick, read the description of Segura’s wound provided by the Seattle Times’ Ryan Divish. If you prefer to skip the sordid details, Segura is supposed to return to the lineup Monday in Baltimore.

Of course, no outcome can be assumed with half a season left. After 16 playoffs-free seasons, the Mariners have not a smidgen of an excuse to reach for the cruise control.  They still can use some personnel help, especially on the mound, where another starter and reliever could prove critical.

Since the May 25 trade that brought reliever Alex Colome has yet to work as planned — in 10 appearances over 8.2 innings, he has given up five runs, six hits and two walks (5.19 ERA) — and injuries continue to curb the bullpen’s earlier effectiveness, general manager Jerry Dipoto needs to bust another move.

The starters have been unexpectedly and remarkably solid — they have combined for 30 wins, fifth among MLB rotations. But expecting the the group to maintain collective good health is risky.

Before the season began, there was speculation that if the Mariners made it to July in contention but needed a solid veteran pitcher, they probably weren’t going to get one by further robbing the already depleted farm system. So DH Nelson Cruz, who turns 38 July 1 and is in the final year of his four-year contract, seemed the likeliest trade asset.

But his return to good health — he was 12 for 24 in the six games at Yankee Stadium and Fenway, and is hitting .274 with 20 homers and 48 RBI — is making that idea sketchy.

Unless, of course, the Mariners want to make Robinson Cano the DH upon his Aug. 14 return from an 80-day suspension.

Cano makes for a tricky decision. His replacement at second base, Dee Gordon, has made the infield defense better. So too, is the outfield defense improved with Guillermo Heredia in center instead of first-year man Gordon. Also, no one knows how Cano will hit after his hand injury, as well as the layoff. Plus, his suspension includes a ban from post-season play.

Cruz, who had seven RBIs Friday night and is still at the top of his game, could be an attractive two-month rental in a race. Unless, of course, the race is all but over by the July 31 non-waiver deadline. The Angels already have Albert Pujols as a DH for $30 million annually through 2021.

Presuming Cruz stays and barring injuries, Cano will have to be satisfied playing part-time at second and probably some at first base, likely his spot in the final years of his contract.

A tricky decision is better than having no good options. That’s been the Mariners’ midseason fate too often. Dipoto found the Colome/Denard Span deal with Tampa when it didn’t seem the farm had much to offer. Perhaps there’s another way to buy some pitching insurance.

That’s what happens when a team wins 22 times in 28 tries. It buys options, not despair.

 


YourThoughts

  • Kevin Lynch

    No matter how you slice the Mariners cake, and they have been much improved this year, it still is looking like a Sale or Severino slaughter in a one game playoff on the road in October. Perhaps Paxton can work a deal with Beelzebub and the Mariners will live to see a seven game series. And then again maybe the Giants will win a 4th title. “It’s an even year!”.

    • art thiel

      That’s micromanaging the future. Impossible, so not worth your time. Yankees and Red Sox may exhaust each other to avoid the do-or-die game, and leave themselves open to a Leake gem.

      Getting there is everything.

  • Husky73

    I remain the Mariner Optimist. June Swoons are common and this has been a very tough stretch. Some of those one run wins and unlikely late inning comebacks are evening out. I am concerned that Nicasio and Colome are not pitching well– that’s how five run leads disappear, and losing games when scoring 10 runs occur. A couple of wins in Baltimore will feel better, and then home against the depleted Royals. I think we are understanding how important Segura is to this team.

    • art thiel

      Segura is such a solid guy at the plate with almost no holes in his zone. For being a top-five hitter, it’s amazing how low his profile is, locally as well as nationally.

  • Steed

    Segura needs to stop sliding head first. He almost hurt his shoulder doing that earlier this season.

  • Matt712

    I want give slack. I really do. But the M’s are hardly giving themselves any. Not enough decisive victories and not enough runs pushed across the plate. Their run differential is just not good enough for me to go full wagon. It’s an ugly little stat with large implications, inexorably tied to the ugly little matter with equally large implications that is Robinson Cano’s suspension. Sorry for the downer.

  • Effzee

    I’m confident that this offense can beat up on enough bad teams through the summer to stay in the race for the division and the wild card. To make any noise in the post-season, however, we need a reliable starter. There are exactly zero of those on the roster at this moment.

  • Alan Harrison

    I’m fascinated with the idea of moving Cruz and putting Cano at DH. But what do we think we can seriously get as a starting pitcher (or even a top-flight reliever) for Nelson Cruz, and from whom? I don’t see a National League team wanting him unless it’s for a DH for their remaining 5-10 away interleague games. And trading to the Sox, Yanks, or the AL West seems far-fetched. The Indians have Encarnacion at DH and no real challengers in the Central although they could move him to first and Alonso to the bench, I suppose, but they’d also have to part with Bauer or Carrasco, which seems unlikely. So with few options outside some nutty GM making a damn-the-torpedoes move, Cruz is here to stay, which is fine right now. As for Cano, I think he’s going to have to be flexible, injuries notwithstanding.

    • Husky73

      I think Cruz will be in Seattle for the remainder of this year and in 2019.