The Seattle Mariners thought they had fixed their pitching problems.
They were kidding themselves.
Despite the off-season additions of Jeff Fassero and Scott Sanders, the Mariners’ staff - especially its bullpen - is struggling. Mariners pitchers are on their way to the worst ERA in Seattle’s 21-year American League history.
The Mariners’ ERA is like the stock market these days. It keeps going up. Last season’s club-record 5.21 ERA looks good compared to this year’s 5.83 after 53 games.
“Hey, listen, we’ve just been scuffling, we’ve just been scuffling,” manager Lou Piniella said. “This game isn’t like football or basketball where you can run out the clock.”
It can’t get any worse for the bullpen than Tuesday night in the Metrodome. Mike Maddux, Bobby Ayala and Norm Charlton combined to blow a five-run lead in the ninth inning, when Minnesota came back for an 11-10 victory.
Charlton walked in the Twins’ winning run after giving up a three-run homer. It was his third consecutive blown save, his fifth blown save of the season and the Seattle bullpen’s eighth blown save in 18 chances.
Charlton, who has all 10 of the Mariners’ saves, got the last one May 14. Charlton, the closer, has an ERA of 6.43. Ayala, Seattle’s primary setup reliever, has a 5.64 ERA.
After a 5-2 loss to Detroit on Friday night, the Mariners had scored the most runs in the majors (316).
The problem was that their pitchers had allowed more (324).
The team that was supposed to be going to the World Series this spring was almost playing .500 baseball (27-26) and trailed the Rangers, last year’s A.L. West champs, by two games.
Pitching coaches have a hard time in Seattle. Piniella’s had three of them in his five seasons with the Mariners. The latest one, Nardi Contreras, has worn a path in the Kingdome’s Astroturf from the dugout to the mound.
So far, Contreras is still in the dugout with Piniella. A year ago, Piniella banished pitching coach Bobby Cuellar to the bullpen late in the season. Cuellar was fired after the season, just like Sammy Ellis after the 1994 season.
“We’re in a bit of a rut out there,” Piniella said of his bullpen. “It’s got to get better.”
The Mariners’ top three starters - left-handers Fassero, Randy Johnson and Jamie Moyer - were a combined 15-5 after Friday’s game. Moyer was battered by Texas on Thursday in the Mariners’ 8-2 loss to the Rangers. Johnson struck out 15 in helping shut out the Rangers 5-0 Wednesday night.
In retrospect, the Mariners should have known what was going to happen.
During the off-season, they had to let Mike Jackson go out of their bullpen because his asking price was too high for their budget.
“Our starting pitching looked much improved,” Piniella said. “But we’ve taken a little bite out of our bullpen the past few years in some of the people we’ve lost.”
The Mariners’ defense (44 errors in 53 games) and lack of team speed (56 double plays, tied with Cleveland for the most in the big leagues) haven’t helped.
Still, the biggest flaw in Seattle’s bid to dethrone the Rangers in the A.L. West is its bullpen.
All the home runs in the world by Ken Griffey aren’t going to mean much if Charlton, Ayala and company can’t get batters out in the late innings.
The answer isn’t to pile more innings on for Johnson, Fassero and Moyer. The Mariners are concerned about Johnson, coming off back surgery last September, and he’s on a strict pitch count.
“Everybody has a role,” Piniella said. “Everybody has to do their jobs. When there’s a breakdown in one area, the worst thing that can happen is if you try to overload another area. What we have to do is fix it and shore it up. That’s what the hell I’m here for.”
Piniella is blessed with an offense headed by Griffey, Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez, Dan Wilson, Jay Buhner and Joey Cora.
But Piniella concedes that the numbers put up by the bullpen are more important than those notched by his offense.
“Unfortunately, in this business here, pitching is the stabilizer,” he said.
At the end of the week, there were whispers the Mariners had given up on Sanders, acquired from San Diego for Sterling Hitchcock in a December trade, and were shopping him around in a bid to come up with a closer - perhaps Mel Rojas of the Chicago Cubs.
At mid-week, Piniella put Sanders back in the bullpen and gave his starting spot to Bob Wolcott, who will join Derek Lowe in the rotation. Piniella gave 42-year-old Dennis Martinez a chance as a starter with the Mariners this season, but had to release him last week after he went 1-5 with a 7.71 ERA in nine starts.
“There’s some pitchers available,” Piniella said of a possible trade. “We’ve been talking with some teams, but we’ve got some money considerations.”
Sanders, who was 1-5 as a starter, saw his ERA climb to 7.66 when he allowed a run in relief Thursday night.
“Sanders has got to learn to pitch inside in this league, period,” Piniella said. “Maybe if we put it in the paper he will read it. Players do read the newspapers.”