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Erik Swanson gets rocked, and Mariners can’t recover in 11-6 loss to Twins

UPDATED: Fri., May 17, 2019, 1:16 p.m.

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Erik Swanson sits in the dugout after being removed during the fourth inning of the team's baseball game against the Minnesota Twins, Thursday, May 16, 2019, in Seattle. (Stephen Brashear / AP)
Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Erik Swanson sits in the dugout after being removed during the fourth inning of the team's baseball game against the Minnesota Twins, Thursday, May 16, 2019, in Seattle. (Stephen Brashear / AP)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Hours before it got ugly at T-Mobile Park – the seven runs, seven hits, two errors and 13 Twins coming to the plate in one inning sort of ugly – Mariners manager Scott Servais was asked about the difficulties and developmental highs and lows that a rookie starting pitcher endures during his first season in Major League Baseball and how the team should evaluate them.

It wasn’t specifically about Thursday night’s starter Erik Swanson, but he’s certainly proving to be a viable test subject for that transitional philosophy.

Servais listed two keys:

Can they make adjustments from start to start?

When they get hit, do they continue to throw pitches in the strike zone or become afraid.

If he gets the opportunity to make his next turn in the rotation, Swanson will get a chance to adjust from a brutal outing. As for part two, he got hit plenty in Thursday’s start and showed no fear about still throwing pitches in the strike zone. The problem was they weren’t quality strikes and they continued to get hit.

Swanson suffered through his worst outing in his first season in the big leagues, lasting just three innings while giving up eight runs on nine hits, including four homers. The Mariners tossed in two errors and some missed plays in a seven-run fourth inning to make sure any hope of a comeback was impossible in an 11-6 loss.

Perhaps it wasn’t destined for be a successful night for Swanson from the opening pitch. The young right-hander relies heavily on using a fastball that isn’t overpowering at 93-94 mph, but has a high spin rate, which makes it deceptive and difficult for hitters to put on the barrel of their bat.

Meanwhile, the Twins attack fastballs with great success. Even though the lineup card seems filled with largely unheard of players to the average fan, it’s a group of young mashers that came into the game having hit 76 homers this season – third only to the 83 dingers that the Mariners and Astros have each mashed on the season. Of those 76 Twins homers, 32 have come on fastballs. Per Baseball Savant’s MLB Statcast search, Minnesota has a .597 slugging percentage vs. fastballs – which trails only Houston’s .605 slugging percentage.

In the clash of strengths, the Twins, who didn’t even have an injured Nelson Cruz in the lineup, prevailed because Swanson had trouble commanding his best pitch.

Three of the four homers allowed by Swanson came on fastballs that caught too much of the middle of the plate. It’s a painful lesson that many rookies have lived through before him – MLB hitters don’t miss hittable mistakes.

It’s the second straight suboptimal start for Swanson, having allowed seven runs on seven hits and two homers in his previous outing in Boston. He’s scheduled to start again on Tuesday in Texas. But will he get to make it?

Yes, he’s adjusting to a vastly differently level of competition. Struggles are expected. And there will be that start-to-start adjustment that Servais spoke about. How does Swanson take these last two starts and make improvements? But there is also a point where it hurts his development.

The Mariners don’t have the luxury of just bringing in a pitcher to fill his spot. Lefty Wade LeBlanc is returning from the disabled list to fill Felix Hernandez’s spot in the rotation and will start on Saturday.

Top pitching prospect Justus Sheffield is scheduled to pitch for Tacoma on Friday night so it doesn’t quite match-up to make that swap. Sheffield also hasn’t pitched well enough to make the Mariners believe it will be any better for his development to call him up.

Seattle could look at using veterans like Tommy Milone or Christian Bergman to fill that spot temporarily. But they would need to clear a 40-man roster spot to do that.

Or they could let Swanson make at least one more start to see if he can take what’s gone wrong in the past two starts and find a solution to the problem. He’s done it once before this season. After getting rocked by the Rangers in a four-inning outing on April 28, Swanson came back and delivered his best outing of the season – pitching six shutout innings and allowing one hit against the Indians on May 5.

Swanson cruised through the first inning without incident. He gave up back to back singles to start the second but worked out of trouble, aided by a nice throw from Domingo Santana in left to cut down a runner at third base.

The homer barrage started in the third. Jason Castro crushed a solo homer off of a changeup to start the inning. Later with one out, Max Kepler ambushed a grooved, first-pitch 93-mph fastball for a line drive solo homer to right.

The Mariners cut the lead to 2-1 when Mallex Smith hit a solo home run off Twins starter Michael Pineda. It was Smith’s first at-bat since being called up Class AAA Tacoma earlier in the day. It snapped a 0-for-24 streak at the MLB level for him.

Swanson started the fourth inning and never got an out.

Eddie Rosario started with a leadoff single and C.J. Cron followed with a prodigious two-run blast into the upper deck in left-center. Statcast measured it at 453 feet.

The Twins continued to hit Swanson. Marwin Gonzalez singled and Miguel Sano hit a line drive double to left field where Santana made a sliding catch attempt only to see the ball hit his glove and drop out.

A throwing error on a fielder’s choice by Edwin Encarnacion allowed another run to score and then Byron Buxton ended Swanson’s outing by hammering a belt-high, 92-mph fastball over the wall in center for a three-run homer.

The Twins put nine of Swanson’s fastballs in play with an average exit velocity of 100.4 mph.

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