OAKLAND, Calif. – Even in a season limited to just 60 games and an expanded playoff field where it feels like more teams make it than don’t, the 2020 Mariners felt the same emptiness that those teams before them – dating to 2002 – all experienced at varying points in their respective seasons, some much earlier than others.
The Mariners’ official elimination from a postseason spot came Thursday when they weren’t even on the field, but instead confined to their hotel rooms in San Francisco for a scheduled day off. When Houston and Toronto won their games Thursday, the Mariners’ fading hopes of a miracle finish to sneak into the playoffs disappeared into next season.
In this season, the second of general manager Jerry Dipoto’s rebuild, where gaining experience at the major-league level was the priority, the Mariners returned to the field Friday to play out the remaining string of games – a four-game series against the A’s, who locked up the American League West title a few days ago.
“With everything that happened (Thursday), the other games were played and we no longer have a chance to get into the postseason, but there is still a lot to get accomplished here,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “This last weekend, we will give some guys opportunities maybe in different spots that they haven’t been in whether it’s our bullpen usage or whatever, so we’ll continue to take advantage of the last four games and see what we get out of those.”
One of those new opportunities came for rookie reliever Joey Gerber in the bottom of the 10th inning when he was asked to get his first save.
Given a one-run lead and with the automatic runner at second base, Gerber retired the first two batters he faced and seemed on the verge of finding success in the high-leverage situation. Instead, he gave up a tying double to Ramon Laureano and then served up a two-run walkoff homer to Mark Canha as the A’s celebrated a 3-1 victory.
“Tonight was a night to go with the kids,” Servais said. “That was the plan going into the game – give those guys a chance. And you’re hoping that it is a tight game. So they get to experience some of those things at the end of the game. We were one out away from walking off there with a big ‘W’ on the road. But you’ve got to give him credit. There is a reason Oakland is the second-best team in the American League. They’ve won a few games like that this year.”
That was Oakland’s sixth walkoff win in 29 home games. The A’s are 21-8 in games at the Coliseum.
With the teams going scoreless for nine innings, Seattle started the top of the 10th by inserting Dee Strange-Gordon as a pinch runner for Ty France, who had made the last out of the ninth inning and was scheduled to be the runner starting at second base under this season’s extra-innings rules.
Strange-Gordon’s speed manufactured Seattle’s only run. He tagged up from second and advanced to third on Luis Torrens’ fly ball to right field. Moments later he hustled home when catcher Sean Murphy had a mental lapse and allowed a fastball to bounce off the end of his glove for a passed ball.
In his final start of the 2020 season, Yusei Kikuchi delivered one of his best outings in a season where more was expected but not produced.
The 28-year-old lefty pitched six shutout innings, allowing four hits with three walks and five strikeouts. It was just the fourth start of this season where Kikuchi pitched six complete innings. He never once made it past six innings. He threw 99 pitches with 59 strikes. Of the 23 batters he faced, he threw first-pitch strikes to 12 batters.
“It’s something that we all had talked about – just finishing strong this year and ending the year on a good note,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Kevin Ando. “I think I did a good job of mixing in my sliders tonight as well. And I think that will help me next year as well.”
Perhaps it allows the Mariners to go into the offseason hoping or convincing themselves that he’s somehow figured out how to operate consistently at the major-league level.
“For me, I’m obviously super excited about the step forward that Yusei Kikuchi took tonight,” Servais said. “And tonight, I thought he was outstanding, very relaxed on the mound and went right after hitters. He certainly controlled the strike zone and worked through some tougher innings. He got a couple big double play balls to help him out. Just really a nice way for him to end the season on a positive note and really build on that.”
Still, they will need more from Kikuchi in 2021.
To his credit, after an up-and-down rookie season in 2019, he put in the work last offseason to clean up his mechanics, shorten his arm swing and increase his velocity. And unlike the year before, he stayed true to those changes and didn’t deviate. His velocity on his fastball averaged 95 mph this season, up from 92 mph a year ago, while his slider increased to 92 mph from 86 mph.
Kikuchi’s counterpart, A’s starter Chris Bassitt, was just as good if not better, tossing seven shutout innings while allowing five hits with no walks and six strikeouts.
Seattle’s bullpen covered the three innings to get it into extra innings – one reliever per inning at a time with Yohan Ramirez, Anthony Misiewicz and Erik Swanson.
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