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Sports >  Seattle Mariners

Commentary: Mariners might have enough pitching and pixie dust to do more than just make the playoffs

Aug. 11, 2022 Updated Thu., Aug. 11, 2022 at 4:45 p.m.

Seattle’s Logan Gilbert has a team-leading 10 wins with 122 strikeouts and a 3.47 earned-run average in 23 starts.  (Seattle Times)
Seattle’s Logan Gilbert has a team-leading 10 wins with 122 strikeouts and a 3.47 earned-run average in 23 starts. (Seattle Times)
By Matt Calkins Seattle Times

SEATTLE – It’s tempting to say that this feels a lot like last year. For the second consecutive season, the Mariners are piling up one-run victories as if they don’t know any other way to win.

In 2021, they led all of Major League Baseball with 33 of them. After coming back to beat the Yankees 4-3 on Wednesday, they bumped their 2022 one-run-win total up to 27 through 113 games.

But the thing is, this is not like last year, when those nightly nail-biters were keeping a substandard squad afloat among far more talented teams. This year, those wins are buttressing a group sporting a deep, dominant pitching staff and one of the most dynamic offensive talents in baseball.

The Mariners (61-52) just won their second series against the Yankees in August, and won the season series vs. New York (71-41) for the first time since 2002. M’s manager Scott Servais said what every fan was thinking – or at least hoping – after the game.

“The times are a changin’,” he said.

They certainly are in some ways. The Mariners, for instance, were 16th in MLB in ERA last year, when they were in playoff contention up until the final game of the season. This year – as they are in second place in the American League wild-card standings – they are sixth in ERA, and that’s with just two starts from newly acquired ace Luis Castillo.

Castillo pitched eight scoreless innings in the Mariners’ 1-0 win over the Yankees on Tuesday. But he may have a Sundance Kid to his Butch Cassidy in the form of reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray, who allowed two runs in 6⅓ innings Wednesday.

Servais said the wins over the Yankees were “driven by pitching” – and seeing as if the Mariners allowed three runs or fewer in three of their last four wins versus the Bronx Bombers, it’s hard to argue with the logic. But what if it was more than that?

The late, great Vin Scully once said that Kirk Gibson was not the MVP of the 1988 World Series-winning Dodgers – that the team’s true MVP was Tinkerbell. Are we not seeing a similar sprinkling of pixie dust with the Mariners?

After going down 3-1 in the seventh – thanks to home runs by Kyle Higashioka and Aaron Judge – the M’s looked to be headed toward defeat.

Then Mitch Haniger – almost fresh off the disabled list – singled home Ty France in the bottom half of the inning to cut the deficit to one. Two at-bats later, Carlos Santana – whose clutch hits have offset his .199 batting average – hit a two-run homer over the right-field fence that put the M’s up 4-3 and sparked a boom from the 43,280 fans that could be heard from Ballard to Bremerton.

Conventional wisdom will tell you that one of the primary reasons the Mariners can pull out all these close ones is because their bullpen – the eighth best in MLB for ERA – regularly keeps them in games before the big hit arrives. But reliever Paul Sewald, who earned the save Wednesday, thinks it goes beyond that.

“I think we just play so many of them (close games) that we’re more comfortable in them than other teams. Those guys (the Yankees) blow people out all the time,” Sewald said. “And I think that’s part of what makes us really good when we play these tough teams, is we play more of these one-run games than they do.”

Before anyone starts planning their vacations around the Mariners’ World Series run, let’s state some facts: The Mariners are 10-10 since the All-Star break, has the fourth-worst OPS in MLB and lost six out of seven to the Astros after the Midsummer Classic. There are flaws on this team, particularly on the offensive end, which could be why the M’s end up squandering the 1½-game lead they have in the wild-card standings.

But – in 15 of their past 20 games, they have been without Julio Rodriguez, the All-Star rookie who leads the M’s in Wins Above Replacement and is likely to return Friday. In four of their past 20, they were without France, the All-Star first baseman who is second on the team in WAR. They also have a healthy Haniger, who was likely their most effective batter over the past few seasons before injuries. There is a lot to like about this team.

After the game, Santana spoke to the Mariners’ grit and said flatly – “we play for the playoffs.”

We all know the Mariners haven’t made a postseason appearance since 2001, but based on what they have on their roster – particularly the guys on the mound – they may be equipped for more than just an appearance.

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