SEATTLE – The thing about needing help is you still have to help yourself.
As they took the field late Saturday afternoon, the situation was simple for the Mariners:
Win and they might keep their playoff hopes alive for Sunday’s season finale vs. the Rangers.
Lose? Well, then they needed to wait and watch in agony to see if the Astros would lose to the Diamondbacks later Saturday evening in a game that started an hour after the 4:15 p.m. first pitch at T-Mobile Park.
And the Mariners did lose, falling to the Rangers 6-1. About a half hour later, the Astros beat the Diamondbacks 1-0, meaning the Mariners would be watching the postseason from their couches – a two-plus decade rite of passage that was broken last season on this very day.
With the Rangers forced into a bullpen start because of an injury to Jon Gray, the Mariners appeared to have a distinct advantage with right-hander Luis Castillo starting on his scheduled turn in the rotation.
But the pitcher they call La Piedra (The Rock) proved to be less granite and more shale, delivering his worst outing as a member of the Mariners. His teammates couldn’t recover from it, turning the worst bullpen in baseball into the best.
The Mariners needed an “ace” performance, and they got the opposite.
Plagued by inconsistent command and inability to finish hitters with two strikes, Castillo never made it out of the third inning. As he handed the ball to manager Scott Servais, he raised his hands to the sky – a ritual he does after every inning, good or bad – and more than a smattering of boos could be heard as Castillo walked off the mound. He’d faced all nine hitters in the Rangers lineup in the inning, giving up four runs on four hits with three walks and two strikeouts.
Was there a bit of bad luck?
There always seems to be for the Mariners in failure.
After walking Marcus Semien to start the inning, Castillo came back to strike out Corey Sager and Robbie Grossman. For a moment, it looked like he would be out of the inning when Adolis Garcia swung at a nasty 97-mph sinker running in on his hands. On most hitters, it would’ve been a swing and miss or broken-bat foul ball. Garcia hit a dribbler down the third-base line that was just soft enough that he beat out Eugenio Suarez’s barehanded pickup and throw to first.
A possible third out had eluded Castillo and he would never see it, despite coming within a strike of it multiple times.
With runners on the corners, Nathnaiel Lowe fell behind 0-2 on the first two pitches from Castillo. After refusing to chase at three largely noncompetitive misses to force a full count, Lowe singled up the middle on a misplaced sinker to score the first run of the game.
Up 1-2 on Josh Jung, Castillo ended up walking him four pitches later.
The pattern of getting ahead and failing to finish would continue for Castillo. Jonah Heim, a growing Mainers nuisance, fell behind 0-2 on the first two pitches, fouled off the next three and made a lunging swing on a change-up well out off the plate, pushing the ball up the middle to score two runs.
Leody Taveras didn’t wait for two strikes. He swung at the first pitch, hitting a soft blooper off the end of the bat that found grass in right field for another RBI single.
When Castillo walked rookie Evan Carter to load the bases, the Rangers had sent all nine hitters to the plate and Servais went to his bullpen with his team trailing 4-0.
The inning actually could have been much worse. Castillo’s replacement, Matt Brash, gave up a sinking line drive to Semien. But the always-aggressive Dylan Moore didn’t hesitate, laying out and making a sensational catch. If it gets by him, it likely clears the bases.
But those runs saved didn’t matter much.
The Mariners did nothing against lefty Andrew Heaney, who was making the start on a bullpen day for one of the worst bullpens in baseball.
A former starter and a lefty with a good breaking ball, which is something worse than kryptonite to Mariners hitters, Heaney pitched 4 1/3 innings allowing five hits not a walk and two strikeouts.
The Mariners best scoring opportunity came in the fifth inning when they were down 5-0. Ty France led off with a single and Sam Haggerty came up with back-to-back one outs singles to load the bases.
The Rangers went to right-hander Josh Sborz to face Julio Rodriguez in the critical situation, hoping the slider specialist would limit any damage. He threw two pitches – a low fastball – that Rodriguez didn’t swing at and a slider just as low that Rodriguez lofted to shallow left field for an unproductive out. The inning ended when Eugenio Suarez grounded out third base.
The Mariners’ lone run came in the eighth inning when Suarez hit a meaningless solo homer that avoided the embarrassment of being shut out.