It’s May 25th all over again!

Vintage Felix
A vintage Felix Hernandez performance beats the Brewers.  Could a return to form by the King hold the key to a Mariners playoff run?

With the thrashing of Milwaukee, 8-2 on Saturday night, the M’s moved to ten games over .500. They tied their high point of the season they last achieved on May 25th after demolishing Oakland 13-3 at Safeco. Then Minnesota blew into town for Memorial Day weekend, and the hapless Twins swept the Mariners, revealing the weakness of Seattle’s rotation and the consequent overuse of its bullpen.

Let’s just remember where the M’s have been and celebrate where we find ourselves on August 20th.

After the Twins left town, with the M’s lunch spectacularly stuffed in their luggage, the Mariners redeemed themselves in a home and home series against the Padres, taking three of four, including the amazing 16-13 comeback on June 2nd. That they won, masked the fact the team had been clobbered 14-6 the night before by a lousy San Diego team.

Injuries to Felix Hernandez and Taijuan Walker, the ineffectiveness of Wade Miley and Nate Karns left the team in a tailspin, with a bullpen unable to remain effective while sucking up all the extra innings. On June 23rd, less than a month after the M’s reached their zenith, they hit rock bottom with a ten inning walk-off loss to Detroit, their record stood at 36-37, 11 games off the division lead, in third place. The M’s really hung around the .500 mark until August 1st at 52-52.

In the 17 games since then, the Mariners have gone 13-4. They remain six games off the division lead, but only one game behind in the Wild Card chase. Why the late surge, and do they have enough to maintain that push into the playoffs?  Here are some key factors.

The King and his court

It is no secret that the starting rotation has been the Achilles heel for the Mariners this year. Last night’s performance by Hernandez was vintage Felix. Yes, since his return from the DL he has gone deeper into games. But in Saturday’s game Felix allowed one walk in his eight innings of work to go with his eight strikeouts, reversing a disturbing trend which saw an uptick in his BB/9 rate. Hisashi Iwakuma has pitched well since he turned the corner on his season June 28th,  and his game steadily improved throughout the summer. It’s the rest of the rotation that is the problem.

Running Wade LeBlanc out every fifth day probably won’t kill a team.  It’s the other guys in between LeBlanc and Iwakuma that are the problem. The M’s need a healthy James Paxton and an effective Taijuan Walker.  They cannot afford to keep giving out starts to the Cody Martins, Ariel Mirandas and Joe Wielands of the world twice per week.

Statistically, the M’s have regressed since the salad days of May, but not as bad as I would have thought. They are third in the AL in ERA with 3.96, fourth in OBP allowed at .313, third in fewest earned runs allowed with 483, and tied for sixth for most home runs allowed at 156. They are second in the league for most blown saves with 19.  I am not shocked.

The Offense

July 4th, with the Mariners crossing the midway point of the season I wrote they had scored 407 runs, with a chance to score 800 runs for the first time since 2002.  To date the M’s sit at 573 runs scored. Though the M’s never led the league in runs scored, today they are sixth in runs scored, third in On-Base-Percentage, and third in slugging. In the hell of June and July, most of the team struggled, the exceptions being the core guys-Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager.

But today, this team seems to have a little gleam of sunshine bouncing off their batting helmets. Nori Aoki, fresh from Tacoma, and with a new two-flap helmet is the Aoki we thought we were getting. Mike Zunino adds new life to the bottom of the batting order. Adam Lind continues to do Adam Lind stuff, struggling to get on base and then when he’s about to fade from vision launching clutch 430 foot bombs. In his last 20 games Shawn O’Malley slashed .279/.333/.459, played all over the place and loved every second of it. Most encouraging, Leonys Martin finally looks healthy, runs likes he’s healthy and his home run last night was his first since July 20th (before that it was June 23rd.) Further, this team has shown against Milwaukee that it can score without home runs.

Is it enough?

Well, maybe. The bottom line is the Mariners have to keep winning. The schedule doesn’t get any easier.  The new-look Yankees come into town on Monday, and they’ve played quite well. The M’s have to figure out a way to win against the Astros and Rangers.   They currently have losing records (5-8 and 4-8, respectively) against both teams, though the Mariners are statistically somewhat better than either team from Texas. And they need a little bit of help, as the Eastern Division teams beat up on each other.  The Orioles look stunningly mortal at the moment. But watch out for the Kansas City Royal sneakin’ up the standings with their seventh straight win.

 

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