It’s Monday. Yesterday was Football Day, and the Seahawks played the 49ers. The Seahawks did good! They won, by a lot! Also it’s Monday, and there’s baseball today. Mariners baseball. There was Mariners baseball yesterday, too, and the day before that and the day before that. This is the most invisible part of the baseball season for the twenty-five teams who aren’t scrambling for wild card positioning, but the M’s might have a case that they are more overshadowed by football than any other squad in the league.
The Seahawks create a lot of excitement, and last night set an (alleged) world record for loudest crowd noise. The Mariners recently set a stadium record for least fans in attendance. The Seahawks are going to be widely regarded as the best team in the NFL now, while the Mariners are cruising towards their fourth consecutive losing season, fifth in the last six years, and eighth in the last ten. The Mariners are sputtering down the stretch, whereas the Seahawks blew out their arch-rivals and top competition to make it a 2-0 start to the most hyped season in franchise history. They haven’t lost at home in years.
Right now, Seattle’s top sports franchises exist at extremes. This is a polar sports city, and the Mariners don’t occupy the good pole. Since it’s Seahawks season now, the Mariners are exactly as relevant to Seattle as the San Diego Chargers. There’s also a local soccer team around these parts who doesn’t seem to lose very often, and as a result we have a city where only one major team seems incapable of posting victories. The Mariners are bad, and in this series with the St. Louis Cardinals they were outscored fifteen to seven, bringing their season run differential to -126, worse than everyone but the Astros and Phillies. But of course, in typical 2013 Mariners fashion, most of those runs against were clustered in a single blowout loss. There were some low-scoring affairs sprinkled in for variety’s sake, and yes, the M’s did win one of the three games. They got a great start from their stand-in ace, then got a comparable outing from one of their heralded rookie hurlers.
The Cards are one of the top teams in the game, and the Mariners did a lot right against them. They didn’t do enough right to win more than one of three games, and while they weren’t really able to avoid utter humiliation, they were at least able to put it off until getaway day. The contrast in talent between the two clubs considered, and this series can even be viewed as a minor victory of sorts. I can’t remember if we touched on this while previewing this series, but the Cardinals are essentially the perfect MLB franchise. They’ve got more championship than any other non-Yankees team to go with their hundred-plus years of history, and their current iteration has money to go along with an unmatched prowess for drafting and developing. They get the most out of their players and rarely make big mistakes. It’s hard to imagine the Cardinals ever being bad, which explains why they’re almost always good. Sounds like the Mariners, right? Wrong!
Friday, September 13 – Cardinals 2, Mariners 1 (10 innings)
Felix Hernandez is still hurt, and it’s been a while since the M’s updated the rest of the world on his condition. While we all like to think Felix is fine, this recent silence from his employer has to be at least a little unsettling. Felix is, after all, the best Mariner. He’s one of the top pitchers alive, and he hasn’t pitched in a couple of weeks due to a minor-at-the-time back injury. Without Felix, the Mariners have lacked a world-beater. But without Felix, the Mariners have not lacked an ace. That’s because of one Hisashi Iwakuma.
Iwakuma’s brilliant season continues, and he’s now up to 3.6 WAR in 203.2 innings. He’s carried an workhorse’s load and posted ace numbers in the process. He’s walking less batters than Felix this year, and Felix is posting the best walk rate of his storied career. This game saw Iwakuma walk two batters and strike out only one, but those numbers didn’t stop him from dominating one of the best offenses in the sport. For seven innings of three-hit, shutout ball, Iwakuma leaned on the ground out, inducing twelve while only getting two outs in the air. Against Kuma, the Cardinals vaunted offense was useless.
Unfortunately, the M’s offense was similarly inept against Adam Wainwright as Mike Zunino’s massive solo homer accounted for all the M’s scoring. As good as Iwakuma is, Wainwright is better, and the M’s offense is average while the Cardinals offense is great. See, it’s the little things, the silver linings. Also that’s one run against Wainwright zero against Kuma. So there. The Cards squeaked the tying run across in the eighth, setting up extra innings. In the bottom of the tenth Chance Ruffin struck out David Freese and Kolten Wong before loading the bases via a single and two walks. He then tossed a ball in the dirt that got passed Zunino, and the Cards had a walk-off. To the Mariners credit, at least they didn’t wait until the fourteenth to lose on some serious nonsense.
Saturday, September 14 – Mariners 4, Cardinals 1
Taijuan Walker’s big league debut was a three-act performance that took place near the end of the 2013 season. His brief tenure as a big leaguer featured outings against the Astros, Royals, and Astros again. He came away looking stellar, of course, save for one ugly inning against Kansas City, but ultimately it’s impossible to draw any conclusions from his fifteen innings. Walker’s one of the top pitching prospects in baseball and certainly the best in the Mariners organization, and his results, while limited, gave fans a reason to dream. Even if he got to face a terrible team twice and an alright team once, he was encouraging Walker gave fans a reason to tune in when the games had stopped counting for anything.
Consider, then, what James Paxton has done in his two starts. Paxton has faced Tampa Bay and St. Louis, vastly superior opponents to what his former Tacoma rotation-mate got to feast upon. While Walker got burned for those four runs against the Royals, Paxton has so far allowed only an Evan Longoria homer to hurt his ERA, which, by the way, is 0.75. On Saturday, Paxton struck out five Cardinals in six innings and walked only two. He allowed two base hits, both soft singles. Again, this is the Cardinals we’re talking about, not the Houston Lastros. Against the NL’s best offense, James Paxton induced seven ground outs to only one fly ball. Against the NL’s best offense, James Paxton was the picture of dominance. And again, this was his second start as a major leaguer.
WAR doesn’t consider strength of opponent, and WAR doesn’t like home runs, so to WAR, Walker’s first fifteen innings are much more impressive than Paxton’s first twelve. But Paxton’s first two outings have blown away expectations, and while there have been cries that the tall Canadian should be seen as a reliever going forward, it’s important to remember that he’s long been – and still is – a top prospect. The difference between a top ten prospect (Walker) and a top one hundred prospect (Paxton) is smaller than people realize, and what we’ve seen in the majors recently is proof of concept that both of these guys are capable of being above-average MLB starters going forward. It’s no guarantee, as we all know, but the possibility is very real. James Paxton has been wildly impressive so far in dominating two good lineups. That much we know for sure.
Michael Wacha made the start for St. Louis, and is an impressive young pitcher in his own right. The Mariners did what they needed in handing him his first career loss, though it didn’t come easy. After going six up, six down to start the game, the M’s wasted a one out, bases loaded situation in the third as Franklin Gutierrez and Kyle Seager struck out chasing fastballs. Dustin Ackley led off the fifth with a single, and Paxton followed with a walk. Remember how pitchers bat in the NL? The NL is so kooky. Brad Miller moved the runners up with a sac bunt, which is normally the pitcher’s job, and then Guti atoned for his earlier K with a two-run double. Kendrys Morales homered leading off the eighth against reliever Brandon Lyons, and Carlos Triunfel scored Ackley in the ninth on a sac fly. The Cardinals only run came on a wild pitch. Hey Mariners, stop throwing balls away with a runner on third, please.
Sunday, September 15 – Cardinals 12, Mariners 2
Erasmo Ramirez was supposed to be a lock for the 2014 rotation, which by now is sounding like some kind of punch line. He’s a hard guy to root against, as many, myself included, are smitten with his skill set and particularly his velocity relative to physical size. He’s a little dude who throws really hard, and has been a sleeper rotation guy for a while now. But the team has never seemed particularly enthused by him, and now he’s putting the finishing touches on a bad, injury-shortened campaign. This loss pushed his ERA back to almost-five. This loss was just another poor outing in a season where the young hurler has yet to post an unblemished line.
The final line for Erasmo: four innings, no walks, a strikeout, a home run, eight hits, five earned runs. Things got much worse when he left, of course, as Carter Capps, Bobby LaFramboise, and Chance Ruffin all failed spectacularly one after another. The Mariners have a bunch of seems-like-he-should-be-alright relievers, and they’ve all been ghastly. Those three, by ERA: 5.87, 8.53, 7.71. Process be damned, the results have been horrible, and as a result this is a Mariners team that loses more than its fair share of blowouts. The unbelievable-in-a-bad-way bullpen, not to mention spots three, four, and five in the rotation, have made this team’s appalling run differential what it is. This year’s Mariners have been outscored by almost a hundred more runs than last year’s version because the pitching staff has been so, so much worse.
Abraham Almonte continues to shine this month with Seattle, and at this point I definitely hope he’s being considered as a potential contributor to next year’s team. He was the best player all year on the Rainiers, and has skills that can translate to the big leagues even if his bat can’t stay as hot as it is right now. That hot bat doubled to lead off the fourth, allowing his blazing legs to score easily on a Gutierrez single. He even drove in Endy Chavez an inning later with a sac fly. Right now Almonte boasts a .295/.333/.455 slash, good for a 115 wRC+. His speed is obvious and incredible, and his defense has been a treat. His 0.3 WAR is seventh among all M’s position players, and wait a second, seriously? This team has three players who have cracked the one-win threshold. And this offense is an obvious improvement over recent years.
UP NEXT: Mariners @ Tigers
Detroit is a bankrupt city with an excellent baseball team, as the Tigers rank near the top of the league in both pitching and hitting. They’ve actually got the smallest division lead in the AL, but that’s less about their own brilliance and more about the recent success of the Indians and ineptitude of the Rangers and Rays. The Tigers have four starters who have contributed over four wins and a fifth starter who has produced over twice as much value as every non-Felix-or-Iwakuma M’s starter combined. Porcello: 2.5 WAR, . Saunders/Harang/Bonderman/Ramirez/Maurer/Paxton/Walker/Beavan/Noesi: 1.2 WAR. The Tigers also have Miguel Cabrera, and they’re a favorite to make a deep playoff run. The Mariners get to play them in their home stadium for the next four days, and one must assume this will go poorly.
With Felix’s return still up in the air there isn’t a lot set in stone for pitching match-ups this week, though certainly announcements are coming, possibly even later today. Monday’s game features fifth starter extraordinaire Rick Porcello and soggy turd Joe Saunders, while Tuesday’s game stars would-be-Cy-Young-contender-if-not-for-injury Anibal Sanchez and Challenger explosion Brandon Maurer. The Tigers will then throw Justin Verlander and Doug Fister, while the Mariners have yet to announce starters for those games. Douglas Fisticuffs is the best nickname that nobody uses. Attention sportscasters and all other folk: start referring to Fister as “Douglas Fisticuffs.” It sounds great and is fun to say. Since being traded by the Mariners, Douglas Fisticuffs has been worth 10 WAR. Them’s fightin’ words.