As a general custom, in-season meetings for baseball teams are like introducing porridge onto a sagging Italian restaurant menu. Nobody thinks it’s going to help anything.
Nevertheless, after six losses in a row to the Tigers and Padres, Mariners manager Scott Servais decided to bring out the ladle in San Diego post-game. Since then, they won six of the next seven games, including 4-2 Sunday (box) at T-ball Park to complete a four-game sweep of the Texas Rangers.
Cause and effect? Nobody can know.
What is knowable is that, with the season one-third complete, the Mariners are 27-27 despite leading the American League in only one major category: Most injuries (15 on the IL entering Sunday).
Well, make that two categories: Also, most players used — 46, which leads all of MLB. Kinda the same point: The Mariners are somehow afloat despite treading in sludge.
“There comes three four times throughout the course of the season that you do need to kind of circle the wagons a little bit,” Servais said, “and making sure everybody’s on board for what we were about to to go into.”
The Mariners were headed into AL West-leading Oakland for three. They won two. They came home for four against Texas, and won ’em all.
Servais said there was no high volume hectoring after the Padres sweep.
“The only time to get loud for me is when you don’t see the effort level, or the concentration, the work, the focus,” he said. “That’s never been an issue with this team. If it is, then we’ll get loud. I don’t expect it will be there with these guys.
“There’s a place in time for that. That wasn’t the place or time. We turned it around, and not because anybody tried to do too much. I talked about it all season long — just do your job, focus on getting one percent, two percent better. That’s it.”
Do your job.
Straight from the playbook of Bill Belichick.
It should be noted that the Rangers, who, like the Mariners, have been no-hit twice this season, are also amid a step-back strategy, and were widely predicted to finish last in the AL West. At 22-33, they have hit that mark. They have also lost 12 in a row at T-ball Park, the second-longest opponent streak in Seattle since the Baltimore Orioles lost 15 in a row from June 1999 to May 2002.
At least a part of the debacle in San Diego — which included a ghastly 16-1 loss — was due to an episode of COVID-19 infections in the bullpen.
“Obviously, we had a lot going on in San Diego, with the covid situation,” Servais said. It lingers still, with successful relievers Kendall Graveman and Drew Steckenrider apparently stuck in quarantine at the team’s San Diego hotel.
Will Vest returned to the roster Sunday. He hasn’t pitched since May 19, and all the un-vaxxed pitchers have lost conditioning that will have to be regained. More bad injury news came Sunday — reliever Erik Swanson will be out for an extended period with a strained groin muscle.
Nevertheless, the workaround for the damage in the pen has been effective: Substantial starting pitching.
In the seven games since the frying by the Friars, the Mariners have allowed 17 runs.
LHP Yusei Kikuchi has been a primary perpetrator, holding the Rangers hitless for five innings Sunday, finishing in 6.2 innings giving up three hits, both runs (on a Joey Gallo home run), no walks and five strikeouts. His previous start at Oakland offered the A’s one run on four hits through six innings.
It was his sixth quality start (six innings, three earned runs or fewer) in a row and eighth in his 10 starts of 2021. His ERA of 3.88 is best among Mariners starters, partly because James Paxton and Marco Gonzales have been injured — Gonzales, out since April 27, returns to start Tuesday against Oakland — and partly because Kikuchi is giving the impression of a No. 1 starter.
Particularly with a fastball that topped at 99 mph.
“I thought his intensity level and competitive level was as good as we’ve seen it,” Servais said. “The intent today with the stuff is probably as good as we’ve ever seen it.
“I don’t know if you can hear it in the press box, but we can hear it on the field. He is grunting. And when he does that, he quits thinking and the ball jumps out of his hand. It’s electric.”
Meanwhile, the woebegone Mariners offense is only slightly better these days — Sunday 1B Ty France drove in three runs on a double and single, 3B Kyle Seager had a solo homer — and remains last in MLB with with a team batting average of .205 and OPS of .644.
Longtime fans have gotten used to something of a Memorial Day weekend tradition — the exit of the Mariners from baseball relevance (you may have forgotten, since there was no baseball last May).
Sometimes they linger until the Fourth of July, and rarely, until Labor Day. Only four times in 43 years have they played into October. In 2021, they have reached the first holiday milestone as an average team despite playing at times with half a major-league roster.
There’s no way to know if any of this headiness is sustainable.
But if the formerly erratic Kikuchi has arrived in the vicinity of ace-hood, the opportunity looms for him, Gonzales and fellow starters Justin Dunn, Justus Sheffield and Chris Flexen to take the team lead in executing on the directive from Servais via Belichick.
Do your job. With a grunt.