Mariners believe grit source of success in 1-run games

Seattle is on pace to break the all-time record for most 1-run victories in a season.

By TJ Cotterill

The News Tribune

SEATTLE — Kyle Seager walked through a hallway just about to enter a celebrating Seattle Mariners clubhouse.

“One-run wins,” a reporter commented while passing by.

Seager corrected.

“Wins,” he said. “They’re wins.”

What he meant — who cares about run differential? Who cares about margin of victory? The standings just show a win as a win and a loss as a loss.

The Mariners have captured national attention for their 46-26 record, and, more specifically, their 23-10 record in one-run games.

That’s the most one-run wins through a team’s first 72 games of a season since 1908, according to Baseball Reference. Seattle is on pace to break the 1978 San Francisco Giants’ record for one-run wins in a season (42).

Many of the national pundits point to luck, and that’s fair enough. Whether the Mariners sustain their proficiency for the dramatic is yet to be determined and sometimes these things can turn in the other direction quite quickly.

The last time the Mariners were 20 games above .500, it was August of the 2007 season. They went on to lose 15 of their next 17 games.

Bill James, who helped pioneer Sabermetrics and is a noted writer and baseball historian, has studied one-run games as closely as anyone. In an article he wrote: “If a team goes 30-15 in one-run games, that’s luck. I don’t care how many clever ways you come up to explain why it might not be luck; it’s luck.”

The Mariners would rather point to something else.

Manager Scott Servais talked about it after Seattle’s comeback win over the Boston Red Sox on Friday, despite three errors and ace James Paxton lasting 2 1/3 innings.

“I said to the guys on the field that we can’t do anything about what happened to this point,” Servais said. “We can only worry about what goes on going forward. Funny conversation with (Mike) Zunino. I made the comment after the top of the fifth when we came out and I said, ‘OK, let’s win the second half of the game, and he said, ‘Skip, this isn’t football or basketball. We don’t play halves.’

“I said, “OK, let’s get the orange slices out, then will you try hard?’ And they laughed and it became kind of the rallying cry in the dugout. That’s the mood and nature of our team. We take it loose and don’t take it too seriously. And we know we’re always in the ball game,” Servais said.

How fickle can one-run proficiency be?

Let’s start with the 2016 Texas Rangers.

That club owns the best winning percentage in one-run games in baseball history, going 36-11 (.766). They finished with a 95-67 overall record, an American League West title and a trip to the postseason. That was despite finishing the season with a minus-four run differential.

This is important for what happened in 2017, when the Rangers were basically the same team. Texas went 78-84 — and had a 13-24 record in one-run games. No playoffs, no division title.

Also look at those aforementioned 1978 San Francisco Giants. They went 89-73 that season, but the year before were 75-87 (27-26 in one-run games) and went 71-91 the year after (21-30 in one-run games).

The 1969 New York “Miracle Mets” won 41 one-run games — and won the World Series.

So winning close games is one thing. Continuing to win them is another.

These Mariners sit 1.5 games back of the Houston Astros in the American League West despite the Astros owning a run differential of plus-157.

The Mariners have a run differential of plus-22, which speaks to their success in prevailing in close games.

“Our team has absolutely no quit,” Servais said after the Mariners rallied for a 8-6 win over the Angels last week thanks to a walkoff homer by Mitch Haniger.

“The grit to hang in there and fight through it, there was not one person in our dugout who thought for a second we were going to lose that ball game today.”

Don’t just take his word for it.

Haniger and Mike Zunino were in a video room just behind the Mariners dugout that game. Haniger revealed a brief conversation between them afterward.

“I was like, ‘We’re going to win this game,’” Haniger said. “And he’s like, ‘I know we are.’ That’s just it — we’re never out of a game. So just keep bringing it.”

Two days later against the Red Sox, the Mariners made three errors that led to six runs. Yet after Denard Span hit a go-ahead two-run double in the eighth, they had a 7-6 lead.

“I’ve heard guys in this clubhouse who have been here for a while that games slipped away from this organization early in the season that may bite you in the end,” said first baseman Ryon Healy, who landed with the Mariners this offseason following a trade with the Oakland Athletics.

“I think we’ve taken pride in not letting games slip away from us and having a will to win — no matter how we feel or how the game is going for us.”

No team in the major leagues hits better in high-leverage situations. That’s a statistic that Baseball Reference tracks where a one-run game in the bottom of the ninth is considered among the high leverage situations and a one-run game in the second is much lower.

The Mariners entering Monday’s off day were hitting .296 in high-leverage situations. The next-best team, the Colorado Rockies, were hitting .287.

In contrast, the Mariners are hitting .234 in low-leverage situations — third-lowest in the American League.

Haniger makes his hay in the games’ biggest moments. He’s hit two walk-off home runs in his career — both this month. He’s got a slash line of .352/.446/.685 in high-leverage situations this season.

But Nelson Cruz has been even better. His slash line in high-leverage moments: .372/.491/.628.

And Dee Gordon is hitting better than both of them: .432/.415/.622.

Every one of the Mariners’ regular position players hits at or above their batting average in high-leverage situations. And all of them hit below their batting average in low-leverage situations.

Servais was asked about that.

“Late in the game, a lot of bullpens you see velocity and guys who throw really hard. Our guys seem to handle velocity,” he said. “They don’t get freaked out by it or change their approach a whole lot. They can hit it. That helps.

“Healy handles velocity, Zunino will get on it, or if a guy misses with a breaking ball, Z is usually covering that. Nelson, Haniger, Segura don’t have an issue. We got guys who can handle velocity and I think that’s part of the reason why.”

The Mariners are also tied with the Red Sox for most comeback wins this season (21).

“It’s just a collective effort from different characters every night,” Span said. “We have a deep lineup. This might be the deepest lineup I’ve been on. I’ve been trying to think, and I’ve been on pretty good lineups, but it seems like 1-8, 1-9 can hurt you at any given moment. That’s why I feel like we’re in the ball game no matter what the score is.”

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