SEATTLE — Think about where the Seattle Mariners were back in May when they began doing what the Oakland Athletics are doing now — surging and surprising the baseball world.
Look closely and there’s a theme to those streaks. The Mariners pitching staff for that month had a 3.13 earned-run average, with a James Paxton no-hitter mixed in in there. Now the off-and-running Athletics have a 4-game lead over the Mariners for the American League’s final wild card berth thanks to 2.50 team ERA this month.
Thanks to strong starting pitching, the Mariners were 11 games ahead of Oakland with a 27-11 stretch from that Paxton no-hitter until the middle of June, and did that while posting a 2.92 staff ERA.
“Our really good stretches of the season were driven by our pitching, and specifically our starting pitching getting deep into games and allowing you to line up your bullpen correctly and not overuse guys,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said.
Things have changed for the Mariners, and not for the better. They enter the final week of August with a 5.22 team ERA this month. Only three other teams — the Orioles (6.75), Rangers (5.61) and Brewers (5.39) — have higher ERAs than the Mariners during this stretch.
Those teams aren’t making the playoffs. Seattle, beginning with Friday’s game against the National League West leading Arizona Diamondbacks, have 34 games left to figure out its rotation and get back into the playoff conversation.
“We have a lot of time left,” Mariners starting pitcher Marco Gonzales said. “We have a lot of time left to get everything firing on all cylinders. This team has done a great job of, when one part struggles, the other parts step up, and we’re really close to everything firing, and we have September to get hot, and I think that’s going to be good for us.”
The Mariners pushed back a start by Gonzales in order to give him extra rest because he’s already tossed a career-high 145 2/3 innings. It didn’t seem to help: Even with the extra rest he allowed a career-high eight runs against the Astros on Wednesday, ballooning his ERA to 10.35 ERA in four starts this month.
The rotation collapse has been across the board.
Paxton has only tossed 13 innings this month because he took a 96-mph comebacker off his forearm. He likely won’t throw another inning until next week when the Mariners face the Athletics in Oakland.
“We certainly need (Paxton) in the worst way,” Servais said, “but I want him to be healthy and really be able to contribute when he gets back out there.”
Wade LeBlanc has struggled with a 6.75 ERA in August. Felix Hernandez was knocked out of the rotation but forced to return to it because of Paxton’s injury. Erasmo Ramirez has started four games and gone 0-2 with a 5.49 ERA since returning from injury.
The one starter pitching well in August, Mike Leake, lost a key start against Houston this week because of an illness.
“Mike Leake has been our most consistent guy, and Marco had kind of been that guy with Mike, but (Gonzales has) had a couple rough outings there, and we tried to pull him back hoping he would recharge his batteries a little bit,” Servais said.
“Our starting pitching is really key. We need James Paxton back. We’re just limited in the depth (with) the guys we can bring up and slide into that spot.”
The Mariners are 9-12 in August and just finished a stretch when they started eight different pitchers in the past eight games, the first time they’ve had to do that since 1989.
What do they do about it?
They can cross their fingers that Paxton comes off the disabled list with ace form for the final month, Gonzales and LeBlanc exit their ruts or that Hernandez found something from his bullpen routine that works.
There’s still a week left until the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline (players can still be acquired after that date, but they wouldn’t be available to play in the postseason). The Mariners have made August moves past three years under general manager Jerry Dipoto — most notably picking up outfielder Ben Gamel in 2016, Leake two years ago and first baseman Yonder Alonso last year.
These are more difficult deals to make now that the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline has passed. Plus,the crop isn’t as plentiful for picking.
It’s likely the Mariners have already claimed players off waivers and have entered negotiating phases. Dipoto has a room full of people to handle constantly scanning the waiver wires. The issue remains from why the Mariners didn’t add a starter before the nonwaiver trade deadline — do they have the assets other than money to acquire one?
“Everybody wants more pitching,” Servais said. “It’s about what’s available and what’s the price. You try to address things as best as we could at the time.”
That’s why the Mariners stocked up on bullpen arms, instead, acquiring right-handers Sam Tuivailala and Adam Warren with left-hander Zach Duke.
Tuivailala suffered a leg injury and won’t be ready to pitch again until sometime next season. That’s a more crushing injury that most probably understand with Tuivailala’s ability to throw multiple innings at mid- to upper-90s velocity.
“Having those guys, not just one guy to go multiple or two, but if you have three or four guys who can go multiple innings, now you can mix and match and make it work and give each guy a day off when they need it,” Servais said. “When (Tuivailala) went down, it was a big loss. I could really see him working into a bigger role. He went down and he’s out of the mix, so we have to make it work with what we have.”