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Mariners batters adopt unique strategy to hassle pitchers

Daniel Vogelbach’s home run in the 10th inning lifted the Seattle Mariners to a 7-6 victory over the Kansas City Royals on Thursday. (Orlin Wagner / Associated Press)
Daniel Vogelbach’s home run in the 10th inning lifted the Seattle Mariners to a 7-6 victory over the Kansas City Royals on Thursday. (Orlin Wagner / Associated Press)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Scott Servais wouldn’t take credit for it. And he wouldn’t share who actually came up with the concept. But when the Mariners manager was asked about his team’s relentless approach at the plate and its ability to torment starting pitchers, he talked about an observation made by someone in the baseball operations department.

“It was brought to my attention today that it’s a little different philosophy in that it’s ‘nine against one,’ instead of one against one,” Servais said. “When you start thinking about it that way, it is really how our guys are wired and are coming together. It’s a great way to look at what we are doing right now, and that’s our approach.”

It is a different but simplistic outlook. Baseball can be an individualistic team sport. Much is made of that one-on-one battle between pitcher and hitter. But when it comes to a starting pitcher, why not view it as nine versus one? After all, the starter is trying to retire every hitter in the order at least two or three times. The sum of those confrontations offer greater influence on the outcome than just one at-bat.

It’s working for the Mariners. Following Tuesday night’s 6-3 win over the Royals, in which they forced KC starter Jakob Junis out of the game after four innings and 93 pitches, the Mariners made it 12 out of 13 games in which the opposing starter pitcher has failed to pitch six complete innings.

Only once this season has an opposing starter finished six full innings against Seattle. That came in the homestand finale versus the Angels when right-hander Trevor Cahill tossed six innings, allowing one run on three hits with five strikeouts. Of the remaining 12 outings, only four starters have pitched five complete innings while four have pitched three innings or fewer.

Through Tuesday, opposing starting pitchers had thrown 53 innings versus the Mariners this season while allowing 64 runs for a 10.87 ERA. They were averaging just four innings and 83.5 pitches per start. The Mariners had scored four runs or more off the opposing starter in all but two games.

Fans love the “bash ball” that they’ve been playing to start the season. It includes homering in each of their first 15 games and an American League-leading 36 homers, which tied the 2000 St. Louis Cardinals for the most home runs in that span. The Mariners know that the approach at the plate versus opposing pitchers is vastly more significant and sustainable than the results.

“The depth of our lineup and the quality of the at-bats we are putting together are exceptional,” said veteran first baseman/outfielder Jay Bruce. “It’s something that we need to take advantage of as a team because no matter how rosy-colored the glasses are that you look through, it’s not going to be like this all year. We are just trying to get good pitches to hit. It’s a pretty consistent team-wide approach and a teamwide philosophy.”

The Mariners’ starting pitchers marvel at what their teammates are doing to their counterparts. They know how frustrating it is to feel your pitch count building as quality pitches are fouled off or taken for a ball, forcing an exit after the fourth inning.

“It doesn’t look fun,” M’s starter Marco Gonzales said. “These guys are putting together some great at-bats, and they are controlling the zone. We are trying get into teams’ bullpens, especially early in the series. For these guys to come out and knock out some starting pitchers early, that’s huge.”

The Mariners understand that at some point, the home runs won’t be as frequent and the scoring won’t seem as easy. But the grind on starting pitchers should continue. It will still lead to positive results more often than not. And if they stray, Servais will just remind them of the new mantra: “nine against one.”

“Our guys get deep in counts; we foul off a lot of pitches; we take close pitches,” Servais said. “That’s fun to watch every night.”

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