ANAHEIM, Calif. – The runs weren’t charged to an opener. The loss wasn’t given to a reliever pitching in the first inning as a “starter” in baseball’s latest trend.
Nope, the Mariners’ 9-2 loss to the Angels on Saturday night started with the struggles of Wade LeBlanc, who actually got to start a game, and ended with the beleaguered bullpen making sure any comeback was impossible by allowing runs late.
Seattle has lost six of its past seven games to fall to 39-57. And given the injuries to the bullpen and the holes in the lineup, specifically left field, the next two weeks could feature more lopsided losses similar to the miserable May, and unlike the end of June when the team was competitive.
Given the opportunity to start a game on his turn in the rotation for the first time since May 29, the veteran lefty worked a scoreless first inning, something the various openers used to pitch in front of him struggled to achieve.
And that would be the only clean inning he would pitch. With meandering command and constantly mutating strike zone of home-plate umpire C.B. Bucknor.
LeBlanc could never find much of a rhythm or crisp accuracy with his pitches, particularly his cutter.
He gave up six runs over the next three innings on 10 hits with no walks and five strikeouts. It could’ve been vastly worse. With the bases loaded and one out in the fourth inning, he struck out Mike Trout and then got Shohei Ohtani to fly out to end his outing. LeBlanc threw 72 pitches in the four innings.
“It didn’t feel very crisp,” he admitted. “I didn’t feel great. But at the same time I didn’t feel like they pounded me all over the yard. It’s one of those you have to flush away and move on.”
The extended rest from the All-Star break provides a refreshed feeling for all players, but for feel pitchers like LeBlanc, it can be a hindrance. He hadn’t pitched since July 7.
“It always does, especially for a guy like me,” he said. “I have to be on the edges and have the finish on my pitches, and I didn’t really have that tonight.”
Like most starters, LeBlanc hasn’t been a fan of having an opener forced upon his starts. He is careful to not directly voice his displeasure about the situation, but his feelings on the subject are known without him saying it on the record or making it a situation.
Starters want to start games. They don’t like the idea of being called a bulk pitcher or a headliner. They want the ball from the beginning and then have it pried from their hand at the end.
He was notified before Friday’s game that he’d be starting on Saturday. Did the change back to his old role have any effect on his struggles?
“No, today seemed, well, it’s just less and less fun trying to figure out how to throw a cutter,” he said. “It feels like I’m telling you guys that after every game. It’s a pitch that has been the best pitch for me the last three or four years, and all of a sudden it feels like I’ve never thrown one before. It’s trying to find that again.”
For the time being, the use of an opener has been shelved. Manager Scott Servais said before Saturday’s game that given the status of the bullpen, which has been riddled with injuries to key relievers, most recently Austin Adams and Dan Altavilla, there was no way they could continue burning a reliever in the first inning.
“I’ve said all along that the opener is driven by the personnel on your pitching staff and where you are at as a whole,” Servais said. “With the injuries we’ve suffered in the bullpen, we are going to try get a little bit more out of our starters by using them from the start. I still believe in the concept that is valid and (it) has worked for Wade and Tommy (Milone).”
In his previous seven outings — all in “relief” — LeBlanc was 3-0 with a 2.97 ERA. And if you remove one bad outing vs. Oakland where he allowed six runs in 2 2/3 innings, LeBlanc posted a 1.72 ERA in the other six appearances.
Meanwhile Milone has a 2.97 ERA in the six outings where an opener was used ahead of him.
After the quick 1-2-3 first inning, the bottom half of the Angels order got to LeBlanc in the second. He gave up a one-out RBI single to Albert Pujols and Kole Calhoun crushed a solo homer over the wall in deep right-center to make it 2-0.
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