The inconsistency, inexperience and incessant turnover of relievers within the Mariners bullpen has always meant that yielding runs was something more than a possibility, but not quite a certainty.
But with the Mariners’ borrowed strategy of using an “opener” for the starting rotation turns of veteran left-handers Tommy Milone and Wade LeBlanc, it now means the bullpen can affect the game’s outcome in the first inning as well as the late innings.
And both came to pass Monday in a 6-4 defeat against Kansas City at T-Mobile Park on a gorgeous evening. In front of crowd of 14,476, which was a larger than expected for two last-place teams in their respective divisions, Seattle wasted a perfect opportunity to win back-to-back games for the first time since April 26.
And while the bullpen is an easy and familiar target, let’s not overlook an offense that went 2 for 12 with runners in scoring position and stranded nine runners on base. There’s some culpability in that failure.
Still, the use of the opener, made popular by the Rays and copied with varying levels of effectiveness by everyone else, is still going to draw the ire of fans that have had their fill of the philosophy.
A Mariners reliever gave up two runs in the first inning to put the team in an immediate hole. Two Mariners relievers gave up a combined three runs in the final two innings to lose a lead and make a comeback impossible.
And the guy scheduled to start, Milone, well, he was the only pitcher to take the mound for the Mariners who actually pitched an inning without allowing a run. In fact, he had five scoreless frames on the night, pitching 6 1/3 innings, allowing one run on three hits with no walks and six strikeouts.
“Tommy Milone threw the ball really well and you come out of seven innings and you have three runs given up and we have a lead, you think you are in pretty good shape,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “But we just didn’t finish it off.”
Said Milone: “I’ve been able to throw quality strikes. That’s the biggest thing is staying away from the middle of the plate. I’ve been able to do that consistently.”
The Mariners’ broke their string of relievers making a start as an opener and either tossing a scoreless frame or allowing three runs in the first inning. Rookie right-hander Tayler Scott making his first career “start” was instead charged with two runs in two-thirds of an inning.
Scott gave up a lead-off single to Whit Merrifield and then quickly retired the next two batters. But he could never record that third out. He walked Jorge Soler and then gave up a broken-bat bloop single into shallow right field to Cheslor Cuthbert that allowed a run to score.
“Four or five of the hitters he was 1-2 or 2-2 and he just didn’t execute the pitch,” Servais said.
Servais called on Milone to end the threat. Milone gave up a run-scoring single to Jorge Bonifacio and then struck out Nicky Lopez to end the inning.
So, in six starts using an “opener” reliever, three have allowed three runs, two have been scoreless and one has allowed two runs. Seattle is 2-4 in those games, winning the two games in which it had a scoreless first inning. Unfortunately, the runs allowed count just as much in the first inning as the eighth and ninth.
Scott, Austin Adams, Gerson Bautista and Cory Gearrin have all tried as the opener with uneven success. Adams might have the best stuff and mentality to make it work. But with Brandon Brennan on the injured list, Adams is being saved to pitch in late leverage situations. Servais admitted that in an ideal situation he’d have one specific reliever handle it.
“The way our rotation is set up and how we are using it, it’s not back-to-back days and set up for that one guy that go out and throw up a zero,” Servais said. “It’s been a challenge so far. I still believe in the opener. You are trying to win the game. You are trying to manage the game. I know it’s a little different for most fans and most people to grasp a hold of it. But seven innings, three runs, we’ll take that all night long and every night.”
Down 2-0, the Mariners cut the lead in half in the fourth inning. Tom Murphy led off with a single and later scored on Dee Gordon’s fielder’s choice.
Seattle grabbed a 4-2 lead in the fifth when Murphy smashed a three-run homer into the mass of un-watching fans known as The ’Pen. It was his eighth homer of the season. By comparison, Mariners backup catchers hit three homers all of last season.
Milone allowed his lone run in the seventh. Jorge Bonifacio led off with a double and later scored on a sacrifice fly to cut the lead to 4-3.
Anthony Bass entered in eighth and record two quick outs for Seattle. But he gave up a single to Alex Gordon and then watched in agony as Soler clubbed a two-run homer deep into the seats in right-center to turn Seattle’s one-run lead into a 5-4 deficit.
“I thought Anthony Bass was throwing the ball great, but it was just that one slider left he up to Soler,” Servais said. “He got on it. He’s having a big year with the home run ball.”
Just to make any sort of comeback a little more difficult, Gerson Bautista allowed a solo homer to Martin Maldonado in the ninth.
The Mariners did manage to put the game-tying run on base in the ninth when pinch-hitter Omar Narvaez singled and Royals closer Ian Kennedy hit Mallex Smith with a pitch. But Kennedy came back to strike out J.P. Crawford swinging and Domingo Santana looking on a questionable third-strike call from umpire Chris Guccione. Pinch-hitter Tim Beckham popped out to end the game.
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