THE CHEAP SEATS with STEVE CAMERON: If the M's can get healthy, and keep pitching ...
Can a bullpen keep you someplace close to playoff contention?
With little help, I mean.
You know, without the club scoring runs.
Believe it or not, the answer is yes — but a lot of dominoes have to fall precisely into place.
We may actually get to see if everything could land in the perfect position, this very season, and yes…
I’m talking about the Mariners.
Yep, this would be the same gang that flirts with the infamous Mendoza Line on offense — often checking in with the lowest batting average in MLB — and already has used more players (46) than anyone else in the sport.
The thing is, though, Seattle has clawed back from a spell in the dungeon and sits at 27-27 with the division-leading A’s coming to town this afternoon.
The Mariners are just 3 1/2 games back of Oakland, with Houston sandwiched in the middle.
There actually is a formula for the Mariners to challenge seriously in the AL West, but two things have to happen.
FIRST, this team has to get healthy.
That army of 46 players didn’t appear in big league games because Scott Servais has always wanted to host “America’s Got Talent.”
The Mariners need several key pieces back in place, some from COVID quarantine and others back after actual baseball injuries.
There are some reserves now playing regularly who aren’t even household names in their own homes.
A few are backups to backups.
Servais surely never imagined that he’d be writing out lineup cards with names on them like Jose Godoy, Donovan Walton, Eric Campbell, Jacob Nottingham and Jack Mayfield.
The Mariners desperately need to have opening day starter Marco Gonzales, second baseman Dylan Moore and Gold Glove first baseman Evan White back in the lineup — and doing their thing with some swag.
You think getting one key bat back in the lineup doesn’t matter?
Designated hitter Ty France returned from a painful wrist injury that left a hole in the middle of the order — and immediately began to rake.
France drove in three runs in the Mariners’ 4-2 victory over Texas on Sunday — Seattle’s sixth win in seven games.
Any big bat makes a heck of a difference.
NEXT UP, this unusual cast of characters needs to keep games close.
As often as possible, anyway.
I’m not dreaming that the Mariners are going, as Servais put it, “to start winning a bunch of 8-2 games.”
Even if the lineup Servais thought he’d have for most of the season gets healthy and provides some pulse, well…
These are not the ’27 Yankees, OK?
But they can pitch pretty well, if Gonzales comes back to anchor the rotation, Justin Dunn and Yusei Kikuchi (six straight quality starts) keep up their improvement — and rookie Logan Gilbert simply begins to feel comfy in the big leagues.
Trust me, he’s talented enough to make a difference if he can just relax and pitch.
The plan is to makes games competitive, whenever and however they can do it.
The Mariners may have the best bullpen in baseball, and the numbers prove it.
Seattle is 12-5 in one-run games (best record in MLB), and that’s not luck — it’s having relievers good enough lock the gates.
The Mariners also are 22-8 when they score four or more runs, which isn’t exactly an impossible target.
IN THIS case, the pen is mightier than the bat — to twist an old phrase.
Closer Kendall Graveman has been in COVID lockdown, but he’s due back shortly.
Graveman, in case you haven’t noticed, is pretty much better than anyone in MLB — what with his 16 1/3 innings of work without giving up a run, and a WHIP of 0.540 to go with 17 Ks and just three walks.
Opposing hitters have scraped just a .111 average against Graveman, the converted starter.
Ironically, those widespread injuries throughout the Mariners roster allowed some newcomers to get a chance — and brother, they’ve taken it.
The bullpen’s true core (Graveman, Keynan Middleton, J.T. Chargois, Drew Steckenrider, Erik Swanson, Paul Sewald and Casey Sadler) doesn’t show a WHIP higher than 1.050 among these magnificent seven — and if Swanson hadn’t had a single bad outing to bring opponents’ batting average up to a paltry .234 against him, the HIGHEST in the group would be .206.
SADLER is the only long-term injury victim among the key gang (shoulder inflammation), but the Mariners — even being cautious — expect him back around the All-Star game.
Those seven relievers have struck out 103 and permitted just 37 walks.
As we know, those late-inning walks make you want to chew up the couch.
Even Rafael Montero, who was signed to be the closer but has been all over the place (Servais blames him for high blood pressure throughout the entire Northwest), has had to pitch a lot lately because no one else has been available in some key spots.
Montero is considered the gas can of the group, but even he has managed seven saves and a surprising WHIP of 1.286 — pretty decent considering the endless baserunners and hour-long innings he endures.
Montero, however, HAS blown five saves, and you don’t have to be a math wizard to guess where the Mariners might be if Graveman or Middleton had been available for those assignments.
The bottom line is that with a little luck on the injury front, the Mariners can beat you if games stay close.
The starters are all improving, too, so…
It might not be impossible.
This visit from the A’s will be the equivalent of a suspect taking a lie detector test.
Let’s see how it goes.
Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns appear in The Press on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. “Moments, Memories and Madness,” his reminiscences from several decades as a sports journalist, runs each Sunday.
Steve also writes Zags Tracker, a commentary on Gonzaga basketball which is published monthly during the offseason.