Playoff highs and lows
Having quit maintaining that other website that was all about baseball and the Seattle Mariners, one might think I'm not interested in writing more about them. But even though that endeavor was ultimately a bust, I am still a fan and it is October, when the MLB postseason rules the mind.
And the surprising Mariners continued to surprise. I had every expectation that the M's would not survive the new Wild Card round, a more difficult hill to climb than the prior system which would have required them to win one game to play-in to the American League Division Series. But they did survive it, and did so in dramatic, historic fashion, coming back from seven runs down to beat the offensively-superior Toronto Blue Jays 10-9 in the second game of the best-of-three series and thus advancing.
It changed my attitude. My borne-of-two-decades-of-futility jaded pessimism, reinforced by the team's performance in the last couple of weeks of the regular season, had given way to the thrill of unlikely victory and, in true Ted Lasso fashion, belief. These guys could really do it.
Then came yesterday.
In the opening game of the best-of-five series, matched up against their principal nemeses from Houston, the Mariners faced the great and historically dominant Justin Verlander, the Houston ace pitcher that had eaten the M's for lunch all season long. They didn't flinch and hit Verlander hard and bounced him out of the game early, scoring six runs off of him. They took a 7-3 lead into the eighth inning. Even when reliever Andres Muñoz faltered and gave up a two-run homer to Alex Bregman, they were still in good shape, heading into the bottom of the ninth up by two. "Believe" seemed to be holding strong.
But you can never completely believe with this team, because the Mariners are managed by a guy named Scott Servais. As I've repeatedly said, Servais has got to be absolutely brilliant at the off-the-field aspects of his job. Handling the egos of 26 young men with varying degrees of maturity and more money than they know what to do with, keeping that group in a good frame of mind, all that stuff. But during the actual game, when his job requires executing baseball strategy, he is, well, not brilliant. Dim, you might say. Often the players are good enough to overcome this deficiency, which is why the team won 90 games and got into the postseason in the first place. But it's not always possible.
I was watching yesterday's game with my friend Bill, and we were naturally enjoying how things were unfolding. But in the ninth inning the TV cameras cut to the Seattle bullpen, where a left-hander was warming up, presumably readying himself to pitch in the bottom of the ninth. That left-hander was number 38, the high-priced free-agent starting pitcher that won the Cy Young Award last year but this year has been all kinds of mediocre, and over the last few weeks has been eminently hittable and homer-prone.
"Uh-oh," Bill said.
"What the fuck?" I said.
Bill's concern was more general—he feels, and with good reason, that when managers in the postseason use pitchers who had been starters their whole career in relief it usually blows up in their faces. Not always—see Johnson, Randall J., 2001—but when it succeeds there's often (though not always) some extenuating circumstance, like you've burned all your regular relievers already, or the pitcher's specific attributes are especially suited to the situation at hand. You can find numbers to back up either side of the argument, but Bill was adamant. He didn't want to see a starter, any starter, go into the game in relief. Sometimes even when it seems to work it doesn't; see last year's National League Division Series, when Dodger manager Dave Roberts brought starting pitcher Max Scherzer in to close out a win in Game 5—the Dodgers won and advanced, but Scherzer tried to make his next start and had nothing, then couldn't pitch at all for the remainder of the postseason (Scherzer had been called upon in this way before, in Game 5 of the NLDS in 2017, and was terrible and lost the series).
My concern was more specific. Robbie Ray was bad the last three times he started a game. Five of the last six, actually, a stretch in which he racked up an ERA just shy of 6.00 and surrendered ten home runs. It was my judgment that he was only on the playoff roster because he was a very pricey free-agent acquisition prior to the season and the team would have been better off with Marco Gonzales on the active roster and Ray off of it (Marco had one poor start vs. Houston this year and two excellent ones).
So, the ninth begins and the pitcher on the mound to begin things is Paul Sewald, who rather inexplicably has excellent numbers on the season. He always struck me as punching above his weight, but OK, sure, Sewald. I'd have Erik Swanson ready to go to back him up, though, just in case. Anyway, Sewald gets a couple of outs, but also gives up a hit and puts a runner on with a hit-by-pitch, bringing up Yordan Alvarez, a left-hand batter and the Astros' best hitter.
Servais has a few options here. 1) Do nothing, let Sewald try and get Alvarez out (Alvarez is 1-for-7 career vs. Sewald). 2) Walk Alvarez. This would be risky, loading the bases and moving the tying run to scoring position, but would let Sewald or another reliever face a right-hander. 3) Go to the bullpen for Erik Swanson, a proven quantity in late-inning relief who had surrendered all of one home run to lefties this year (though with no real history vs. Houston). 4) Go to the ’pen for left-hander Matt Boyd. 5) Go to the ’pen for Robbie Ray.
He went with (5), which was the obviously worst option (though (4) was not much better). Alvarez actually hits left-handers better than righties, Ray was abysmal vs. the Astros all season (as a team, Houston hit .442/.509/.865 off of Ray in three games for a nearly-11.00 ERA and a WHIP of almost 3.000), and as noted before Ray had been homer-prone when a home run would lose the game. It was a decision with no merit to it at all. Calling it stupid is too kind. And it wasn't all that surprising, ’cause Servais has always been a dunce at strategy.
Sadly, Ray only threw two pitches in the game, with the second one sailing over the fence for a walk-off Astro victory, so he didn't pitch enough to prevent him from perhaps starting in Game three or, if it gets that far, four. He shouldn't anyway, but, you know, Servais.
So, the M's are in a hole now, down one game to none in a best-of-five to the arch-enemy rival, and it's their manager's fault. I feel OK about tomorrow's Game Two, with Luis Castillo starting for Seattle against another Houston All-Star in Framber Valdez; Castillo is who you want out there in a do-or-die game. (And while not an elimination game, it does feel like it's do-or-die.) But Castillo can pitch the game of his life, and if it remains close by the late innings one will have to wonder: What nonsense will occur to Scott Servais to do with the game on the line? And will he turn to Ray for the next game?
"Believe" was short-lived. Sorry, Ted Lasso.