Josh Rojas uses his head and his skills against the White Sox
My last post recounted how my hometown Seattle Mariners had climbed the standings here in the second half of the season in spite of their strategically-challenged manager and an affinity for striking out at the plate—to the tune of ten times per game on average. They've played two games since—won one, lost one—and are even closer to the top of the heap in the American League West.
Yesterday they lost to the hapless Chicago White Sox in extra innings, with the winning run scoring in the form of the Manfred Man who ran home on a throwing error. The M's had come back in dramatic fashion with even more late-inning heroics to take a one-run lead in the 9th, then once more blew the save in the bottom half before giving up the ghost in the 10th. In isolation this would probably feel like a heartbreaking loss, but I found it to be the most encouraging game the Mariners have played in ages because for the second game in a row the team scored a runner from third base with 0 or 1 out in the inning.
Duh, you say. That's a gimme RBI, of course they did.
Except before yesterday they almost never did that.* The Mariners lead the Majors in being inept when it comes to scoring in that situation: they score the runner from third 42% of the time. They've also had the most such opportunities in the American League, second in the Majors only to the LA Dodgers, meaning they have that many more failures than any other club. The MLB average is, as one might expect, about 50%, with the Chicago Cubs leading the way at just over 57%, but with 18 fewer chances. A team can only get away with this level of ineptitude if they outscore the opposition by tons anyway and don't have a lot of close games (the Dodgers and Atlanta Braves don't have a great success rate at this, but they have run differentials of +149 and +214, so no big deal). The Mariners, though, have played a lot of close games. A third of their games thus far were decided by one run and they've lost 56% of those, and that doesn't count extra-inning losses by more than one run, something the zombie Manfred Man makes more common than it would otherwise be.
|3B <2 out
|3B <2 out
The M's strike out a ton in all situations, with an overall K rate of 26%, and it doesn't change much (it's actually a little worse) with runner at 3rd, 0/1 out. It's fairly consistent across the board. Which tells me that the team makes no adjustments for the circumstance, there is no directive to treat those easy RBI ABs any differently than any other ABs. Which is just dumb in a close game.
So if the season ends with the Mariners three, four, five games out of first place, it will be because they were unable to execute this incredibly basic baseball maneuver so very, very often.
Thus, they cannot afford to compound the matter by losing more games that way, which is why yesterday's loss was so encouraging. Their blundering manager didn't make any mistakes, his in-game moves were all fairly logical; the tying run in the 9th scored off of Andres Muñoz not because of a bad managerial move but a bad pitch location in a critical at-bat from Andrew Benintendi. Muñoz missed his target and Benintendi connected, just one of those things. Shikata ga nai. But the M's were in the position to have a 9th-inning lead because Josh Rojas laid down a fantastic bunt in the 7th inning with José Caballero on third base (and Caballero was on third because he had walked, stolen second, and stolen third; it was so my kind of run scored I couldn't have drawn it up any better). Even better, Rojas' bunt was so good he was easily safe at first, turning a would-be safety squeeze play into an RBI base hit.
That was fundamental baseball strategy that the Mariners seemingly never, ever employ. Maybe it was only possible because it was Josh Rojas, someone who came up in another club's organization and has only been with the M's for a few weeks, who might have actually had instruction in old-school things like bunting and squeeze plays. I don't know if he did that on his own, but I assume so since I can't picture manager Scott Servais ordering a squeeze play on purpose. I'd love to be wrong on that. But at least guys aren't prohibited from doing such things so evidence that at least the batters are thinking strategically is outstanding.
Was it a one-off? A unicorn in the world of a Scott Servais-managed team? God, I hope not.
Back at it tomorrow night at home vs. Kansas City, which is a fun team to watch despite their terrible pitching staff. Looking forward to it.