Mariners notes: Through offensive volatility, rotation remains an elite constant

Following George Kirby’s spellbinding, shutout performance last Tuesday night, general manager Justin Hollander and skipper Scott Servais mutually determined the introduction to Servais’ postgame presser: “Our pitching is bleeping good.”

Servais burst with laughter, and so did the interview room. He turned to front office staff, signaling an unserious fear of repercussions: “Does that pass? That works?”

The moment – and Seattle’s utter domination of opposing lineups over recent outings – perhaps demanded an expletive, even one Servais childproofed himself. Kirby had masterfully diced Texas hitters and posted a seven-inning shutout, featuring no walks and no strikeouts in a 5-0 win. A night before, on Monday, Logan Gilbert was equally as dominant and took a perfect game bid into the seventh inning.

“We are riding the coattails of our pitching,” Servais said. “And we should.”

Seattle Mariners starter George Kirby delivers a pitch during a baseball game against the Texas Rangers, Tuesday, May 9, 2023, in Seattle. The Mariners won 5-0. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear) Stephen Brashear/AP
Seattle Mariners starter George Kirby delivers a pitch during a baseball game against the Texas Rangers, Tuesday, May 9, 2023, in Seattle. The Mariners won 5-0. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear) Stephen Brashear/AP

Before the offense ignited over the weekend, Seattle was doing exactly that – riding a steady stream of quality starts as the offense sputtered and failed to produce in situational moments. When Gilbert’s bid for perfection ended Monday, he surrendered two runs and went on to lose the game, 2-1.

Winnable games continued to slip away. Rotation ace Luis Castillo whiffed nine and surrendered three runs across five innings Wednesday, and despite a 4-3 loss, kept Seattle within striking distance.

Southpaw Marco Gonzales tossed his fifth quality start in his last six appearances behind six strong innings Friday, which powered a road win in Detroit and turned the tide.

And then came Bryce Miller on Saturday, in what was just his third career start: seven scoreless innings over the Tigers, surrendering three hits and walking none. The rookie’s efforts secured a series win, propelled another shutout and pushed the Mariners over the .500-mark for the first time since Opening Day.

Even after Miller put runners on the corners in the first inning, he’d retire the next 16 batters in a row; Tigers infielder Javier Baez snapped that streak with a leadoff single in the seventh.

“I’ve been over the plate. I’ve been able to get ahead of batters. Whenever I do that, things are a lot easier,” Miller told reporters Saturday. “I gave up three hits today. The one (by Spencer) Torkelson, I fell behind. Hits are easier to come by when you’re behind in the count.”

The Mariners are the only team in baseball with four pitchers at or above 1.0 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR), per Mariners PR: Castillo (1.6), Kirby (1.5), Gilbert (1.3), and Miller (1.0). Entering Sunday’s finale in Detroit, Seattle pitchers owned a 2.34 earned run average over the last week, tops in MLB, and tallied 107 total strikeouts in that span (fifth). Opposing hitters mustered a .204 batting average on Mariner arms, second-lowest in MLB.

“Our starting pitching has been outstanding,” Servais said. Left to self-covered expletives, “I really can’t say enough about it.”

Wins over Detroit on Friday and Saturday guaranteed a road series win in Detroit, when elite pitching merged with the run production so desperately craved.

Despite a 5-3 loss on Mother’s Day, Seattle outscored the Tigers, 17-7, over the weekend.

Still even on the young season, Seattle sits at 20-20 and in the thick of a way-too-early playoff race. A sea of newer challengers remain relevant in the American League – Baltimore (26-14), Boston (22-18), and Texas (24-15), among current overperforming clubs, in comparison to preseason projections.

“Pitching… you shut people out, that’s the name of the game,” Servais said. “And when our offense starts to go… a few walks, a couple hits. Homers are key, and they help everybody, but the quality of at-bats have been much better.”

MOVED DOWN IN LINEUP, J-ROD’S BAT HEATS UP

On Tuesday night, Servais sat down star sophomore outfielder Julio Rodriguez for what, to many players, would be deemed an unwelcome proposal.

For the first time this season, Servais wanted the leadoff-hitting Rodriguez – the face of the franchise – to bat sixth for Wednesday’s rubber match against the Rangers in Seattle.

Considered one of the club’s truest “team players,” and to Servais’ delight, Julio was on board. His response oozed maturity unlike the skipper had seen from 22-year-olds in seasons past.

“I started hitting leadoff because it was the best thing for the team,” Rodriguez said, asked of his acceptance for the role. “And now, if hitting sixth is the best thing for the team, that’s where I’m going to be hitting at.”

Rodriguez was amid a 15-game slump dating back to April 21, slashing .123/.219/.246 with three RBI and 22 strikeouts in that span. Underlying Statcast percentiles prove steady power, though he continued to chase breaking pitches outside of the strike zone and whiff well below league average.

Instead, shortstop J.P. Crawford was Wednesday’s leadoff hitter. As five teammates hit before him, Rodriguez studied starter Dane Dunning’s repertoire before entering the batter’s box -- once an impossible privilege.

Away for a brief intermission, the J-Rod Show was back. His first contact Wednesday was a second-inning lineout to center field, though Rodriguez blistered the offering 102 mph. In the fifth, he drove a leadfoff single to right, finishing 1-for-4.

The numbers popped Friday, when Servais pivoted and moved Rodriguez to third in the order.

After one game in the six-hole, J-Rod opened a nine-game road trip in Detroit with three hits and a late, lead-stretching home run poked the opposite way. The four-RBI performance tripled Rodriguez’s run production for the month of May alone.

“If you think you’re going to be successful in this game every day, or throughout the whole year, you are wrong,” Rodriguez said Friday. “Because this is a game of failure. Being able to handle that and power through it… I enjoy doing it.”

Seattle Mariners’ Julio Rodriguez celebrates his two-run home run against the Detroit Tigers in the ninth inning of a baseball game, Friday, May 12, 2023, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) Paul Sancya/AP
Seattle Mariners’ Julio Rodriguez celebrates his two-run home run against the Detroit Tigers in the ninth inning of a baseball game, Friday, May 12, 2023, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya) Paul Sancya/AP

Former Seattle center fielder Mike Cameron took to Twitter and praised the lineup move after J-Rod’s big day. “I love Julio in the 3 hole!!” he wrote. “Why!! … J.P. gets on base. Ty (France) having a hot (bat), Julio will get pitches and he is skilled with the bat! Then Geno (Suarez) will get pitches with Julio on… and most importantly Teo (Hernandez) will hit with the pitcher in the stretch a lot!!”

Rodriguez’s swing decisions -- or lack of chases altogether -- could pay dividends when pitchers no longer can fool him with off-speed junk down and away. In four games since the move, he was 5-for-16 (.312) with two walks and five RBI.

“He may care more about the Mariners than anybody,” Servais said. “It’s just how he’s wired. From the day he signed, to going through his minor league career, to what happened last year. He wants to do what’s best for the team. He wants the team to win.”

SHORT HOPS

– Bryce Miller has the lowest WHIP (0.421) through a pitcher’s first three career starts (min. 15 IP) in MLB history, per Mariners PR.

– Entering Sunday’s series finale in Detroit, Seattle’s pitching staff led the majors in fWAR (8.5), well ahead of second-place Minnesota (6.7)

– The Mariners have lost 11 games by one run, most in MLB.

ON DECK

Seattle continues a three-series road trip with stops in Boston (May 15-17) and Atlanta (May 19-21), and returns to T-Mobile Park for a 10-game home stand beginning May 22.