The Seattle Mariners on Sunday showed why it’s easy to believe they’re capable of putting together the kind of extended winning streak during the second half that eluded them in the first.
Mike Montgomery, a long reliever making his first start of the season, pitched an unanticipated gem. The heart-of-the-lineup trio of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager went a combined 5 for 13, with 4 RBIs. Seager and shortstop Ketel Marte each contributed a highlight play in the field.
It added up to an 8-5 victory over the Kansas City Royals, the defending World Series champs who remain very tough customers at Kauffman Stadium.
But the Mariners also showed why, in the immortal words of Ringo Starr, it don’t come easy for them. Up 8-1 after seven innings, they frayed nerves because of a bullpen that can be as careless protecting a late lead as Barney Fife was with the key to the Mayberry jail.
The tying run never reached the plate, and the Royals are famous for their spunky resilience, but if the Mariners are unable to take a stroll down Easy Street with a seven-run lead and five outs to go, it doesn’t bode well for their chances of getting on a roll.
Their longest winning streak of 2016 is a modest four games, accomplished three times. The first streak ended when starter Taijuan Walker pitched in a 6-3 defeat at Houston on May 5. The second ended when Walker took the mound in a 5-0 loss to Oakland on May 23 at Safeco Field. The third ended July 4 at the hands of Wade Miley in Houston after Seattle swept Baltimore at home. But the next day, Walker couldn’t stop the slide and contributed to a 5-2 loss.
Not that it’s Walker’s fault the Mariners tend to stumble just when they appear in position to sprint, but it can’t be a coincidence he was the losing pitcher on two of three occasions.
Walker and ace Felix Hernandez haven’t been comfortable enough to attain a simultaneous groove for almost two months, as reasonable an explanation as any for the two-steps-forward, two-steps-back dance that has left Seattle at 45-44 at the break.
There’s been a lot to like about the Mariners since they foreshadowed the first half of the season in their opener at Texas, where they gave up one hit — a Prince Fielder bloop single — and yet lost, 2-1.
Cano is resembling a future Hall-of-Famer at his peak. Adam Lind and Dae-Ho Lee provide a potent platoon at first base. Leonys Martin has enhanced his reputation as a superior defensive center fielder. Thanks to the power-hitting Seager at third and the impressively athletic Marte at shortstop, the Mariners might have the most formidable defensive-offensive duo they’ve ever put on the left side of the infield.
With eight wins in his past 10 starts, veteran Hisashi Iwakuma, delivered to the Mariners in the form of a care package with a bow on it, has served as anchor of a rotation once presumed to be the team’s strength.
Which bring us to what’s not to like about the Mariners’ first half, best summed up by two numbers separated by a hyphen: Hernandez is 4-4. The King didn’t dominate the short-season Single-A hitters he faced Sunday during his rehab assignment with the Everett AquaSox, but he apparently pitched without aggravating the strained calf muscle in his right leg.
Hernandez next will start in Tacoma, with the hope he can rejoin the Mariners’ rotation on July 20. By then, perhaps, Walker’s issues with the tendinitis in his right foot will be resolved.
Hernandez and Walker have combined to win eight times. For some perspective, that’s three fewer victories than Mariners rookie lefty Dave Fleming owned before the All-Star break in 1992.
Anyway, with Hernandez and Walker on the mend, and James Paxton projecting to deal his fierce stuff as a polished product around the time construction cones are removed from the side of Interstate 5 between Tacoma and Federal Way, the challenge of keeping the Mariners competitive has been put in the hands of Iwakuma and Miley, along with the occasional “did-I-really-see-what-I-just-saw?” start by Wade LeBlanc and Montgomery.
Few chefs can convert a hobo stew into a delicacy, but pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, Jr. is up to the task. Thanks to Stottlemyre’s tutelage, Montgomery could be a key cog in the rotation the Mariners will need to make a run at a wild-card berth.
This is not a bad team, but it’s not a particularly good one, either. It’s a so-so team that could vault itself into the playoffs with a winning streak longer than four games.
The Mariners’ victory Sunday allowed them to savor such a possibility during their midsummer vacation. Winning streaks have to begin somewhere, and what better somewhere is there than the home of the defending world champions?