SEATTLE -- The 2022 Mariners might bend to their limits, but they don’t seem to break.
It took 12 innings, but Seattle won again Sunday, 5-4, completing a three-game sweep of Kansas City and taking seven of nine on its season-opening homestand.
A pair of 11-pitch plate appearances by Jesse Winker was capped by a walk-off single that scored lead runner Adam Frazier from second base. Winker also tied the game in the 10th with a lengthy sequence that finished with a sacrifice fly, also scoring Frazier.
Winker’s heroics came more than an hour after Drew Steckenrider surrendered a game-tying homer to Hunter Dozier in the ninth, underscoring how stretched the bullpen has been this weekend. But the Mariners, as persistent as any team in the season’s first month, out-marathoned the Royals, winning their second straight game of more than four hours.
“It's a game to win,” Winker said. “We're here to win. I don't care what time the game is starting at. I don't care how long it's taking. If we're in it, we're going to do our best to win it.”
Seattle sits alone atop the American League West, at 10-6. There’s been obvious ambition following last year’s surprising 90-win season, and here the Mariners are, through more than two weeks in 2022, seemingly picking up right where they left off.
“Fans, they feel that this team has something special going on,” said Sunday’s starting pitcher, Robbie Ray. “And I'm excited to see as the season goes on more and more people start catching on.”
There’s a lot to unpack from this productive homestand before the Mariners embark on a three-city trip to Tampa Bay, Miami and Houston.
Lineup has been ‘lethal’
Beyond Winker, Ty France is one of the Majors’ hottest hitters, following up his five-hit, five-RBI showing on Saturday with a 3-for-5 day that included a two-run homer in his first at-bat and a one-out single in the 10th that moved Frazier to third and set up Winker’s sac fly. France has reached base 34 times, more than any AL hitter, but J.P. Crawford isn’t far behind, at 32, after getting on base three times Sunday, including a critical RBI double in the sixth.
Moreover, even in games where key contributors are out (more on this momentarily) or struggling, there has been depth to account if one or more players are struggling.
“Lethal,” outfielder Jarred Kelenic said. “I think we’re really dangerous right now.”
The pitching has been solid
Steckenrider’s blown save via a middle-middle fastball stood out, but beyond that blemish, Seattle’s arms were solid this homestand. The club got 53 innings out of its starters -- just under an average of six per -- including six from Ray in his fourth start on Sunday. He’s the Majors’ only pitcher to go that deep that many times this year.
Logan Gilbert, meanwhile, leads the AL with a 0.54 ERA through three outings, and on Friday, Chris Flexen joined Ray and Marco Gonzales as the Mariners’ third starter to go at least seven innings. Matt Brash is still sorting through command issues, but he has arguably the best stuff out of them all.
“The length is definitely going to help us out, especially because we’ve got a long stretch of games coming up here soon,” said acting manager Kristopher Negrón.
The bullpen blew two saves, including Saturday by Yohan Ramirez, who redeemed himself by escaping a one-out, bases-loaded jam on Sunday. Steckenrider also surrendered a two-out walk and the game-winning hit in the ninth inning against Texas on Thursday.
But six scoreless outings from Erik Swanson shows he could be a legit leverage arm, and Andrés Muñoz, who was unavailable Sunday, has elite-level stuff. The Mariners have mostly weathered the unit’s ebbs and flows, and they’ll continue to adjust as they begin deploying relievers back-to-back more regularly.
They’re also missing their highest-leverage arm, which leads us to ...
They’re producing without key contributors
On the field, reliever Paul Sewald, right fielder Mitch Haniger and catcher Luis Torrens have all been out with COVID. In the dugout, manager Scott Servais and third-base coach Manny Acta are also shelved after testing positive.
Yet with an exhaustive communication process to Servais and the front office, consistency with messaging to players and conviction from Negrón in the collaborative process with the staff, it’s worked so far.
“I'm labeled as the acting manager, but it’s all just one big unit -- a cohesive group that's putting our minds together,” Negrón said, “because we're just trying to put these guys in the best situation to succeed, and that's from top to bottom.”
Winker also echoed the next-man-up mantra: “We have depth. We have guys that compete. We have guys that just come to the yard ready to play right, do their job and work hard and work correctly. We do a lot of outstanding things here.”