Servais on summoning Ray: Good process, bad result

Manager stands by decision to have lefty face Alvarez, who launched walk-off HR

October 13th, 2022

HOUSTON -- One day after the most backbreaking loss in franchise history, the Mariners returned to Minute Maid Park, picked themselves up and held a workout to prepare for Game 2 of the American League Division Series against the Astros.

Yet with the wounds of Tuesday’s 8-7 walk-off defeat still fresh, manager Scott Servais was left dissecting the fateful decision that led to the disastrous result: using  to face Yordan Alvarez, which ended with a three-run home run and the kind of win that can catapult one team in a postseason series and the kind of loss that can cripple the other.

“Obviously, it didn't work yesterday, but that has nothing to do with our process,” Servais said Wednesday. “We have a really good process. It's something that we have developed over time, specifically the last couple years, in our decision-making. ... We made the decision we made based on the players we had available, based on the numbers and the information I had available -- and stand by it.”

The matchup looked perplexing, given that Ray was bullied by the Blue Jays in Toronto three days prior and that the Astros had teed off against him to a .442/.509/.865 (1.374 OPS) slash line in three regular-season starts. Postgame, Servais revealed what had been expected -- that Ray was never going to start in this ALDS for those reasons -- and on Wednesday he announced that Seattle will turn to George Kirby in Game 3 on Saturday, when Ray’s turn was up next.

But if there wasn’t enough confidence to start Ray, why use him against arguably baseball’s best hitter in a situation -- with two outs and two on -- in which he’d never pitched?

“Robbie Ray is obviously a very accomplished pitcher,” Servais said. “It is left-on-left. But Yordan Alvarez is very good left-on-left. We know that going into it. You have to weigh the odds and where it's at right there and, again, I'm looking at the numbers that are in front of me, I trust them. And what plays into that is not just the handedness of the pitcher, but what that hitter hits, what that pitcher fires out there. Now, you’ve got to get the ball [inside], you’ve got to execute, you’ve got to get the ball in the right spots.”

Ray’s plan was to pitch inside on Alvarez with his two-seam fastball, a pitch he added during a June 6 start at this very venue after allowing three homers in the first two innings. But Ray’s location was nowhere close to where he intended. Alvarez fouled off the first pitch that was over the plate, then he destroyed the second one with a 116.4 mph exit velocity, the third-hardest-hit postseason homer tracked by Statcast (since 2015).

Ray’s two-seamer is at times elite and other times shaky. Servais told Ray when handing him the ball that if he threw his slider, his best pitch, it needed to land below the zone to induce a whiff or weak contact. But the challenge with Alvarez, who had a .998 OPS against lefties this year, is that there are no holes in his swing. And with Alex Bregman on deck, who homered off Andrés Muñoz one inning earlier, walking Alvarez to load the bases wasn’t on the table.

“There are situations that come up in the game where you just can't walk people,” Servais said. “That's what happened yesterday a little bit. Are you going to walk him to put the tying run on second base? You don't do that.”

The other relief options were righty Erik Swanson, lefty Matthew Boyd and Kirby, who earned his first save on Saturday in Toronto. The Mariners intended to use Kirby only for a clean inning, and probably not at all given that he’ll start Game 3. Also, if Kirby had the same result as Ray, it could’ve torpedoed the rookie’s confidence ahead of the first postseason game in Seattle in 21 years.

Swanson can get lefties out, but he had a 5.06 ERA in 12 September outings. Boyd has almost exclusively been used in mid- to low-leverage spots. Seattle could have left Paul Sewald in, but if Alvarez had reached, awaiting would be Bregman, who has two homers in four at-bats off Sewald.

“It shouldn’t have gotten to Robbie, that’s how I feel,” said Sewald, who hit nine-hole hitter David Hensley with a pitch on a full count, then surrendered a single to Jeremy Peña that set up the big blast.

Muñoz, who has been one of MLB’s best relievers this year, faced six batters in the eighth. That ensured that Houston’s lineup would flip in the ninth, setting up the final three outs against its best hitters rather than its worst.

“We were up four runs and in a great spot,” Servais said. “It didn't happen. But there's going to be adversity along the way. There are going to be bumps in the road. You're going to get kicked in the teeth, so to speak. And then it happens, you’ve got to bounce back from it.”