Mariners' aces lifting club just when it matters most
CLEVELAND -- This is why the Mariners got Robbie Ray and Luis Castillo.
After going all of last year without a true ace, the Mariners have two this year. The quest for an ace started last December when the Mariners signed Ray, the reigning AL Cy Young winner, to a five-year, $115 million deal. It reached a crescendo in late July when they acquired Castillo from the Reds. And, most importantly, it’s making a difference in September.
Last week, the Mariners closed out their four-game series against the Guardians with two stellar starts from Castillo and Ray. Less than a week later, the duo once again faced off against Cleveland, this time on the other side of the country, with the results ending up just as sparkling. In their four starts against the currently playoff-bound Guardians, Ray and Castillo have allowed one run and two walks while tallying 24 strikeouts, with the latest gem coming in the form of Ray’s six shutout innings in the Mariners' 4-0 win over Cleveland on Saturday.
“These guys have good stuff, they’re aggressive and they stay after them, which is what you have to do,” manager Scott Servais said. “You have to stay aggressive. At this time of year you have to lean on guys who have been there before. They’ve pitched deep into seasons in big games.”
After their sixth consecutive victory, the surging Mariners remained in a virtual tie with Tampa Bay atop the AL Wild Card standings and two games ahead of Toronto.
While both Ray and Servais said that Ray didn’t have his best stuff, the left-hander was still able to turn in six scoreless innings on a warm, muggy night.
“We’ve seen a better fastball, we’ve seen a better slider, but at the end of the day, he was working through the lineup and going deep in the ball game, which is exactly what we needed,” Servais said.
Ray’s night nearly ended earlier than expected, however, as he ran into trouble in the fifth inning after Andrés Giménez and Luke Maile (Cleveland's No. 7 and 8 hitters) opened the frame with back-to-back hits. But, as he’s done so many times already this season, Ray buckled down, getting Myles Straw to line out before inducing a Steven Kwan fielder’s choice and striking out Tyler Freeman to end the inning.
“When he had traffic there in the fifth, I wasn’t sure if he was going to get through that, but that’s what Robbie Ray does,” Servais said. “At the end of the outing he goes to a different gear to finish. He’s a finisher. That’s what we saw tonight.”
That different gear came in the form of a 95 mph four-seam fastball up in the zone, which ended a seven-pitch at-bat against Freeman.
“I wanted to bear down and throw my best pitch, and tonight that seemed like the four-seam,” Ray said.
After striking out seven times against Ray last time out, the Guardians (whose 18.4% strikeout rate is the best in baseball) were able to put more balls in play. And while that resulted in Cleveland getting more hits against Ray (six on Saturday compared to three last time), in Ray’s mind, not all the contact was bad.
“This team puts the ball in play, and I think tonight we were able to make sure they hit the pitches I wanted them to hit,” Ray said. “The big double play there was huge. I had a few timely strikeouts, but for the most part it was them hitting balls at guys.”
Ray also got a boost from some unexpected extra protein, as FOX’s mics caught him saying he had eaten a bug mid-game.
“I ate one a month ago playing in the backyard with the kids, but never on the field before,” he said with a chuckle.
Ray was able to pitch from in front from the outset thanks to Ty France, who put Seattle on the board early in the first inning with a home run that scraped the sky and ended up in Progressive Field's Home Run Porch. That was more than enough run support for Ray and Seattle’s pitchers.
“We have a lot of confidence in our pitching staff; they’ve carried us all year,” France said. “To add Luis at the break and watch what he’s done has been impressive. Aside from a couple starts early, Robbie’s been Cy Young Robbie Ray. We feed off of them and just try to go out and give them a comfortable lead.”