DENVER – A bullpen start that featured the usage of an opener?
In terms of generating anger, outrage and disgust, those two oft-used baseball strategies seem to unite an often-divided Mariners fan base that usually only agrees the organization has continued to fail them.
On a hope-you-remembered-deodorant Wednesday afternoon at Coors Field, the Mariners ended their post-All-Star break road trip in disappointing fashion, employing some form of those two strategies in a 6-3 loss to the Rockies.
It was a somewhat disappointing finish to the five-game road trip where Seattle, now 51-45 on the season, finished 3-2 instead of 4-1.
With season-ending injuries and subsequent surgeries to lefties James Paxton (Tommy John) and Nick Margevicius (Thoracic outlet syndrome) and right-hander Ljay Newsome (Tommy John) plus lefty Justus Sheffield (forearm/oblique strains) and right-hander Justin Dunn (shoulder strain) not close to returning, the Mariners have an open spot in their now five-man rotation that once was a six-man unit. General manager Jerry Dipoto, a man of many transactions, has been trying to find some sort of replacement in the interim but has yet to finalize a deal for even a veteran mired on a team’s Class AAA roster.
The dearth of starting pitching depth around baseball is palpable. Teams are afraid to end up in Seattle’s position. The asking prices for what would normally “cash consideration” or “player to be named later” returns are high.
And unless Dipoto finds a pitcher in the next day or two, the Mariners will make another bullpen start again in five days.
So the Mariners were forced to go with a bullpen start for Wednesday’s finale. But they did add a starter of sorts for the game. With Jake Fraley on the COVID injured list and his spot on the 40-man roster open, Seattle selected the minor league contract of right-hander Darren McCaughan from Class AAA Tacoma before the game and optioned outfielder Dillon Thomas back to the Rainiers.
With Hector Santiago suspended for 10 games for using a legal substance in a supposedly illegal way, and the team unable to fill his roster spot, the Mariners added McCaughan, a starter for the Rainiers, to pitch multiple innings vs. the Rockies.
In an effort to provide a “soft landing” in his MLB debut in the least pitcher-friendly park in baseball, the Mariners opted to use right-hander Keynan Middleton as an opener before McCaughan enter the game.
The “opener” strategy, which Seattle employed to much fan derision in 2019, is to allow have a reliever face the top of the order, which allows the “bulk” pitcher to work five-plus innings and avoid seeing the top of the order hitters three times.
It’s worked for the Rays in past seasons. The Mariners didn’t have similar success largely due to the opener failing to do what was necessary.
For Middleton, his job was simple. Get as far as he could into the game – logically the first four to five hitters – with decent results.
In an ideal world, he’d give the Mariners an inning or two of shutout pitching. Allowing a run or two if he got through two innings would be acceptable.
Instead, Middleton buried the Mariners in the bottom of the first, allowing five runs on five hits and a bases-loaded walk and a strikeout with all nine batters coming to the plate.
Down 5-0, McCaughan entered the game in the second inning, having to face that top of the lineup.
Using a sinking fastball that tops out at 91 mph and a slider with more command than bite, he needed just six pitches to retire the first three hitters he faced. It was the first of five solid innings pitched. He allowed a run but didn’t allow a hit in his debut.
His one run allowed came when he walked the first two batters of the fourth inning. A sac bunt and a sac fly led to his only run allowed.
The Mariners offense provided just three runs of support. The three runs came on solo homers from Kyle Seager, Luis Torrens and Mitch Haniger. Seattle had just five total hits in the game.