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The Mariners’ attempt to “piggyback” two starters didn’t go over so well this weekend, allowing Angels to dominate series

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Here’s a little bit behind Seattle’s interesting pitching strategy during the Angels-Mariners 4-game set.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros
SEA Manager Scott Servais
Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Angels did good in their last four games, awakening the Mariners yet again to the Team of Destiny with a sweep on Edgar Martinez weekend in front of four sold-out crowds at Safeco Field. And it was glorious. But all the four games were close, and it could have been a disaster, had it not been for the gift of Seattle’s starting pitching stratagem.

Seattle’s rotation has been beaten and battered, and because of this they’ve been bad. James Paxton put up 4.1 fWAR this season. The entire SEA rotation, meanwhile, has 3.4 fWAR — and that’s including Paxton’s contributions. They’ve lost Drew Smyly to Tommy John, Hisashi Iwakuma to elbow/shoulder maladies, and Felix Hernandez has been bad in the limited time he’s seen the field. Paxton has been an ace, but as good as he is, it’s safe to say he is injury prone. SEA’s replacements have been bad, for the most part unable to provide quantity or quality in innings. Don’t feel bad for the Mariners, though! The Angels have had more injuries, both in number and in impact. This is your background information.

And that realization brings us to the overworked Mariners bullpen. Though it had been solid recently — second-best in the last 30 days, in fact — they have also pitched the 3rd-most innings, not to mention an elbow impingement (which sounds very, very painful) to new relief acquisition David Phelps.

Because of this, the Mariners tried to “piggyback” pitchers, a word which here means to utilize two starters of lesser quality to throw nine innings instead of exhausting the bullpen. In theory, Mariners starters can avoid facing opposing hitters the third time through the order by doing this, pitching effectively and being pulled in the fifth inning before they run into trouble. They are then optioned out to Triple-A before the next game and a new, fresh arm is called up to repeat the process.

But there’s a problem: the pitchers have to be good

Ryan Divish of The Seattle Times explains, as well as interviews Scott Servais following the game that Marco Gonzales started.

The Mariners are going to try and nurse these games with starters that can go hopefully five innings at least and a bonus if they go more. If it’s only five or less, then they’ll use a variety of long relievers to hopefully bridge to the back end of their bullpen. It’s what they did in May when they were missing four starters like now.

“With where we are at right now pitching-wise, it’s going to be a challenge,” Servais said. “There are some nights it’s going to work out great and there are going to be some nights where it’s a little bit tough. We’ve ran the (relievers) really hard. We were in a good streak for a while and you have to back off on these guys a little bit otherwise we aren’t going to have anybody left...So there will be a lot of decisions made that you may scratch your head at and what not. But there is a plan behind it. And I thought tonight, the plan was lined up right. We just didn’t get the last out in the seventh inning.”

It’s difficult to execute such a plan on thin-ice when overworked relievers cannot be depended on, in addition to the starters. Or when every single reliever cannot throw a strike to save his life.

“Going forward, we just don’t have that guy that we can run out there for seven innings. So you are going to have to piece it together and have a plan and I think this is the best way to do it.”

It will be interesting to see whether the Mariners can acquire multiple starters to stay afloat, but the probability of acquiring several quality starters in August without decimating payroll or surrendering quality prospects in a crowded wild card race? Next to none.

It’s a good thing the Angels took advantage.