Drayer: How Seattle Mariners are trying to find consistency at plate

No rest for the weary as the Seattle Mariners jump right into a four-game series against the surging Houston Astros on Monday night in their return from a frustrating 4-6 East Coast road trip.

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The main culprit – although the bullpen posting a 7.01 ERA on the trip is high on the list – was an offense that two months into the season has yet to gain any traction. Seattle’s 9-5 win over the Washington Nationals on Sunday provided the briefest of respites with enough mini-victories to at least ensure a pleasant trip cross-country.

“We’ve got a big homestand ahead of us,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said postgame on Sunday. “Our team is tired right now. Like I said last night, we’ve played five day games here out of 10 games on the East Coast. The trip will be a little bit happier after a win, but we’ve got work to do when we get home.”

The work has been ongoing, but the results have been inconsistent, with an encouraging start to the month of May rolling into a concerning road trip. The Mariners are past the 50-game mark, a time where players have been given time to get into a season and a team should have a good idea of what they are, and moves have been made accordingly. Players who were all but guaranteed everyday work coming into the season are now seeing more time on the bench, with the priority going to those who are currently more productive. There have been changes with the lineups and one player, Luis Urias, optioned to Triple-A Tacoma.

“We’re just not performing. It’s pretty black and white,” Mariners catcher Cal Raleigh said before Sunday’s game. “You could say or make excuses, but nobody wants to hear excuses. We have to play better, simply put. It starts with me and some guys in the middle of the order playing every day. I have to do better. We have to do a better job as a team moving runners, finding ways to score runs. It’s not really about numbers or performing. It’s about getting runs on the board and helping our pitchers and trying to win as many games as possible.”

While there was an intense focus in spring training on getting off to a better start offensively, what seemed to take hold in Peoria did not translate under the big lights. To that end, adjustments have been made with and in pregame meetings, and an effort has been made to simplify things for the hitters.

“I’m a little surprised we didn’t get off to a better start,” Servais said. “After the first two or three weeks, we really pulled back on the amount of information we’re throwing at players and trying to simplify things to get into doing what our players do best. That’s why they’re here. They’re good major league players. They do something good, whether it’s hit with power, control the strike zone, things like that. So that’s been the real focus, is getting back into doing what they do best, but there’s always a transition period.”

Through the change, Servais has been encouraged that the hitting conversations he hears with the players includes the verbiage that changed this spring with the addition of bench coach/offensive coordinator Brant Brown.

“That means they understand it and they’re comfortable with it,” Servais said. “I feel better about that, but end of the day, it’s bottom line. We need more consistency offensively. We’ve got to get better.”

A few early success stories illustrate what exactly the Mariners are looking for their hitters to do at the plate. Dylan Moore and Luke Raley have stood out in recent weeks, with the two sitting atop the team leaderboards in most offensive categories in May. In addition to their production, a surprising number for both has been their strikeout percentage. Both have a career strikeout rate above 30%, but Moore’s over his last 23 games is 17.8% and Raley’s is 23.2%. It is a smaller sample size, but is it tied to what the Mariners are asking of their hitters?

“I think they’re doing an excellent job of tunneling pitches,” Servais said. “I often talked about pitchers are trying to get all the pitches (to) look the same on the same tunnel, (and) hitters doing it a little bit differently. I think D-Mo for me has really stood out. He is looking for the ball in here (makes the square sign players often make after hits) in this window closer to him. If the ball is not in this window, he’s not swinging at it. And I think there’s a quality that we’re seeing him take – his walks (and) we’re seeing him pull the ball with authority.”

Servais is describing Moore play to his strengths, which is what he would like to see his entire offense do.

“The overriding theme is stay on the fastball,” Servais said. “We got to get on the fastball. When we do that, we’re at our best. And then trust your eyes to lay off of the offspeed pitches, instead of going up there looking for something you really can’t hit anyway. And they’ll be certain nights where this guy or that guy is 60 to 70% slow ball and throwing curves, sliders, changeups. But he’s still going to throw 35 to 40% fastballs, so get ready to hit. Stay on the fastball and trust your eyes after that.”

In short glimpses this season, a game here or an impact inning there, the Mariners have shown they can do this. Raleigh has seen it and points to what perhaps has been the biggest missing aspect of the team’s offense – consistency.

“We put up numbers. We put up runs. It’s just not consistent enough,” Raleigh said. “You look at teams that have won World Series, teams that have been successful, teams that put together whole games every day, you can’t take days off, especially in this league. Pitchers are too good. We have to be more aggressive and really put the foot down on the gas.”

Ty France, who has pointed out in just about every walkoff interview he has done this season that there is more offense to be had, is also looking for that consistency. In the win Sunday, he saw a glimmer of a step in the right direction.

“It was nice to score a couple of runs not on homers,” France said. “We’ve been able to drive the ball here and there, but when you are able to get guys on base, get traffic out there, put some pressure on the opposing pitcher, it makes the job a little easier.”

A home run other than his own he was happy to see Sunday? The 423-foot blast off the bat of Julio Rodríguez.

“He’s been putting in a lot of work,” France said. “For it to come together, you have got to tip your cap. It’s hard going through these stretches. Personally, I’ve been going through it as well. I get where he is coming from. For him to be the same person every day and come out here and just work? I mean, he’s Julio Rodríguez, it’s bound to flip.”

If it is indeed flipping for Rodríguez, that will be a huge boost for the Mariners when they most need it. While the Mariners return home with a bigger lead in the division than when they left – thanks to the Texas Rangers having an even more miserable slide, losing 12 of their last 15 games to fall to three games behind the Mariners – they’ve got company with the Astros now just 3.5 games out.

As Servais said, there is work to be done on the homestand.

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