SEATTLE — Lloyd McClendon made the proclamation just two weeks into spring training.
“I think we have shutdown pitching,” the first-year Mariners manager said in early March.
Five months later, his prophecy fulfilled, McClendon knows better than even to joke about how right he was.
“I can’t say I knew we’d be this good,” McClendon said, grinning. “This is historical.”
The Mariners don’t just have the best team earned-run average in the majors, a special feat for an American League team facing lineups with a designated hitter most every night. They’re also chasing history. With a 2.97 ERA after Tuesday night’s 6-3 victory over Toronto, Seattle has a chance to become the first team in a quarter century to finish a full season with a sub-3.00 ERA.
If Mariners pitchers continue being so stingy, they’ll be the first AL team to complete a full season with a two-something ERA in 40 years. The Oakland Athletics, who went on to win the World Series, did it in 1974. It should also be noted that the New York Yankees finished with a 2.90 ERA in 1981, but their strike-shortened season ended after 107 games.
This is a period of dominant pitching across baseball, but that only makes it more impressive that the Mariners have managed to stand out. An amazing 23 of 30 Major League Baseball teams have sub-4.00 team ERAs. Just about everybody is pitching well, but the Mariners’ strength is more potent than the common strength. They’re in front of this trend instead of merely following it.
Even though it’s all you talk about, the greatness of this pitching staff doesn’t get enough respect. That’s because the celebration of the pitchers’ successes often comes with a lament about the team’s poor hitting. But this is the deepest staff in the majors. The Mariners are blessed with the best right-hander in the game, Felix Hernandez, who is having his finest season at age 28. They have the consistently excellent Hisashi Iwakuma as their No. 2. But they also have the best bullpen around (AL-best 2.36 ERA) and a host of diverse pitching talent that has kept hitters off balance all season.
“Talk about unique — we’ve got it all,” catcher Mike Zunino said. “We have guys with great curveballs, great cutters, great sliders, guys with plus fastballs. We have the whole spectrum covered. To have that much talent, we can pretty much match up with any lineup.”
As caught up as the Mariners are in the long season and this exciting wild-card race, they’re still able to appreciate how good the pitching has been.
“It’s been amazing to watch,” pitcher James Paxton said.
“It’s unbelievable,” Zunino said.
McClendon saw it coming. Sort of.
“We had depth,” he said. “That’s what I saw early on. Paxton flew under the radar the whole spring. I thought Paxton had shutdown stuff. He’s a left-hander throwing 99. Easy. I mean, come on.
“(Roenis) Elias, he flew under the radar, too. The kid came off a boat. I didn’t think he would be shaken by facing Albert Pujols.”
What’s most remarkable is that the Mariners have been the standard despite some injury adversity. Iwakuma missed the season’s first month. Chris Young, the most incredible comeback story of the year, was a late addition just to fill out the rotation. Paxton was injured early and missed several months. Taijuan Walker, a presumptive starter, injured his shoulder in spring training and has made just three starts.
Hernandez, Iwakuma, Young and Elias have provided great stability, but the Mariners have had a revolving door in the fifth spot. Surprisingly, 10 different pitchers have made at least one start. Nevertheless, the starters have combined for a 3.27 ERA.
This isn’t the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s living off Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. This isn’t the Philadelphia Phillies when they had Roy Halladay, Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt. There has been more struggle, more thought involved, more surprises. And it’s all the more impressive that this hasn’t been some star-aligned, magical journey.
“We missed Kuma,” McClendon said. “We missed Paxton for a couple months. Our fifth starters have given us like two wins out of 23 to 24 starts. It just speaks volumes about the rest of the guys and what they’ve done. That’s why I’m so excited about Paxton, because he’s like a free-agent signing, coming in this late. I look for big things from him. I think he’s going to be special for us down the stretch.”
You’ve wondered all season if the stellar pitching is sustainable, and the Mariners have only gotten better as the year progressed. Since June 21, the team ERA is 2.40, and opponents are hitting just .207. And the bullpen, which McClendon has properly deemed “phenomenal,” is still fresh, having pitched the third-fewest innings in the AL.
From Beimel to Wilhelmsen, this has been one historic pitching staff. The Mariners will destroy the franchise ERA record of 3.54, set in 2001.
Now, if only they can get this all-time group in the playoffs.