Needing just five outs to secure a victory over the Houston Astros in Game 1 of their AL Division Series, the Seattle Mariners failed to close the deal.

Seattle’s blown opportunity culminated with a walk-off home run by Houston’s Yordan Alvarez off Robbie Ray with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning. It was a gut-wrenching loss for Mariners fans.

Wait a minute, Robbie Ray?

The same Robbie Ray scorched by Houston hitters in three regular season starts?

The same Robbie Ray with a 5.27 ERA in his final five outings of the regular season?

The same Robbie Ray knocked out of his AL Wild Card Series start without registering an out in the fourth inning?

Yes, that Robbie Ray.

The knee-jerk reaction of some fans to the seemingly awful decision of using Ray at such a crucial moment has been to vilify Mariners manager Scott Servais. Others even suggested Servais mishandled his bullpen because the pressure of the postseason got to him.

How quickly they forget.

Servais has skillfully guided the Mariners to consecutive 90-win regular seasons. And hey, remember Game 2 of the AL Wild Card Series? Seattle’s skipper played a central role in guiding the team’s improbable comeback win after falling behind seven runs in the fifth inning.

No, the problem wasn’t Servais making the call to bring Ray into game – at least it isn’t for me. Instead, the Mariners reaching the point of needing Ray to get that final out is the issue we should be confronting.

This point became obvious to me after considering the nine potential relief options on Seattle’s ALDS roster not named Robbie Ray. Let’s discuss each of them beginning with the four relievers Servais utilized yesterday in the order they entered the game.

Matt Brash followed starter Logan Gilbert getting the final two outs of the sixth inning with just 12 pitches. Considering how economical he was, perhaps Brash could’ve been asked to begin the seventh inning. Then again, the 24-year-old threw a pair of wild pitches allowing an inherited runner to reach move third base.

Mariners ahead 7-3

Oft-maligned Diego Castillo pitched a strong seventh inning. Castillo allowed one hit on weak contact before getting the final three outs on a pair of poorly-struck balls.

Mariners ahead 7-3

In the eighth inning, Andrés Muñoz allowed three hits, including a two-run home run to Alex Bregman. Ultimately, Muñoz’s inability to work an economical inning permitted six Astros to hit, which led to Houston’s most potent hitters having a chance to tie or win the game in the ninth inning.

Mariners ahead 7-5

Taking over in the ninth inning was Paul Sewald, who allowed four runs during Game 2 of the Wild Card Series. Once again, the right-hander struggled to deliver a clean inning. So much so, Servais believed Ray was a better option to get the final hitter than Sewald. We know what happened next.

Astros win 8-7

Now, let’s focus on the five unused relievers theoretically available to contribute yesterday. When we do so, it becomes clear Servais’ options were limited.

The first was George Kirby, who saved the Game 2 win over Toronto. He wasn’t an option. Servais announced today Kirby will start Game 3 in Seattle.

Considering his performance against Toronto last Saturday, Mariners leadership may have preferred not using Matthew Festa in high-leverage situations or at all yesterday. Festa faced the minimum in the sixth inning before allowing a single and a ground out the next frame before being replaced by Penn Murfee. On the surface, Festa’s outing doesn’t seem so bad. But the numbers suggest he may have dodged a bullet.

All five batted balls Festa allowed were extremely well-struck falling into the “hard hit” category with an exit velocity of 95 mph or greater. This is consistent with a trend originating in September.

Exit Velocities Off Festa In WC Round
103.6 mph – Force out
106 mph – Single
106.9 mph- Groundout
97.5 mph – Flyout
105.7 mph – Groundout

As for Murfee, he didn’t exactly have his best outing either. The base runner he inherited from Festa promptly stole second base. Then, the rookie surrendered consecutive singles allowing Toronto to score its ninth run. At the time, this appeared to be nail in Seattle’s coffin. We know now it wasn’t.

Okay, it’s understandable why there may have been reluctance to use Festa or Murfee in yesterday’s game. But two relievers on the postseason roster for both series have yet to appear in a game.

When he last appeared in a game on October, Matthew Boyd tossed three scoreless innings striking out five and walking on. Perhaps the Mariners view Boyd as a better choice for multi-inning relief since he doesn’t throw with high-octane velocity. Besides, if the Astros had tied the game rather than win it, someone reliable had to pitch in extra innings.

Having said that, the other reliever remaining idle is perplexing to me.

Erik Swanson, an outstanding late-inning option all season, last pitched on October 5. In his final two outings of the regular season, Swanson pitched three scoreless innings striking out four. Couldn’t the Mariners find an opportunity to use him yesterday?

It occurred to me that Swanson may have encountered a physical issue while warming up in the bullpen during Saturday’s game. But today, Servais insisted the 29-year-old was available yesterday. But the right situation to use Swanson never presented itself.

Realistically, not plugging in Swanson somewhere in yesterday’s game indirectly led to Ray staring down Alvarez with the game on the line. Let’s say he pitched the seventh inning. This would’ve provided Servais with the option of having Castillo attempt to get the 27th out yesterday or use the veteran reliever in the ninth inning rather than the scuffling Sewald.

Looking beyond the usage of specific relievers, there’s another factor we should consider – fatigue. The recent struggles of Muñoz, Sewald, Murfee, and Festa suggest some Mariner relievers are feeling the strain of an arduous regular season more than others. That’s why a bullpen shuffle before the ALDS seemed inevitable to me, but it didn’t happen.

In a bit of a surprise, neither Chris Flexen nor Marco Gonzales were added to the ALDS roster after being inactive during the Wild Card round. Both were rested and had enjoyed some regular season success against the Astros. It seemed logical adding at least one of these pitchers would’ve provided a measure of help to the bullpen. Instead, management chose to stand pat.

As much as some fans want to make Ray and Sewald scapegoats for yesterday’s defeat, the duo’s failure was actually an indicator of greater problem – an increasingly weary cadre of relievers struggling to close out games. Realistically, it’s an issue the Mariners must find a way to mitigate immediately.

Otherwise, Seattle’s postseason run is going to be short-lived.

My Oh My…

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up as a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. In 2014, Luke joined the Prospect Insider team. During baseball season, he can often be found observing the local team at T-Mobile Park. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins