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Thoughts on the Mariners’ longest road trip of the season and what lies ahead

by Staff

The Mariners concluded their longest road trip of the season Sunday afternoon, falling to the Braves, 3-2. They finished a nine-game road swing through Detroit, Boston and then Atlanta with a 4-5 record.

Not awful. Not great.

Seattle returns home Monday for the first of four games against Oakland, part of a 10-game homestand against the A’s, the slumping Pirates and the Yankees. This is a chance for the Mariners to cut into that seven-game deficit behind the Rangers in the American League West.

The Mariners are 22-24 and getting over the .500 mark has been a sizeable challenge this season. As for the road trip, here are five things that really stood out to me.

Kirby keeps rolling

Pitcher George Kirby saw his modest three-game winning streak end Sunday against the Braves, though he didn’t exactly pitch poorly against the best team in the National League — and maybe all of baseball.

Kirby allowed three runs on six hits with one walk and six strikeouts in seven innings. His ERA after nine starts this season is 2.62. Kirby was coming off starts against the Rangers on May 9 when he tossed seven scoreless innings and May 15 when he yielded one run in 6 2/3 innings against the Red Sox.

This was Kirby’s eighth consecutive quality start of the season. He has walked one or fewer batters in those eight starts, which is a Mariners record. His 9.40 strikeout-to-walk ratio is the best in the big leagues.

This from a 25-year-old who has only made 34 career starts and is showing no signs of regression from his strong rookie season of a year ago. It looks and feels like he’s getting better every start.

“Awesome outing by George again,” Seattle manager Scott Servais told reporters. “The type of season he’s putting together is pretty remarkable and fun to watch, just watching him grow and get better every time out there.”

At this rate, Kirby will surely be in the conversation to make his first American League All-Star team. That game will be played at T-Mobile Park in Seattle on July 11.

It’s Cabby Time

If you didn’t have infielder José Caballero as a steady performer for the Mariners in May on your bingo card when spring training opened in February, well, you are certainly not alone.

Maybe you should have? After all, Caballero hit .304 in 23 at-bats this spring (not that many noticed). The Mariners were hopeful newcomer Kolten Wong would hit the ground running and they had infielder Dylan Moore as the short side of a platoon at second base.

But then Moore got hurt in spring training and just began a second minor-league rehabilitation assignment. As for Wong, he has, at least for now, lost his starting job after putting up a .177 batting average in his first 109 plate appearances.

Enter Caballero, 26, who has provided a spark with his ability to swing the bat and steal a base. He’s hitting .278 and .353 in 34 at-bats in May after he hit his first home run and stole three bases in the Mariners’ 3-2 loss Sunday to the Braves.

“I was so happy I got that hit,” Caballero told reporters of his first big-league home run. “I was just trying to hit the ball hard and it went over the fence.

Still waiting on Julio

Baseball can be a very fickle game, as Mariners’ center fielder Julio Rodríguez is discovering in his sophomore season in the big leagues. After going hitless in his four at-bats Sunday, Rodríguez is hitting .204 on the season. The reigning AL Rookie of the Year is hitting just .147 in May.

Ten days ago, the Mariners bumped Rodríguez from the leadoff spot. He then had a three-hit game with a home run and four RBIs on the first game of the road trip. But in the final eight games of the trip, he had four hits in 30 at-bats.

Rodríguez continues to struggle hitting the fastball (.202 batting average against), after feasting on heaters (.317) in his rookie season. His hard-hit rate is slightly down and his strikeout rate is up slightly. The general consensus is that Rodríguez will figure things out.

Looking for a good sign? Rodríguez walked three times Saturday and laid off pitches just outside the strike zone.

Speaking of hitting leadoff …

Anyone else notice the offensive job shortstop J.P. Crawford has done this month? Before going hitless Sunday, which ended his on-base streak at 16 games, Crawford was hitting .278 this month with nearly as many walks (nine) as strikeouts.

Crawford, who is hitting .245 this season, spent a lot of the offseason working on his swing at Driveline Baseball, located in the Seattle suburb of Kent. A good deal of the changes Crawford made this winter centered on better leveraging his lower half. His hard-hit rate is up (37 percent from 30 percent) and his walk rate has soared — going from 11 percent to 16 percent.

Crawford was a liability against breaking balls a year ago (hitting .200), but his average against those same pitches this season is 55 percentage points higher. On Saturday night in Atlanta, Crawford reached the 500-hit mark for his career.

The Mariners have said Rodríguez will eventually move back into the leadoff spot. For now, though, the team is content to have Crawford hit at the top of the order.

Officially on Woo watch

OK, so this isn’t really an impression from the Mariners’ nine-game road trip, but I can’t help but wonder when — and certainly not if — we’re going to see right-handed pitcher Bryan Woo, who is lighting up the Texas League.

Woo, who was in the same rotation as Bryce Miller earlier this season in Double-A Arkansas, has a 1.85 ERA in seven starts with the Travelers. Better still, the 23-year-old has 49 strikeouts in 34 innings with just seven walks and 21 hits allowed.

The Mariners were very conservative with Woo’s innings early in the season, but he’s thrown six and seven innings, respectively, in his last two starts. In his last start on May 17, Woo was up to 91 pitches — meaning he’s more than stretched out to work deep into games.

Woo offers a riding fastball at the top of the strike zone (97 mph with an effortless delivery) with a slider/cutter combination that continues to improve. His aptitude, feel to locate his pitches and fastball quality have impressed the organization in a short period of time.

(Photo of George Kirby: Dale Zanine / USA Today)

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