The takeaway quote Saturday night after the Mariners held on for a 4-3 victory over the Chicago White Sox came from designated hitter Nelson Cruz, who contributed a two-run homer to the cause.
"If you want to go to the playoffs," he said, "the bullpen is the key."
Here’s a fact that might surprise you.
Growing evidence suggests that — right now — the Mariners have the best bullpen in the majors. The overall numbers don’t reflect that. Their bullpen’s season-long ERA is 4.13, which ranks in the middle of the pack.
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But the Mariners’ relief corps has a 2.67 ERA over 47 games since May 21, which is easily the best in the majors in that span. This isn’t a weeklong sample size or even a month.
The Mariners’ bullpen has been the best in baseball for nearly two months.
Steve Cishek, Tony Zych, Nick Vincent and Edwin Diaz nursed a one-run lead over the final four innings Saturday — after Zych, Vincent and Diaz retired nine straight batters Friday while closing out a 4-2 victory over the White Sox.
"Steve Cishek is healthy," manager Scott Servais said. "You can see it. He’s thrown the ball real well his last eight, 10 times out. You can see the life coming back to his fastball.
"Tony has been really consistent the last couple of weeks he’s been out there. Vincent has been solid all year."
Diaz gets constant scrutiny as the closer and, after some early struggles, has flashed dominant form: a 2.02 ERA over his last 21 appearances, which roughly correlates to the unit’s overall improvement.
It goes deeper than that.
Many of the bullpen’s rocky moments earlier this season came from long relievers taking a beating in lost-cause situations.
But look at the unit’s six-man core, i.e, adding lefties Marc Rzepczynski and James Pazos to Cishek, Zych, Vincent and Diaz: That group has a season-long combined ERA of 2.79.
If Cruz is right that the bullpen is the key to reaching postseason, the Mariners seem to have potential for a second-half surge.
Three takeaways from Saturday’s victory:
***The King survives: Felix Hernandez readily acknowledged he was a mess Saturday over five innings before the bullpen closed out the victory. He not only gave up three runs and six hits but labored through 93 pitches.
"I couldn’t find my rhythm," he said. "I battled my mechanics. I was all over the place."
That said, Hernandez limited the damage to a single run in three different innings by getting key outs when he needed to do so. That permitted him to hand a lead to the bullpen.
***Haniger’s finger injury: It’s a sign of Mitch Haniger’s ongoing slump that he even attempted a bunt in the fifth inning with a runner at second base and no outs. Normally, that’s an RBI situation, and he swings away.
But Haniger is batting .206 in 28 games since returning from a six-week absence for a straight right oblique muscle.
Because he tried to bunt, Haniger is now likely to miss a few days because of an injured index finger in his throwing hand. The pitch ran in on him and struck his finger.
The likely result is more playing time for Guillermo Heredia.
***Costly lapses: The Mariners won a game Saturday they probably should have lost.
They opened the night with yet another baserunning mistake when Jean Segura was thrown out in trying to stretch a single into a double. Hernandez and Cishek committed errors on routine throws to first base.
That’s in addition to going-to-happen physical mistakes such as Segura boxing a grounder for an error, and catcher Chooch Ruiz getting charged with another passed ball.
The Mariners won because the White Sox didn’t take advantage.
The Segura baserunning mistake was particularly galling because the Mariners are drawing increased criticism for running into outs on the bases.
"We’ve talked about it a lot," Servais said. "You still have to do it and react in game situations. Mistakes happen. We’ll keep talking about them. We’ll keep hammering it. We will get better on the bases, guaranteed."
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners