Seattle Mariners

Bullpen crumbles again, Mariners waste impressive outing by Milone in opener against Royals

The pendulum swings back the other way.

For nearly two weeks, the Seattle Mariners have alternated wins and losses. They capped a winning road trip with a victory Sunday afternoon in Oakland, only to fly back to Seattle and drop their series opener against Kansas City on Monday night.

For the 15th time this season the bullpen was responsible for a late meltdown, with Anthony Bass, who recorded the loss, allowing a two-out single to Alex Gordon in the eighth, and then the two-run, go-ahead homer to Jorge Soler moments later.

Martin Maldonado added an insurance solo home run for the Royals in the ninth off of Gerson Bautista.

The Mariners created some traffic in their final two chances, but couldn’t scratch across another run as Kansas City held on for a 6-4 win at T-Mobile Park. The win snapped a nine-game winning streak Seattle had against the Royals, including a four-game sweep earlier this season.

“I thought Anthony Bass was throwing the ball great, just the one slider that he left up to Soler, he got on it,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “Soler is having a big year, especially with the home run ball.

“We had a lot of chances to put more runs up than the four we got tonight. We had a lot of traffic out there, (but couldn’t get) that big hit to get us back in the ball game in the eighth and ninth.”

For nearly three innings, backup catcher Tom Murphy’s 430-foot blast to center seemed like enough to lift the Mariners to a second consecutive win for the first time since May 13-14, when they swept Oakland in a two-game series. J.P. Crawford and Daniel Vogelbach each walked ahead of Murphy’s three-run, go-ahead shot in the fifth, which gave the Mariners a 4-2 lead. It was his eighth homer of the season, and sixth during his past eight appearances.

“It was a big situation obviously,” Murphy said. “(Danny Duffy had) thrown me a lot of sliders in my previous at-bats. I went up there with a plan and executed it. I think when you are very specific in what you’re looking for, you can get to the zone where you know exactly what you need to do.”

Murphy’s crack dug the Mariners out of an early two-run hole, created again by the club’s strategy to break up its four left-handed starters by deploying an opener every few days.

Making his first start in the majors, Tayler Scott allowed a pair of singles and a walk, and recorded just two outs in the first before he was pulled. But, the Royals cashed in for a pair of runs before the inning was over. Whit Merrifield opened the game with a single before Scott recorded a quick two outs. Merrifield scored on a Cheslor Cuthbert single, at which point Tommy Milone took over for Scott.

A second run was charged to Scott when Soler, who walked, scored on a Jorge Bonifacio single off Milone, giving Kansas City a quick 2-0 edge. Milone finally ended the lengthy inning with his first of six punchouts.

Scott’s start marked the sixth time this season — and this month — Seattle has used the opener approach, and the results are mixed. Scott is the fourth opener to give up multiple runs in the six tries, pushing the collective opener ERA to 18.56. Twice the opener has been tagged with the loss, and the Mariners have a losing 2-4 record in games they’ve used this strategy.

Servais said, ideally, the Mariners would like to find a consistent opener, but the club has yet to discover who that could be.

“The way our rotation is set up, it’s not back-to-back days,” Servais said. “It’s set up for finding that guy who can go out and throw a zero up there. It’s been a challenge so far.

“I still believe in the opener. You’re trying to win the game. You’re trying to manage the game. I know it’s a little different for most fans and most people to grab hold of it, but seven innings, three runs, we’ll take that every night out there. We were in a great spot to win it, we just didn’t get it done.”

Milone has entered the game in the middle of an inning each of the three times an opener has been used ahead of him, but has consistently responded well. After allowing the RBI single to Bonifacio in the first, the Royals added just two more hits and a single run against him during the next six frames.

His one earned run allowed, which came on a Martin Maldonado sacrifice fly in the seventh, matched a season-low set two weeks ago. Bonifacio led off the inning with a double, ending a streak of 11 consecutive batters retired by Milone. He sat the Royals down in order in four of the innings he pitched.

“I think I’m just kind of rolling with it,” Milone said. “I guess once you get on a little roll like this, the confidence goes up. I’ve been able to throw quality strikes. I think that’s the biggest thing is staying away from the middle of the plate. That’s what I’ve been able to do consistently.”

As shaky as the openers have been, the followers have been impressive. Mariners starters struggled in the first inning at points early this season, and this approach was also drawn up to help alleviate early runs, and keep starters from having to face the top of the opponent’s lineup to open each game.

Milone’s efficient outing is the latest success story in that respect, joining several others. In five of the six times the Mariners have used the opener tactic, the follower has allowed three earned runs or less, and the group has a collective ERA of 3.67. Their strikeout-walk ratio is 24-3, and they’ve allowed less than five hits on average.

The bullpen, though, continues to struggle on a consistent basis. The 15 games Mariners relievers have lost this season are among the highest in the majors, as is their collective 5.42 ERA.

“We just didn’t finish it off tonight,” Servais said. “Executing pitches has been an issue with our relievers. They’re getting ahead in the count, but you’ve got to finish them, you’ve got to put them away, and we just haven’t been able to do that. ... Games come down to a pitch or executing late in the game like that, and we didn’t do it tonight.”

Lauren Smith covers the Seattle Mariners for The News Tribune. She previously covered high school sports at TNT and The Olympian, beginning in 2015. She is a graduate of the University of Washington and Emerald Ridge High School.