(1090 The Fan) — The Seattle Mariners continue their seven-game homestand Monday with King Felix on the hill to face the Tampa Bay Rays.

Seattle is coming off a four-game split against the Kansas City Royals — a series that should have been won had it not been for incredibly sloppy defense on Sunday in which the Mariners committed five errors. Five runs came under starter Roenis Elias’ watch, however, only three were earned.

Tampa Bay is off to a rough start; the Rays are in last place at 16-22 having won only four of their last 13 games. Tampa Bay’s pitching staff has an overall ERA of 4.29 and is allowing opponents to hit for a .256 average.

Pitching Matchups

Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan

Monday: Felix Hernandez, RHP – 3-1, 2.73 ERA, .225 BAA, 53 SO, 12 BB vs. Cesar Ramos, LHP – 1-1, 2.96 ERA, .186 BAA, 19 SO, 16 BB
Hernandez hasn’t been himself in four straight outings, failing to record a strikeout in his last start. His velocity is right where he’s been the past few years, but he hasn’t had the good changeup in some time, forcing him to throw more breaking balls. As a result, left-handed batters have given him problems – up to .254/.299/.364 on the year – and he’s lacked his typical fastball command to better set up the slider and curveball.

Felix Hernandez (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Felix Hernandez (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

In studying Hernandez’s last four starts, I did notice he’s dropping his arm slot on about a third of his pitches. It’s a freeze-frame, microscopic difference, but it would explain the lack of plane, sink and horizontal movement on the two-seamer, Hernandez’s most important pitch.

The Rays do not possess the load of lefty bats the A’s do, but David DeJesus enters Monday 10-for-31 with a homer and three doubles off Hernandez, and Evan Longoria, a right-handed batter, is 6-for-19 lifetime versus the M’s ace, though he’s fanned on nine occasions, all but one on breaking balls.

Ramos is a sinker-slider-changeup southpaw who will show the occasional 1-7 curveball at 67-70 mph. The four-seamer, thrown just six percent of the time, sits 91-94, but he’s 47 percent sinker, an 89-90 mph offering that amazingly doesn’t do what most sinkers do, which is induce ground balls. Ramos generates just 38 percent ground ball rates in 2014, and it appears he’s playing with BABIP fire.

His ERA is under three but his FIP is nearly five and he’s issuing nearly as many walks as strikeouts. He’s not overpowering, but when he lands near the bottom of the zone with the sinker early in counts, his slider becomes a real weapon versus both lefties and righties. The changeup is average overall but at times it shows above-average, mostly due to its fade away from right-handed batters, rather than sink or velocity differential.

The 29-year-old has not faced the Mariners much, but Robinson Cano is 3-for-6 with a double off him, and there is no discernable split of which to speak, suggesting Lloyd McClendon should NOT go with his right-handed heavy lineup. Instead, the regulars should go, though Stefen Romero starting in right field over Michael Saunders makes sense in this one, since Saunders isn’t quite 100 percent with a minor leg injury.

Tuesday: Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP – 2-0, 2.45 ERA, .200 BAA, 10 SO, 1 BB vs. David Price, LHP – 3-3, 4.53 ERA, .284 BAA, 58 SO, 6 BB
Iwakuma is coming off a dominant outing versus the Kansas City Royals where his slider was outstanding and his command was back to 2013 form. He should be able to go over the 100-pitch mark for the first time after getting to 93 in his last start.

Right-handed batters are 2-for-21 off Iwakuma thus far in 2014, but the Rays boast good balance with James Loney, Matt Joyce, DeJesus and Ben Zobrist available, along with Longoria and Desmond Jennings. Zobrist is 4-for-6 career off Iwakuma, but Jennings, who is off to a terrific start in 2014, is 0-for-5 with three punchouts.

Hisashi Iwakuma (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Hisashi Iwakuma (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Look for Iwakuma to use the sinker more early in counts to get ahead, but he’s awfully good with the four-seamer up in the zone despite topping out at 92 mph most days.

Price has had a strange season. He’s pounded the strike zone – just six walks and 58 strikeouts in 53 23 innings – but opponents are batting .284 off him. Some of that is bad luck, with a .344 BABIP and 15.8 percent HR/FB entering Tuesday, but Price hasn’t had his good curveball as much as he’d like to, and he’s had to compensate a bit with more fastballs and changeups.

He’s still throwing hard – he ranks No. 1 in the American League in velocity for left-handed starters at 92.3 mph – but not as hard as he was a year ago – 93.4 – and nowhere near where he was in 2012 when he won the league’s Cy Young award. Then, Prices fastball averaged 95.5 mph, so he’s three full ticks down from that, enough to force him to pitch differently.

If he has to pinpoint more often for ace-level success, it’s natural that he’d use the offspeed stuff more, but that also means he’ll need to have the better versions of those offerings more often, something Hernandez learned to do back in 2010.
Price has faced Cano a lot in their careers, holding the M’s star to 15 hits in 57 at-bats, including just one home run. John Buck is 4-for-11 with a home run off Price, suggesting he may get the nod in this one.

Wednesday: Brandon Maurer, RHP – 1-1, 6.20 ERA, .341 BAA, 10 SO, 5 BB vs. Jake Odorizzi, RHP – 1-3, 5.79 ERA, .311 BAA, 37 SO, 16 BB
Maurer has struggled in each of his last three starts, though he managed to pitch into the eighth inning against the Royals over the weekend, despite failing to strike out a single batter. Maurer did not walk a batter in that one and kept the ball down – and in the ballpark.
The Royals singled him into submission, many of which were softly hit and simply found holes. He threw 71 of his 97 pitches for strikes and recorded 15 ground ball outs, suggesting in many ways this was his best outing, yet.

When he’s right, however, he’s sitting, 90-92 mph with his two-seamer and up to 97 with the four-seamer when he wants to reach back and pitch up in the zone. His slider hasn’t been as sharp all year – it’s more like a cutter at this stage, but he’s flashing the curveball and throwing more than twice as many changeups than he did a year ago in the majors, and hitting the strike zone with it.

Brandon Maurer  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Brandon Maurer (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

I don’t love Maurer’s delivery -– I’d like to see a little bit of front shoulder tilt and for him to stay a little bit taller. Both could help him finish out front better and get more torque on the slider; at times in the minors and last year in his big-league stints, the slider was a plus pitch, inducing swings and misses.
Maurer has not faced the Rays as a starter, but despite more changeups being used this season, left-handed batters are 14-for-34 off him with two home runs.
Odorizzi is having some of the same issue as Maurer – he’s giving up a lot of hits, and the slider is flatter and not much more than a show-me pitch right now. Odorizzi’s changeup has never been a great weapon for him, but his slow curveball lack bite, putting a lot of pressure on him to work the corners, stay down and avoid recognizable fastball counts.

In the minors, Odorizzi’s best secondary pitch was his slurve-like slider, and he showed better sink and run on the fastball. When that doesn’t occur, he loses command and the pitch straightens out and becomes batting practice. The long ball has been a bit of an issue for him early –- four in 32 2/3 innings – but his pace and rhythm help him throw strikes and avoid the walk and are often the tell for him the first time through a lineup.

Sandmeyer Says
Sort of a good news/bad news proposition over the weekend with a four game split against the Royals. The knee injury to Michael Saunders depletes a pretty thin outfield to begin with. Everyone is ga-ga over James Jones, but it’s important to temper expectations for him considering he is still a fringe Triple-A hitter at best. Good speed and decent range in the field — sure — but he’s still a project with the bat.

The Rays series provides an advantage in the pitching matchups. Felix tonight. Advantage Mariners. Kuma tomorrow against what has so far been an inconsistent David Price. Slight advantage, Mariners. Then, two youngsters in Maurer and Odorizzi on Wednesday, who have yet to find their way. Wash. All in all, I like the Mariners set up heading into this series.

Felix has been un-Felix like his last handful of starts. But I believe in body language and take him for his word when he said he felt fine and laughed off is zero strikeout performance during his last start. We’ve seen this before out of him, a little bump in the month of May. It’s probably coincidental more than anything, but it still doesn’t change the fact we’ve seen this before out of him. Here are the last four years, including his Cy Young season, during the month of May:

2013: 3-2, 2.88 ERA
2012: 2-3, 4.45 ERA
2011: 2-2 3.07 ERA
2010: 0-3, 4.79 ERA (Cy Young season)

Pedestrian at best — but something he has pulled himself out every single time.

Expect a few more runs this series — like we saw at the end of the Kansas City series — as the weather warms up this week with forecast temperatures in the 70’s and 80’s.

Hydration is key. Make sure you stock your fridge or cooler with plenty of cold beverages. I’m going to do my part. You should too.

Key Notes

Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan

Mariners left fielder Dustin Ackley hit two home runs Sunday and now has four on the year in 114 plate appearances, the same total he posted a year ago in 427 trips to the batter’s box. Entering the Rays series, Ackley is batting .264/.331/.434 for the year. The AL average for left fielders: .256/.320/.403 … The M’s pitching staff leads the circuit with a .191 batting average against with runners in scoring position … That same staff allows the leadoff hitter in opponents’ lineups to get on base at a .339 clip, fifth worst in the AL … Michael Saunders’ up-and-downs have begun, after sitting a lot the first 20 games he went on a tear for a week and a half. He’s hitless in his last 12 at-bats. He has, however, limited the strikeouts (18.9 percent this season versus 25.2 percent in 2013) and his walk rate has risen since he started playing more regularly … Fernando Rodney may be an Experience, but he’s yet to allow a home run this season and walked just two of the last 36 batters he’s faced. During that same span, he’s yielded one earned run and six hits and has converted six save chances without a single fail … Charlie Furbush is not the answer for the Mariners right now, no matter what the question is, unless it’s about allowing baserunners. Opponents are batting .341/.400/.455 off Furbush, and lefties are raking at a .350/.381/.400 clip in the small-but-worrisome sample … Joe Beimel has been nails, however, holding lefties to a .222 average and .278 slugging percentage.

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