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Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Rotation keeps Mariners in AL West race

By Steve Berthiaume

Michael Pineda
Michael Pineda is 6-2 with a 2.16 ERA and 61 strikeouts in 58.1 innings.
In this, the Year of the Pitcher Part 2, can a team win with essentially nothing but pitching? The answer is: almost. The Seattle Mariners, last in the American League in batting average, home runs, hits and slugging percentage, are 1.5 games out of the division lead. And while a 23-25 record does not technically make the Mariners winners, it does point out that Seattle's pitching staff, with offensive support that is exactly that -- offensive -- has done a remarkable job keeping the Mariners in AL West contention.

Seattle's rotation is second in the American League with a 3.20 ERA, third in opponents' batting average at .240 and second in on-base percentage allowed at .295. The Mariners, who have scored five or more runs only four times this month, have won seven of their last nine games. Seattle is one of just four teams in the majors to have only five pitchers make a start this season and all five currently have ERAs below 4.00. The Mariners' rotation just threw nine straight starts in which the starting pitcher went at least seven innings while allowing two or fewer earned runs. According to Elias, that's the longest such streak in franchise history and the first AL team to do so since the 1983 Rangers.

Any discussion of Seattle pitching begins with reigning AL Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez, who Sunday at San Diego became just the fourth pitcher in Mariners history to strike out at least 13 batters without issuing a walk and the first since Randy Johnson in 1997. Surprisingly, King Felix's fastball is getting hit this season. Last year, opponents hit just .238 versus the Hernandez fastball. This year, that number has shot up to .301, with right-handed hitters actually pounding his fastball at a .346 clip.

Hernandez has slightly decreased his fastball frequency, throwing it 56 percent of the time, down from 63.5 percent last year. This season, he's mixing in more sliders and changeups and it's working, especially the changeup. King Felix's 36 strikeouts with changeups is second in the majors only to James Shields' 37. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Hernandez threw 22 changeups in Sunday's 6-1 win over the Padres, 17 of them with two strikes, the most he's thrown in any start in the past three seasons. His 10 outs recorded with changeups were a career best, all coming with two strikes -- including nine strikeouts. That's a put-away pitch. Those nine strikeouts on changeups set a new career best and tied the most by any starter in the last three seasons.

Michael Pineda is a big rookie sensation ... literally. At 6-foot-7, 260 pounds, Pineda is winning with a simple but intimidating approach: He throws the ball harder for strikes than any starter in the majors. Pineda's average fastball velocity this season is 95.4 mph. Justin Verlander, whose average fastball velocity is 95.0 mph, is the only other starting pitcher even in the top 20. Pineda's fastball has been clocked as high as 99.8 and he throws it early in the count, leading all major league starters with a 71.3 first-pitch strike percentage. If Pineda falls behind in the count after the first pitch, he rarely repeats that mistake with his next pitch. Pineda has faced 229 batters this season and gone to a 2-0 count just 15 times, the fewest of any starter in the majors.

Jason Vargas has changed his pitch frequency this season and it's beginning to pay dividends. Vargas, who threw his fastball 61 percent of the time in 2010, has thrown just 45.1 percent fastballs this year, while doubling his slider frequency from 9.4 percent to 20.2 percent. Hitters are actually chasing Vargas' slider less often but he's throwing it more for strikes: 67 percent of the time compared to 59 percent last season. Mixed with slightly more curveballs and changeups, Vargas' repertoire has made him a more effective pitcher this month, after a difficult start to the season.

April: 6 GS, 1-2, 5.45 ERA, .281 average
May: 4 GS, 2-0, 1.91 ERA, .233 average

No pitcher personifies the frustration created by Seattle's anemic offense more than Doug Fister, who has certainly pitched better than his 2-5 record indicates. Fister has a 3.18 ERA and has allowed two earned runs or fewer in seven of his 10 starts -- but has received two or fewer runs of support in eight of those 10 starts. Fister, who last week pitched a combined 16 innings against the Indians and Angels and allowed only three runs on 10 hits, is the only pitcher in the majors with consecutive winless starts of at least eight innings and two or fewer runs. Fister began Tuesday night's 4-2 loss at Minnesota with the AL second-lowest run support at 2.47 runs per game and wound up balking home the go-ahead run on a controversial umpire's call in the seventh inning. Fister's career 1.9 walks per nine innings is the lowest in Mariners history. He's deserved better.

Wednesday's starter is Erik Bedard, who didn't pitch in the big leagues last season after left shoulder surgery. Bedard's average fastball velocity is essentially the same; from 91.3 mph in 2009 to 90.5 mph this season. He's throwing it for strikes just as frequently and opponents are hitting it at virtually the same rate: .190 in 2009 compared to .194 this season. He throws his curveball just as often but one difference with Bedard, as with Hernandez, has been a more frequent changeup: 9.7 percent this season compared to just 1.4 percent in 2009. Bedard, who started this season 0-4, has gone 2-0 in his past four starts with a 1.33 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 27 innings. Opponents have hit just .165 against him during that span.

The Mariners have never had more than four starters finish a season with an ERA below 4.00 (minimum 15 starts). With five starters under 4.00 heading into Wednesday's game at Minnesota, Seattle has reason for optimism, remarkable for a team that lost 101 games last season and trails the AL field in so many offensive categories. However, after a day off Thursday, the Mariners are back home to open a 10-game homestand with visits from the Yankees, Orioles and Rays, beginning with starts by Pineda and Hernandez. In this, the Year of the Pitcher 2, that might be enough to keep Seattle in the AL West discussion.

(For more on the Mariners, check out SweetSpot blog affiliate, Pro Ball NW.)

Follow Steve Berthiaume on Twitter: @SBerthiaumeESPN.