SweetSpot: Brandon Maurer

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In Game 1 of the Seattle Mariners-Boston Red Sox series at Fenway Park on Friday, Felix Hernandez allowed three runs in 5.2 innings -- the first time he'd allowed three runs in 18 starts.

In Game 2, Chris Young pitched just 3.2 innings.

In Game 3, Hisashi Iwakuma lasted just 2.1 innings, the shortest outing of his Mariners career.

What arguably has been the league's best trio of starting pitchers had a terrible weekend ... and yet the Mariners swept the Red Sox at Fenway for the first time in franchise history in a series of three games or longer.

Yes, you can credit the reeling Red Sox, now losers of eight straight, for helping out. You can credit the much-maligned Mariners offense that had a dramatic five-run ninth inning on Friday, a seven-run inning on Saturday and 13 hits on Sunday.

Mostly, you can credit the best bullpen in the league. Mariners relievers pitched 15.1 innings in the three games and allowed one run while punching out 21 Red Sox hitters as the Mariners rallied from deficits in all three games. Seattle's bullpen now owns a major league-best 2.38 ERA, which would be the lowest since the 1990 A's had a 2.35 mark. The average major league bullpen has allowed 3.86 runs per nine innings; the Mariners have allowed 2.63. Other bullpens may have better win-loss records -- Seattle's is 19-18, but you have to factor in the Mariners' lack of offensive punch -- but the pen has been a major reason the Mariners currently hold a tenuous grip on the second wild card over the Tigers.

A few keys to the pen's success: good health; expert handling by manager Lloyd McClendon and pitching coach Rick Waits; and a group that currently runs eight deep, most of whom can crank it up into the mid-90s -- the Mariners' average fastball velocity from their relievers is fourth highest in the majors. Leading the way there is converted starter Brandon Maurer, who bombed out of the rotation early in the year, but has averaged 96.1 mph with his fastball as a reliever while posting a 1.80 ERA.

I'm not a fan of having eight relievers on your roster, but these days, when complete games are few and far between (the Mariners have just one, from Roenis Elias), that depth has allowed McClendon to do some unusual things with his relievers. For starters, he's not afraid of a quick hook with his starters. Mariners starters have gone five or fewer innings in 40 games, the ninth-lowest figure in the majors -- even though Mariners starters have the third-best ERA in the majors. (The Braves have the fewest "quick hooks" with 22.) Obviously, Felix and Iwakuma usually go deep into the game, but knowing his offense doesn't score many runs, McClendon has been careful about not letting the game get away early when the other three starters are out there.

Despite the quick hooks -- which means using multiple relievers in the same game -- McClendon hasn't abused his relievers. According to Baseball-Reference.com, entering Sunday the Mariners had used the same reliever in back-to-back games just 64 times; only the Rangers, Blue Jays and Nationals had done so fewer times. And because he's rarely using his relievers in consecutive games, McClendon often lets his guys go more than one inning. Tom Wilhelmsen has 21 outings of more than one inning, fifth most among relievers, and has compiled a 2.03 ERA in those games, totaling 44.1 innings. Rookie Dominic Leone, who escaped a one-out, bases-loaded jam in the third inning on Sunday with an infield pop-out and strikeout, has 19 such appearances totaling 34.2 innings with an ERA under 2.00. With his philosophy of not using guys on back-to-back days, McClendon hasn't settled on just one eighth-inning guy, with Yoervis Medina and Danny Farquhar primarily sharing those duties.

McClendon has been conventional in his use of closer Fernando Rodney -- just two outings of more than one inning -- and lefties Charlie Furbush and Joe Beimel as LOOGYs, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Rodney gets the glory with the saves and the arrows, but maybe that's a good thing since he gets to enter without runners on base; he's only fifth among the current Mariners relievers in OPS allowed (and just barely ahead of Farquhar).

Counting blown saves from the middle relievers, the Mariners have just 10 -- tied with the Royals for second fewest in the majors behind the Padres -- an impressive figure considering how many close games the Mariners play.

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Which playoff contender has the best bullpen?

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Discuss (Total votes: 7,110)

The Mariners are one game up on Detroit and you can point directly to the two bullpens as a reason why. Here are four other dominant bullpens that have helped contenders get where they are:

2. Kansas City Royals

The Royals don't have the Mariners' depth with a 3.40 ERA, but they do have the best late-inning trio in the majors in Kelvin Herrera (1.51 ERA), Wade Davis (0.80 ERA) and Greg Holland (1.79 ERA). Jason Frasor was acquired to add a strong fourth guy. The Royals haven't needed the depth -- their bullpen has pitched the second-fewest innings in the majors -- but it will be interesting to see if manager Ned Yost tries to get more out of this group down the stretch as the Royals battle the Tigers for the division crown.

3. Atlanta Braves

No surprise that the Braves would rank high with closer Craig Kimbrel once again crushing in the ninth inning. Like the Mariners, they don't usually have any margin for error considering their lack of runs. Manager Fredi Gonzalez has had to mix and match more than McClendon as David Carpenter and Luis Avilan haven't repeated their outstanding 2013 campaigns, but Jordan Walden and Anthony Varvaro have been solid in supporting roles and James Russell recently came over from the Cubs to give the Braves a lefty presence.

4. Los Angeles Angels

For the season, the Angels are just 14th in the majors with a 3.45 bullpen ERA (before their Sunday night game), but the bullpen you see now isn't the one that was there in April. General manager Jerry Dipoto has rebuilt much of the pen, with the likes of Huston Street and Jason Grilli joining rubber-armed Joe Smith, and since June 1 it has a 2.85 ERA and since July 1 a 2.32 ERA.

5. Baltimore Orioles

You can consider the A's here, except closer Sean Doolittle just went on the DL, or the Yankees, who have a strong back-end duo with Dellin Betances and David Robertson, but I'd go with the Orioles. Buck Showalter's pen didn't have a set closer back in April, but Zach Britton has run with the role (2.04 ERA, 27 saves in 30 chances) and the pen has picked up momentum as the season has progressed. It's no coincidence that the O's began pulling away in the AL East as the bullpen started dominating -- it has the fourth-best bullpen ERA in the majors since June 1.



Quick thoughts on Tuesday's games …

  • Ahh, just a few short days ago the New York Yankees were 1-4 and the butt of jokes across baseball land. Now they've won three in a row after beating the Cleveland Indians 14-1. Andy Pettitte allowed just an Asdrubal Cabrera home run in his seven innings. He's 40 and looks as good as ever. Remember when Robinson Cano was hitting .130? This is why you should never look at first-week statistics unless you're Chris Davis' agent. In his past two games, Cano has seven hits, including three doubles and three home runs, and is now hitting .303. For the Indians, the rotation shuffle might already be starting. Carlos Carrasco made his first start since Tommy John surgery in 2011, wasn't effective and got ejected after hitting Kevin Youkilis. Brett Myers, Cleveland's scheduled starter for Wednesday, pitched the final 5.1 innings Tuesday, so Terry Francona will need to find a different starter, which maybe isn't the worst thing since Myers has already allowed seven home runs.
  • [+] EnlargeTim Lincecum
    AP Photo/Jeff ChiuTim Lincecum had another bumpy outing, but the Giants comeback got him off the hook.
    Tim Lincecum had another shaky outing. After walking seven in his first start, he walked four in this one but did manage to scuffle through six innings. Through four innings he had thrown 71 pitches -- 37 strikes, 34 balls -- and had twice walked opposing pitcher Juan Nicasio. He was, as the ball/strike ratio indicates, all over the place. He was a little better his final two innings -- 33 pitches, 24 strikes -- but he certainly didn't placate any concerns. It ended up being a tough loss for the Colorado Rockies, off to a nice start, as the San Francisco Giants rallied from a four-run deficit.
  • Caught a little bit of Nick Tepesch's debut for the Texas Rangers, a 6-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays. He pitched into the eighth inning, allowing four hits, walking three and striking five, flashing a low-90s fastball, slider and a curveball that worked on this night (the Rays went 1-for-8 with four Ks in plate appearances ending with the curve). Tepesch was the surprise winner of the No. 5 slot in the rotation, but it appears he knows what he's doing out there. Todd Wills of ESPNDallas.com has the reaction from Tepesch's teammates.
  • Wild 8-7 victory for the Washington Nationals over the Chicago White Sox on a hot April night in D.C. Jake Peavy and Gio Gonzalez were locked up in a 1-1 duel through four innings, but then Ian Desmond homered in the fifth and Jayson Werth and Adam LaRoche homered in a four-run sixth. LaRoche later added another home run off Matt Thornton (his first two hits of the year after an 0-for-15 start). Peavy said he ran out of gas in the sixth; game-time temperature was a humid 81 degrees. Gonzalez labored through 99 pitches in his five innings, but escaped with just one run. The biggest takeaway from this game, however, is that Rafael Soriano struggled again, giving up two runs in the ninth on Alex Rios' two-run homer, although still absurdly getting credit for the save. Just something to watch. One more thing to watch: Bryce Harper is hitting .379 but hasn't drawn a walk. Let's see if pitchers can take advantage of that aggressiveness (and then see how Harper adjusts).
  • Kudos to the Houston Astros for their 16-run explosion against the Seattle Mariners. They even limited their strikeouts to 10! (They went 22-for-37 when putting the ball in play.) The eight combined home runs at Safeco were the third-most ever in a game there; there were nine twice in 2004. Mariners rookie starter Brandon Maurer was terrible, giving up seven hits and a walk while retiring only two batters. As good as Maurer looked in spring training to win a rotation spot, it's a reminder that he wasn't exactly dominant last year in Double-A, striking out 117 in 137.2 innings with 48 walks. His slider has been up in the zone and batters are 7-for-12 against it.
Mike Trout and Miguel CabreraGetty ImagesThe SweetSpot bloggers predict another 1-2 MVP finish for Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera in 2013.


Yes, it's the time of the year ... awards predictions! Here are the collective thoughts of the writers from across the SweetSpot network.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Last year, the SweetSpot bloggers correctly picked Miguel Cabrera as the AL MVP winner. How quickly we fall in love with the new kid on the block! I'm not surprised that Mike Trout is the MVP favorite by the SweetSpot bloggers -- but I am surprised by his runaway vote total, as he collected 33 of the 47 first-place votes (including mine). If wisdom of the crowds proves true, it should be a landslide MVP result for Trout.

Amazingly, Cabrera only received two first-place votes (remember, he ranked ahead of Trout in our recent BBTN500 voting). This probably reflects the difference in the mind-set between the bloggers -- who are going to pay more attention to advanced metrics like WAR -- and the more conventional group of analysts (writers, announcers, former players) who voted in the BBTN500.

The network bloggers must have high hopes for the Rays since Evan Longoria ranked third in the balloting. And maybe the Yankees won't collapse just yet: Robinson Cano finished fourth in the balloting.

Points on a 14-9-8-7-6 basis.

1. Mike Trout, 574 points (33 first-place votes)
2. Miguel Cabrera, 374 points (2)
3. Evan Longoria, 268 points (3)
4. Robinson Cano, 238 points (4)
5. Adrian Beltre, 101 points (1)
6. Yoenis Cespedes, 92 points (0)
7. Jose Bautista, 85 points (2)
8. Prince Fielder, 70 points (1)
9. Albert Pujols, 62 points (1)
10. Jose Reyes, 43 points (0)

Others -- Josh Hamilton (41 points), Dustin Pedroia (34), Joe Mauer (21), Alex Gordon (18), Matt Wieters (9), Adam Jones (7), Curtis Granderson (7), Edwin Encarnacion (6), Carlos Santana (6), Ian Kinsler (6), Jacoby Ellsbury (6)

CY YOUNG

No surprise here: Justin Verlander collected 28 first-place votes to easily outdistance last season's Cy Young winner, David Price. Keep an eye on Yu Darvish: He finished ahead of Felix Hernandez in the voting. Reigning NL CY Young winner R.A. Dickey is now with Toronto and he collected just one first-place vote.

Points on a 7-4-3 basis.

1. Justin Verlander, 258 points (28 first-place votes)
2. David Price, 129 points (4)
3. Yu Darvish, 81 points (5)
4. Felix Hernandez, 70 points (5)
5. Jered Weaver, 34 points (3)
6. R.A. Dickey, 15 points (1)

Others -- Chris Sale (9 points), CC Sabathia (8), Max Scherzer (6), Josh Johnson (6), Jarrod Parker (6), Jon Lester (6), Doug Fister (3), Matt Moore (3), Jake Peavy (3)

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR

The rookie race is even more wide open, since most of the top rookie prospects will begin the year in the minors, including Tampa Bay outfielder Wil Myers, who led our balloting with 17 first-place votes. Outfielders Aaron Hicks of the Twins and Jackie Bradley of the Red Sox will break camp with their big league teams, and that helped them finish second and third in the voting.

Points on a 5-3-1 basis.

1. Wil Myers, 111 points (17 first-place votes)
2. Aaron Hicks, 71 points (8)
3. Jackie Bradley, 65 points (8)
4. Jurickson Profar, 46 points (4)
5. Dylan Bundy, 29 points (4)
6. Brandon Maurer, 24 points (2)
7. Trevor Bauer, 21 points (1)
8. Dan Straily, 12 points (1)

Others -- Bruce Rondon (6 points), Mike Olt (5), Mike Zunino (4), Chris Archer (3), Avisail Garcia (1), Conor Gillaspie (1), Nick Tepesch (1), Kevin Gausman (1)

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