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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

June 30, 2007 at 11:27 AM

All Putz all the time?

Now, these Mariners are getting serious. That’s four consecutive wins against AL East teams playing .500 or better (well, the Toronto Blue Jays had been .500 until last night) and is going a long way towards establishing the Mariners as a serious threat. Yes, according to “Baker math” this is slimming itself down into a two-team race between the M’s and the AL Central runner-up. Not completely that way yet, but teams like the Blue Jays are quickly falling out of the picture, as are the New York Yankees. The Minnesota Twins are still kicking around, as are the Oakland A’s, and both have the kind of starting pitching that can help them make one of those crazier second-half runs. The M’s don’t have that type of starting pitching, though Jarrod Washburn pitched well enough to go seven last night before being pulled because of back stiffness concerns.
Where the M’s have made up the difference is in their bullpen, particularly in the late innings with Brandon Morrow, George Sherrill and especially with closer J.J. Putz. But now, with Morrow fighting control issues, that bullpen advantage risks being lost. And that could put a serious damper on the second half of the season unless the problem is rectified — either through Morrow finding his command, a replacement stepping up from within, or the team trading for a set-up man.
An example of the slippery slope the M’s have embarked on with Putz can be found across the way in the visitors’ clubhouse at Safeco Field. The Blue Jays have lost closer B.J. Ryan for this entire season because of elbow troubles. Ryan hasn’t been the same since the second half of the 2006 season, after he’d been used in a number of multi-inning save opportunities.
By this point last season, Ryan had been used in eight multi-inning save opportunities by the Blue Jays, not to mention another two such situations that weren’t for saves. Ryan wound up saving 24 of 25 chances by the all-star break. After the break? Blew three of his first four. He wound up saving 14 games in the second-half, six of those in the final two weeks of the season once his arm had recovered somewhat from his first-half adventures. But he hasn’t been the same since.
Now, let’s see how Putz compares. So far, he’s had seven multi-inning save chances — only one fewer than Ryan at this point last year. Both have saved roughly the same number of games over the same timeframe. No one is saying that Ryan’s current injury was directly caused by what happened in last year’s second half, but the coincidence is a huge one.
The good news is that M’s manager Mike Hargrove seems far more concerned by what is going on with Putz than was Blue Jays manager John Gibbons in the early part of last season. At least vocally. So far, Hargrove is doing what Gibbons did — and that’s what matters. Both men felt they had little choice but to fall back on their closers early. Hargrove last night voiced the concern that the M’s have to find somebody to bridge the gap in the eighth. And he is right. The Morrow experiment has worked to this degree, but if he is going to keep walking batters in the eighth inning, the experiment has to end quickly. An alternative must be found. Putz is too valuable to this team, near-term and long-term, to risk going down the same road the Blue Jays did with Ryan.
And if that means losing a few games in the near-term, it’s a painful pill Seattle is going to have to swallow. Being 10 games over .500 at this point gives them a bit more of a cushion — and a stomach — to start taking that pill until some set-up help (Chris Reitsma, Mark Lowe, George Sherrill, or a trade) arrives.



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