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June 20, 2013 at 12:24 PM

Getting middle of the order healthy of prime urgency for Mariners

Kendrys Morales had this game-winning single on Tuesday night, but it's one of just four hits he's managed in nearly two weeks since his back seized up on him in a game against the Yankees. Photo Credit: AP

Kendrys Morales had this game-winning single on Tuesday night, but it’s one of just four hits he’s managed in nearly two weeks since his back seized up on him in a game against the Yankees. Photo Credit: AP

The Mariners have been playing for a while now with two middle of the order bats at substantially less than 100 percent.

Kendrys Morales left a June 8 game with the Yankees with back stiffness and the Mariners have been reluctant to play him in the field since.

Michael Morse injured his quad muscle on May 28, didn’t play him again until June 6 and the Mariners have only recently started playing him at first base again.

Here are their numbers since:

Morales: .121 batting average, .121 on-base percentage, 0 home runs, .242 OPS in 8 games

Morse: .242 batting average, .278 on-base percentage, 0 home runs, .672 OPS in 10 games

Getting zero homers and sub-.400 slugging from the team’s two imported middle-of-the-order bats over the past two weeks is a good place to start if you want to see why the Mariners now resemble their teams of 2010 and 2011 on offense. Throw in the lack of a full-time leadoff hitter and that pretty much covers it.

Morse did show positive signs of improvement with six hits — including three doubles — in the Oakland series but otherwise has been a non-factor on too many occasions. The Mariners keep hoping he shakes the quad injury off, but have been reluctant to sit him out multiple days in a row because of the belief that his bat can change a game with one swing — as it did in a couple of contests where he limpred into second after some important doubles.

But over the big picture, the numbers posted by the team’s Opening Day Nos. 3 and 4 hitters would barely be acceptable for a middle infielder if you combined the pair’s totals.

Justin Smoak has more home runs in one game off the disabled list than Morse and Morales have combined for in the entire month of June. And while Morales did come through with that game-winning RBI single in the 10th inning the other night, that one hit in a sea of non-hits can’t be allowed to rule the day unless he actually is getting truly better.

Look, this is not as easy a call as you’d think despite the numbers.

The Mariners bring very little offensive presence to the table without Morse and Morales and even them standing there with a bat and not moving can change the way opposing pitchers approach an inning. With a game on the line, you do want Morales up there in the 10th inning.

The problem is, with an unhealthy Morales and Morse posting recent numbers ridiculously below their career norms, the Mariners are unlikely to find themselves with very many games on-the-line late in which they can benefit from Morales’s calm demeanor and Morse’s game-changing connections.

This team has only been playing close games because the starting rotation has posted an astonishing 1.77 ERA the past dozen games — roughly the time Morse and Morales have been playing hurt. That’s kept the scores close, like last night’s 1-0 defeat, despite the fact the Mariners have been scoring just 2.42 runs per game over that period.

So, do the math.

If you expect the starters to keep opponents from scoring more than two runs every night, then the Mariners averaging about 2.42 runs per game should help them keep playing at a .500 or so clip going forward.

But if you suspect that the ERA might regress just a tad any day now, this team has to find an offense. And it will have to start by putting a middle of the order out there that has the capability to hit a home run every once in a while. Otherewise, it’s 2010 and 2011 all over again.

I very much respect and appreciate what Morse and Morales can do when healthy. I understand why the team hasn’t put them on the DL, even if I don’t quite agree with it. But they can’t keep staggering around, hitting like Munenori Kawasaki used to for this team.

If this alternating day of rest thing the team is doing is indeed showing signs of progress, then I suppose the Mariners should keep doing it until both are better. But their playing time should not come at the expense of a healthy Smoak.

Regardless of Smoak’s proficiency from the right side, or his past stats against certain pitchers, his health status — not to mention his status as a supposed future cornerstone of this team’s offense — should trump the need to have Morse or Morales in there for presence and potential alone.

Once those two are back to normal, then sure, rotate them more evenly with Smoak. But the current offense isn’t working. Morse and Morales aren’t back to normal. And until they are, they should be rotating in and out with each other while Smoak plays nightly.

How will we know when Morse and Morales are back to normal?

Well, let’s start by seeing them hit a ball over the fence.

That’s why both were brought here, when we boil it all down. Yeah, the team wants the OBP to go with it and there’s nothing wrong with a doubles-infused slugging percentage. But neither guy has been providing that either.

So, even if the Mariners do win tonight behind Felix Hernandez and salvage a 4-3 road trip to buy another week or so in their quest to turn the season around, getting a healthier-looking middle of the order out there night-in and night-out has to be of prime urgency.

And that starts with playing the healthy first baseman and sitting one of the healing ones. Not the other way around.

Comments | More in analysis | Topics: michael morse; kendrys morales; justin smoak; home runs


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