After this weekend, the Royals will not face another team in the playoff race, so they better make this one count as they take on the Mariners, who face long odds to make the postseason but are still hanging around. It feels a bit like the 2013 Royals. Back then, we were all watching the standings and while they never quite got to one of the Wild Card spots, it was fun that there was a chance deep into September. The only question is which Mariners random player hits the walkoff grand slam to end the season like Justin Maxwell did. When the Royals last saw the Mariners three weeks ago, they were coming off three straight wins to propel themselves to 11 games over .500. Three weeks later, they’re...10 games over .500. They do seem likely to finish over .500 for the first time since 2018, but they just haven’t made quite enough of a push to really give themselves a chance.
And that’s sort of unfortunate because they’re a fun team with some good young players who are getting some very good September baseball experience. Guys like Jarred Kelenic and Cal Raleigh haven’t exactly been world beaters, but they’re getting a chance to see what the periphery of a pennant race is like. Newly acquired Abraham Toro has been a nice find for them. And they have money to spend, so while the offense is a work in progress, it’s pretty easy to see how they can move forward from this year to take another step in 2022. The pitching staff has really only seen one big time prospect graduate in Logan Gilbert, who the Royals will see again this weekend, but they have more on the way to supplement a staff that has been largely okay. Chris Flexen looks like a nice piece, though probably more toward the back of a rotation with his peripherals. Yusei Kikuchi is a solid pitcher as well. The Royals will get all three of them. And the bullpen with Diego Castillo back healthy looks good on the back end as well. So there’s some work to do, but this is a team that is definitely on the cusp of something, I believe.
Royals vs. Mariners Tale of the Tape
|Highest fWAR||Nicky Lopez, 4.2||Ty France and Chris Flexen, 2.8|
Mariners Projected Lineup
Mariners Projected Bench
Mariners Key Relievers
Projected Starting Pitchers
Friday - Chris Flexen vs. Jon Heasley, 7:10pm
|Jon Heasley (AA)||22||105.1||7||3||27.7%||7.9%||3.33||4.24||---|
Flexen was released by the New York Mets following the 2019 season and ended up going to Korea for the 2020 season. That allowed him to throw more innings than he would have in the United States (though that’s not why he went over there, just a nice benefit). And he was really good! He struck out a ton of batters, walked very few, limited hits and really showed off big league stuff that led the Mariners to give him a modest two-year deal. The strikeouts haven’t followed him stateside, but he throws a four-seamer at about 92-93 MPH, a cutter that could probably use a bit more spin and movement, a changeup that has been really good and a curve that has been less good. The changeup is a big reason why he has such a massive reverse platoon split with lefties hitting just .234/.261/.378 against him and righties hitting .302/.351/.452. He’s also had a lot of trouble away from Seattle, posting a 4.54 ERA in 12 road starts compared with 3.09 at home. And he’s had a tough go of it in his last couple starts, both against Arizona. So he can be beaten, but sometimes the Royals struggle against pitchers they haven’t seen before.
Jon Heasley is getting the call-up for this start from AA Northwest Arkansas as Brady Singer goes on the injured list with an undisclosed injury (which you probably know what that means). Heasley has had a solid season, but has really turned things on over the last month and a half, going 3-1 with a 1.98 ERA over his last eight starts over 41 innings. He’s struck out 54 and walked nine in that time, so he’s really going good. He has four pitches that grade out above average, hitting 97 with his fastball with a high spin rate. He also has a curve that can be dominant, a solid changeup and a slider that he doesn’t use a ton, but is still a solid pitch. It’s a big jump from AA, but the Mariners lineup isn’t a great one, so this’ll be an interesting start to watch for the 2018 13th rounder.
Saturday - Yusei Kikuchi vs. Kris Bubic, 6:10pm
The Royals saw Kikuchi in Seattle and I mentioned that he was in the midst of looking like he was finally figuring it out as a big leaguer. He had just had a bad start against Houston and looked good against the Royals until the sixth when he allowed four runs and then the rally was finished off when Salvador Perez hit a grand slam off Joe Smith. He’s been very hit or miss since the break, posting a 5.64 ERA in 11 starts, but he’s given up two or fewer runs in four of them and four or more in five of them, so there isn’t a whole lot of middle ground with him. As I wrote last month, he’s using his four-seam fastball more and it’s a pretty good one with velocity averaging around 95 and a whiff rate around 30 percent. His cutter and slider have caused him problems, though. He’s been dominant against lefties with a .466 OPS allowed and very mediocre (or worse) against righties with an OPS allowed of .822, so the Royals should stack their lineup similarly to how they did against Sean Manaea. But no matter what happens, the Royals know they likely won’t be facing him too deep into the game. He hasn’t pitched past the seventh this year and has only pitched past the sixth in 10 of his starts.
Kris Bubic has had a bit of an up and down year, as you all know. He had some issues in his last start of August that came against this very Mariners team. He got some strikeouts, but he walked too many and he gave up nine hits in 4.1 innings. That pushed him to the bullpen for an outing against the Indians, but in his last two starts, he’s been pretty good. He’s gone 5.1 in each and given up two earned runs in each, but maybe more importnatly, he’s walked just one batter in each. I’ve talked about various keys for Bubic all season. One is the changeup. When it’s on, it’s such a good pitch. Another is throwing hard. When he throws hard, it makes his changeup and curve better. And a third is simply limiting walks. That’s a pretty obvious one, but if he’s throwing strikes, he’s better off. But they can’t be too good because we’ve seen what happens then.
Sunday - Logan Gilbert vs. Jackson Kowar, 1:10pm
Gilbert could have easily been a Royal if he had made it to the 18th pick in 2018, but he went 14th to the Mariners instead. As I mentioned last month when these two teams played, he was drafted out of Stetson, which is the school of Jacob deGrom, Corey Kluber and the incomparable Lenny DiNardo and is from Apopka, Florida, which is Zack Greinke’s old stomping ground. He’s pitched, in many ways, like a young pitcher. But the ability to throw strikes stands out to me in a big way. That walk rate is fantastic. His last few starts will be interesting. We’ve seen some young Royals pitchers wear down a bit this month and he’s had a nice September after getting lit up a bit at the end of August, including allowing five runs on nine hits in four innings to the Royals. I think one of the things he needs to work on, and this is true for so many young pitchers, is that sometimes a strike isn’t the best thing. His changeup, for example, has gotten a ton of whiffs - 58.3 percent of swings, in fact. But he’s also allowed a .714 SLG on it. Some of that is small sample, but we’ve seen it a lot with Bubic that it can be a problem. He’s going to get his swings and misses, so don’t worry about that. The Royals need to capitalize when his control is there but his command isn’t.
Jackson Kowar has now made three big league starts since coming back from Omaha. The first was very good. The second was encouraging in some ways. He struggled early, but bounced back and went six innings. The third was horrible. He didn’t record an out in the second and ended up allowing five runs on three hits with four walks in just an inning of work. That simply doesn’t work. I’ve liked the slider quite a bit, but his fastball has been sort of as advertised - a bit hit or miss and when it misses, it gets hit. In those first two starts back, he got tons of whiffs. He only had three on Tuesday. Granted, he only threw 39 total pitches, but that was still low for him. This is probably a good lineup for him to face. They do have some patience, but there’s plenty of swing and miss, so if he can put the ball generally where he wants to, it should be good for him.
I think the Royals are enjoying playing spoiler and I still don’t buy that the Mariners are especially good, in spite of their record. Young pitching will break your heart and give you way too much optimism, so it could turn easily, but I think the Royals win this series and push the Mariners to the brink.
Can the Royals spoil the Mariners playoff hopes?
This poll is closed
Yes, in a big way. They’ll sweep Seattle.
They’ll take the series and make their path even tougher.
The Mariners will win the series and keep their hopes alive.
The M’s will sweep and feel like they can represent Grass Creek in the playoffs.