SOME WATCHPOINTS AS THE MARINERS HEAD INTO THE MAKE-OR-BREAK PORTION OF THEIR SCHEDULE

 Bob Dutton

Bob Dutton

   SEATTLE — Who knew the latest trade between the Mariners and Tampa Bay included the Rays sweetening the deal with two game-ending outs on the bases this weekend at Tropicana Field?

   It no doubt made for a nice flight home Sunday for the Mariners, the still first-place Mariners, after a mistake by Rays third-base coach Matt Quatraro closed out a 5-4 victory.

   Quatraro tried to score Johnny Field from first base when Carlos Gomez’s bloop single bounced away from right fielder Mitch Haniger.

   “I saw (Haniger) on the ground,” Quatraro told the Tampa Bay Times, “and I thought, `Ninth inning, two outs, good closer (Edwin Diaz) on the mound, good baserunner with speed, take a chance.’

   “Obviously it turned out to be bad judgment on my part...Obviously it wasn't close.”

   Props to Quatraro for owning the mistake but, he’s right, it wasn’t close. It also came two days after the Mariners held on for a 4-3 victory when catcher Mike Zunino easily threw out Joey Wendle on an attempted stolen base.

   (Wendle's decision is more defensible. Zunino needed to make a strong throw for the out. Had Wendle been safe, he would have been in scoring position. Quatraro’s decision to send Field only required that Haniger and Zunino not screw up.)

   Either way, it’s hard to believe the Mariners will see any such gifts over the next five weeks as they head into what could be the make-or-break portion of their schedule: 25 of their next 32 games are against postseason contenders.

   This killer stretch includes nine games against the Los Angeles Angels, seven games against the Boston Red Sox, three games against the New York Yankees and six games against the Colorado Rockies. 

   It starts Monday when the Angels arrive for a three-game series at Safeco Field and concludes with the All-Star break. If the Mariners, 41-24, can play just .500 through this gantlet, they should be in great shape for a post-break push.

   Some things to watch:

   ***HOLD YOUR OWN AGAINST THE HALOS: The Mariners are only 19-22 against the Angels since siphoning general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais out of Anaheim.

   (Yes, Dipoto had a brief run in the Boston front office after resigning in 2015 as the Angels’ GM before signing on with the Mariners.)

   The Angels won two of three in only previous series this season between the two clubs, which was May 4-6 at Safeco. Worth noting: the Angels are banged up; Shohei Ohtani, Andrelton Simmons, Kole Calhoun are on the disabled list.

   (There’s a schedule oddity in play here concerning the six series between the two teams: The first nine games are at Safeco before the final 10 are at Angel Stadium — including a key four-game series in mid-September.)

   Wherever the games take place, these head-to-head matchup is crucial because, at least today, the American League’s final postseason berth shapes up as a battle between the Mariners and Angels.

   Staying ahead of Houston in the the AL West would be nice. Staying ahead of Los Angeles is crucial. The Angels come into the series at 37-29, which puts them 4 1/2 games behind the Mariners.

   ***KEEP THE ROTATION TURNING: The Mariners’ rotation has a 2.57 ERA over the last 24 games, which fueled a 17-7 surge for a 41-24 record that is the third-best record in franchise history through 65 games.

   That’s great, and it’s been fun to watch, but that rotation is about to get a severe test. The Yankees, Red Sox and Angels rank first, second and fifth among AL club in runs per game and OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage).

   ***FIND SOME RUNS: Sure, the Mariners are 19-7 since losing Robinson Cano to an injury and suspension, but they’re also scoring less. Significantly less: 4.69 runs per game with Cano; 3.88 without Cano.

   It’s a tribute to their pitching that they’ve been able to win while scoring at a sub-four-runs pace, Now, though, generating an attack figures to be even tougher. The Red Sox, Angels and Yankees rank two-three-four in ERA among AL clubs.

   It helps that Nelson Cruz shows signs of heating up at 16-for-43 (.372) with five homers in his last 12 games. It would help even more if Kyle Seager, who had a two-run homer Sunday, gets on a roll. 

   ***TIGHTEN UP THE BULLPEN: Yes, Diaz leads the majors with 23 saves, but his worst career numbers are against the Angels: 11 runs in 13 innings over 15 appearances. 

   (Diaz’s overall numbers against the AL aren’t good: a 4.55 ERA in 64 career appearances, compared to 1.83 in 85 career outings against non-AL West opponents. So maybe that’s a plus against the Red Sox, Yankees and Rockies.)

   Perhaps Alex Colome’s recent struggles were, similarly, a matter of familiarity. Take away games against this weekend at Tampa Bay, his former club, and he has a 1.32 ERA since May 1.

   With Juan Nicasio sidelined by a sore knee, the Mariners need Nick Vincent to be in top form when he returns this week from the disabled list.

   The lack of a situational lefty remains a glaring deficiency. James Pazos has been terrific overall with a 1.64 ERA in 25 games, but his splits show he’s actually been better against right-handers than left-handers.

   Finally, while the Mariners’ bullpen has, generally, been a strength, the reliever corps for the Red Sox, Yankees and Angels all have better ERAs.

   ***STAY LUCKY: The Mariners have been good and lucky. They are 21-9 in one-run games, 6-2 in two-run games and 6-0 in extra innings. Those 21 one-run victories are the most by any club in its first 65 games in at least 110 years.

   Here’s the problem: Historical trends show those numbers balance out over time even for good clubs — although that balancing doesn’t always occur in the same season. The Mariners can’t afford for the odds to even out over the next few weeks.

   It’s also worth noting that the Yankees (11-3), Red Sox (12-6) and Angels (12-7) are also good in one-run games.