Seattle Mariners

John McGrath: Reds’ relievers remind us what Mariners’ bullpen might have been

Cincinnati pitcher Caleb Cotham (54) reacts after giving up a two-run home run to Cleveland’s Carlos Santana, center rear, during the fifth inning Thursday. The Reds bullpen is ranked No. 30, among 30 teams, in virtually every pitching category.
Cincinnati pitcher Caleb Cotham (54) reacts after giving up a two-run home run to Cleveland’s Carlos Santana, center rear, during the fifth inning Thursday. The Reds bullpen is ranked No. 30, among 30 teams, in virtually every pitching category. The Associated Press

There’s a point in every baseball season when it becomes obvious spring-training forecasts were mistaken. We’ve reached that point with the Seattle Mariners, who over 40 games have shown the foolishness of predicting trends based on Cactus League observations.

The Mariners broke camp with a bullpen that appeared to be a hobo-stew collection of retreads, rejects, duffers putting off retirement and projects rehabbing from injuries. The lineup had been made more versatile and the starting rotation was solid, but, oh, those relievers, what were they good for?

They were good for heartburn in the eighth inning and heartbreak in the ninth.

The Mariners will take the field Friday night at Cincinnati in a game that figures to give fans a chance to watch one of most inept bullpens in baseball history. Except the bad bullpen belongs to the Reds, whose relievers are ranked No. 30, among 30 teams, in virtually every pitching category.

In a performance typical of the kind of futility manager Bryan Price has been forced to endure, Reds reliever Steve Delabar gave up four runs the other night against Cleveland. Tables can turn in a hurry — a couple of singles, a walk, a grand slam — but Delabar’s breakdown was as slow and groan-inducing as a torture scene in a Quintin Tarantino movie.

Delabar inherited two base runners and loaded the bases on a walk before throwing a strikeout. Then this happened: A walk on a 3-2 count, one run. Another walk on a 3-2 count, a second run. Another walk on a 3-2 count, a third run. And, yes, still another walk on a 3-2 count, a fourth run.

Not to gang up on Delabar, the former substitute teacher who turned a tryout with the Mariners organization into a career that has included an invitation to the All-Star Game. He’s had plenty of company.

Between April 11 and May 5, Reds relievers allowed at least one run in 23 consecutive games — an MLB record that might give Price reason to envy Fredi Gonzalez. (Upon learning he’d been fired as Braves manager, Gonzalez brought two bottles of wine to the hotel room of the boss who fired him.)

“We want to win the games we should win, period,” Price said Wednesday, after a 9-8, 12-inning defeat in which closer Tony Cingrani allowed up a game-tying, two-run homer in the ninth. “If we did that, at least we’re capable of being there with Pittsburgh and St. Louis.

“It’s maddening. As much as everyone kind of went into the season thinking ‘the Reds stink,’ I don’t think we stink. I think we’re a lot better team than we’re seeing. It’s hard to watch it when games get away.”

Safeco Field fans are familiar with how that goes. The Mariners were swept by the Angels last weekend, in part because closer Steve Cishek failed to hold a ninth-inning lead Saturday night — some 24 hours after failing to hold a ninth-inning lead Friday night.

Blowing back-to-back save opportunities apparently didn’t faze Cishek, who needed some work Thursday at Baltimore and responded with a crisp three-up, three-down effort in the bottom of the ninth. Although he didn’t qualify for a save, Cishek finished the game sharing the league lead in saves, with 11.

Cishek began last season as Miami’s closer and was so dreadful — his record revealed more blown saves (four) than saves (three) — he lost his job and got traded to St. Louis in July. Relegated to a mop-up role, he pitched better, but still was left off the Cardinals’ playoff roster.

But Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto stayed true to his theory — buy low, aim high and trust that veterans with track records are capable of bounce-back seasons — and Cishek has revealed himself as the anchor of a surprisingly reliable bullpen.

Seattle relievers began Thursday with a 9-4 record and a 2.85 ERA. Opponents were hitting .197 against them, an MLB low.

This is not a group rich with power arms. The Mariners’ bullpen, to borrow a football term associated with quarterbacks incapable of throwing for 300 yards and four touchdowns on any given Sunday, is populated by “game managers” who understand that when extraordinary is out of the question, ordinary works just fine.

Take Joaquin Benoit, called upon Thursday to protect the Mariners’ 5-1 lead in the eighth inning. Benoit was rusty — he’s been on the disabled list with a sore shoulder and hadn’t pitched since April 21 — and wasted no time turning a low-stress, get-the-arm-loose-again outing into a bases-loaded jam.

Benoit is a 38-year-old who’s been around the block with the Rangers, Rays, Tigers and Padres. Another reliever might have been intimidated by the hitter-friendly dimensions of Camden Yards, by an Orioles lineup with few easy outs, by a home-plate umpire disinclined to see strikes as strikes.

Benoit allowed a run on Adam Jones’ grounder to shortstop Ketel Marte — a second eighth-inning out in exchange for a run, in this situation you take that every time — and then pretty much owned slugger Chris Davis during an at-bat that retired the side with minimal damage.

Like his colleagues, Benoit isn’t a lights-out talent. He’s merely somebody who has plenty of experience working out of the stretch with the bases loaded, on the road, small ballpark, one pitch removed from calamity.

The Mariners don’t boast baseball’s best bullpen, but those of us who presumed it was the worst were way off target. Baseball’s worst bullpen is in Cincinnati, where Quentin Tarantino torture scenes are a nightly occurrence.