ST. PETERSBURG — Given the way Chris Flexen was pitching, it was as brutal of a break as could be. And it wound up being the decisive factor in the Mariners’ 2-1 loss to the Rays on Thursday afternoon at Tropicana Field.
In an 0-2 count with two outs in the seventh inning, Flexen threw a changeup well above the strike zone that Brett Phillips smacked up the middle. While coming out of his windup, Flexen pushed his left leg back to try to halt the comebacker on a high hop. But it dribbled into vacated territory with the Mariners in a pronounced shift, and that allowed Harold Ramirez to score easily from third.
Had the ball gotten past Flexen and stayed on trajectory, either third baseman Abraham Toro or shortstop J.P. Crawford — who were closer to second base — would’ve likely been in position to make the play and throw out the speedy Phillips. But neither was in a spot to field the ball where it landed between shortstop and third base.
“Very poor on my part. … It’s tough, but we’ve got to do our best,” Flexen said. “We’ve got guys that can pick it behind us. Those guys are phenomenal, and again, that one is on me.”
With an 86.7 mph exit velocity, Phillips’ chopper had just a 27 percent hit probability, per Statcast. Because Flexen was at 96 pitches, the Mariners turned to reliever Diego Castillo to finish the frame, leaving the often self-critical Flexen walking off the mound screaming into his glove.
“As soon as I knocked it down, I knew,” Flexen said.
The bad break, and a second straight game with limited production from the Mariners’ bats, spoiled Flexen’s second straight solid start. He came one out shy of his second straight seven-inning outing while allowing six hits and two walks and striking out four.
More encouraging was that Flexen overcame leadoff walks in the first and second innings and retired 12 straight from the second to sixth innings. He limited hard contact — just four of the 19 batted balls against him were hard hit. And he had better command of his changeup, which had mostly eluded him in Spring Training and the early part of the regular season.
“I think it was huge to be able to keep us in the game,” Flexen said. “That 1-1 game was a tight ballgame until the seventh, when they were able to squeeze one there in that inning. But you continue to build off those outings and continue to work with the command. I was happy with where the cutter was today, and [I] executed pitches when I needed to.”
Flexen was the Mariners’ pitcher of the year for 2021, his first season with Seattle after signing a two-year, $4.75 million deal after rebuilding himself in Korea. He has a 3.61 ERA in 35 starts, and the Mariners have won 23 of those. Seattle holds a $4 million team option for ‘23 that would convert to an $8 million vesting option if Flexen pitches 150 innings in ’22 or a combined 300 innings in ’21-22. He’s at 203 2/3 now.
The Mariners had a chance to make some noise in the fifth inning when Jesse Winker walked against Jalen Beeks to load the bases with one out. But Eugenio Suárez immediately grounded into a 5-4-3 double play. Seattle’s best chance to score that inning was on Ty France’s single to shallow left-center-field gap with Adam Frazier on second base. But Frazier hesitated on his read and was held at third, where he stayed put.
The Mariners also had a shot in the ninth with Toro on second base, but Tom Murphy was called out on strikes to end the game on a ball that appeared to be well off the plate. Toro was one of seven baserunners that Seattle stranded, bringing its season total to an MLB-high 150.
“We’ve been going so good offensively, so it’s a little disappointing,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said.
Seattle now heads to Miami on its first losing streak in more than two weeks.