TORONTO — Chris Flexen might be the Mariners’ latest rendition of Félix Hernández.
No, Flexen doesn’t possess the Cy Young caliber stuff that Hernández did during his peak days in Seattle, but he’s getting a taste of one theme that became all too prevalent during The King’s grandest days: Run support, or lack thereof.
Flexen pitched competitively enough to hold the Blue Jays to just two runs while he was on the hill — solo homers to Bo Bichette and Matt Chapman in the first and second innings — and one more via a walk that he left on base when he departed in the sixth. Yet Seattle’s bats were blanked again while he was on the mound for the fifth time in his seven outings, including each of his past two.
All the Mariners were able to get going in a 6-2 loss at Rogers Centre on Monday was a solo homer from Eugenio Suárez in the seventh, his seventh of the season and 200th of his career, then a one-out RBI single by Adam Frazier in the ninth, by which point the game was essentially out of reach. Suárez’s milestone was a big one, but it was lost in the lack of offensive traction from the rest of Seattle’s hitters, which managed just three other hits, credited in large part by the effectiveness of old friend Yusei Kikuchi.
“We didn’t do anything offensively for [Flexen],” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “We’ve really struggled to give him much run support. I don’t know why, no explanation for it, it’s just been a struggle there.”
A big component to Flexen’s success in his breakout season last year was that he was consistently pitching with breathing room, and it’s been the complete opposite in 2022.
Flexen’s run support average, per 9 IP
2021: 5.61 (10th-highest in MLB, minimum 30 IP)
2022: 1.14 (Lowest in MLB, minimum 30 IP)
Yet a pitchers’ rule is to never complain about the shortcomings of his offense.
“No, you go out there and compete,” Flexen said. “For me, you’re out there trying to compete, put us in the best situation to win a ballgame. Those guys continue to battle, as we saw with a late little rally at the end there. It’s part of the game. I’m going to go out there and continue to try to compete and execute.”
For added context, the Mariners have been shut out five times this year, second most in the Majors, and Flexen was on the bump for four of those outings.
Mariners’ lineup in games by SP
Flexen: 31-for-216 (.144)
Everyone else: 246-for-980 (.251)
Flexen out-whiffed Kikuchi, 14 to 11, and had more strikeouts, a season-high seven to Kikuchi’s six. He also paid for two mistake pitches at the top of the zone — a hanging curveball to Bichette that he knew was gone immediately, and a high-and-away fastball to Chapman. But given that the Mariners couldn’t get much going against Kikuchi, who played in Seattle from 2019-21, it left Flexen walking on a tightrope.
“We’ve got to do more to help him out a little bit,” Servais said. “It’s crazy. There’s no rhyme or reason for it, who we get matched up against or even that. We just haven’t, like I said, given him much support, much cushion at all, and when you’re pitching on a fine line like that, a mistake here and there will hurt you.”
Kikuchi went four innings before surrendering his first hit, a leadoff double to Jesse Winker in the fifth, but that was all the Mariners mustered against their former teammate. Seattle’s lone All-Star from last year was able to consistently find a rhythm.
“I was looking forward to this, for sure. … I built some really great relationships with not just my teammates, but a lot of the staff over there as well,” Kikuchi said through an interpreter. “To be able to go out there against my former team definitely feels great.”
Even after a big series win at Citi Field over the weekend, the Mariners have now lost 14 of their past 19 games — more than half their schedule — over which they’ve scored 56 runs (2.9 per game).
Compounding the challenges are that 1) Monday looked like the most winnable game of the series, on paper, with José Berríos and Kevin Gausman slated for the next two, and 2) Toronto had also been reeling, having lost six of its past seven entering the night and five of Kikuchi’s six starts for the year.
“We’ve seen Yusei a lot,” Servais said. “He got good results.”