The single most important pitch of the 2014 Seattle Mariners season was thrown by the player that the M's drafted 20th overall in the 2008 MLB Draft. It was also, oddly enough, hit by the player they drafted in the third round one year later. All of that is interesting, but the only thing that matters is where it landed, and it landed here:
Of course, it's far from a bold stance to claim that Kyle Seager's walkoff shot to end the eight-game losing streak last April saved the season. A bold stance would be to claim that this changed the course of baseball in Seattle for 2015 and beyond. That this moment heralded the arrival of Kyle Seager (who would be christened nationally in this glorious gem a few weeks later). That Jack Zduriencik signed his multi-year extension in part because of it, and that it led to Justin Upton taking the Mariners off his no-trade list last week.
That might be resorting to hyperbole a little bit, but I do think there is at least a little truth to the claim. April is certainly early, but the Mariners (and you) know full well what a bad losing streak can do after watching 2011's .500 season spontaneously combust after seventeen games of merciless failure. That this ended here did more than give the Mariners an 8-13 record: it corrected a ship that led straight to Felix Hernandez pitching meaningful baseball on the last day of the season in front of a sold-out Safeco crowd.
You can't really lose a season on April 22nd, but apparently you can on April 24th. Or at least the Mariners did in 2013 when they chose that date to hold their closed-door meeting after tying the Astros in the standings and Dave Cameron called for a complete overhaul of pretty much everyone not named Felix Hernandez. Sure, that team didn't have a brand new manager and superstar second baseman, but standings don't care about those things--it was right around that time that Jeff and Matthew led off their podcast with the realization that it would take a historic turnaround to be even competitive through September.
No, had this continued into May, the Mariners would have tried for one last push once Iwakuma returned only to find too much ground to make up. Had this continued into May, they may have treated the trade deadline as sellers rather than as short-term buyers. Had this continued into May, Taijuan Walker would have gotten a bunch more innings and everyone would have been thinking about 2015 with another prospect fest come September. Instead we are thinking about 2015, but only because it actually means something this time, and the team looks the way they do now because of it.
But what about Kyle Seager? I don't want to claim that this walk-off somehow injected magic potion into his arm to send him to the All-Star game a few months later, but don't forget that Seager was having a career slump up until this game. In the first 20 games of the season, Kyle Seager had a wRC+ of 53. It would reach 126 by the end of the year. And it all started on this day. Look:
Kyle Seager, March 31-April 22
Kyle Seager, April 23-May 23
Seager's isolated power jumped from .063 to .258 in the same timeframe. He was striking out less. And most importantly, his impact started to stretch to the rest of the roster: he had 26 RBIs in this second window compared to only two in the first. And keep in mind he got them batting behind a couple of on-base monsters in Corey Hart and Justin Smoak. None of this is very scientific, but if you can look at that clip from above now and not feel like it lit a fire underneath his cleats, then I don't know what to tell you.
Now sure, momentum is a subjective, ex-facto construction of emotional response. But momentum absolutely impacts things that happen on the diamond whether we want to believe in it or not. Before this game, Lloyd was preaching patience to reporters in the Miami visitors' clubhouse. We all saw something else, though: Seager was bad, Cano had yet to hit a dinger, Felix wasn't himself, and the Mariners were off to yet another wasted season.
But whereas Eric Wedge locked the players in the locker-room and benched Brendan Ryan to prove a point, Lloyd played it cool and the Mariners woke up on April 23rd like nothing had happened at all. To end the losing streak on such a high note tangibly injected life into that clubhouse, and they went on to win 10 of their next 12 games. That's quantifiable momentum.
That momentum would build into the rest of the season as well, and whether it was a good idea or not, the Mariners gave Jack Zduriencik a fancy new multi-year extension as a result of what was happening. That was on August 26th, and the Mariners had lost a total of seven games during the entire month. Would they have fired Zdurencik on August 26th if the Mariners were mired in mediocrity? No. But they wouldn't have extended him either, and it's very possible we could be talking about front office rumors rather than baseball player rumors today as a result. I think Jack owes Kyle a thank you letter for whatever contract he got on that day. And if not a letter, then, you know.
After the game, Lloyd made his usual no-big-deal comments to the media with an extra tinge of I-Told-You-So in his voice. But he tried to remain cool about the whole thing, noting that every season has losing streaks, and it's how you react to them that defines what kind of team you want to become.
Levelheadedness aside, he was right about the second part. And thanks in part to that first-pitch fastball from Josh Fields, the 2015 Seattle Mariners are in pretty damn good shape. One pitch. One single baseball that changed the outcome of a late April game, and one baseball that was still impacting in September, even though it was sitting on some kid's shelf gathering dust in a plastic case.