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Ten Years, One Pitch: Franklin Gutierrez redeems the Mariners and himself in 6-5 walk off over Blue Jays

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Guti walks off the Blue Jays as the Mariners win in extras on Sunday afternoon, 6-5.

photo of the year
photo of the year
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, we laughed with Jesus Sucre.

Today, we cried with Franklin Gutierrez.

But first, what came before.

*****

The Mariners won today, and in a way, that's a pretty strange thing to type. Well, maybe not that weird. I mean, they have won 46 games this season, which is quite a lot when you actually think about it. But it's also not enough, and you kind of had to expect a completely different result as soon as these bozos went down 4-1 in the second inning against a Large Human who was throwing batting practice.

Yes, the game departed the first inning tied at one, following dueling solo jacks from Josh Donaldson (off a 95mph Taijuan fourseamer) and Austin Jackson (off an 83mph Buehlre fourseamer). I'll leave it up to you to determine which was a more impressive feat. But then, in the second, Taijuan was in trouble. First there was a gapper off the bat of Justin Smoak, who has apparently now learned how to touch parts of the Safeco field grass that existed only in the realm of fantasy a mere calendar year ago. Russell Martin doubled off a fastball out of the zone to load up the left side, and then the kid, shaken, not stirred, balked in a damn run a minute later.

Taijuan was looking much like he did towards the beginning of the season. Little flakes falling off the sharp corner edges, a nasty glare betraying tumult hiding below like when you eat too much Indian food but still have to finish your work day in dress clothes. After the second, he had thrown 44 pitches, and there were, ostensibly, three arms available in the pen. This was, as they say, Not Good.

But thankfully Taijuan escaped the worst of the damage with only the four aforementioned runs, and the kid entered the third hoping to at least eat a few more innings worth of salvageable material in order to start the week with a fresh set of arms waiting in the rafters. Which was perfect timing for him to set up something...strange on his way out:

taijuansmoakcrv

What I would like you to notice here is that Taijuan Walker threw two curveballs to Justin Smoak, and luck aside, they were both seemingly spotted at least near the target and delivered via repeatable control. This, in July of 2015, is what we call a Big Deal. That is because Taijuan Walker threw 20% of all his pitches as curveballs last June and has this month thrown it for...oh let's see here a whopping three percent.

Yes, Taijuan Walker, hitting 98, has thrown about as many curveballs this season as you have fingers (yes, even you, Jimmy Fallon), and it has...strangely worked quite well for him. So when his soft hard toss routine stopped working today, he began to rely on things like this:

taijuank

This here is what it looked like when Taijuan struck out the first of three batters in the fifth inning of today's game. He did it by throwing one literal fastball, and in this single at-bat, he threw more curveballs than he had thrown in certain starts earlier in the season.

Despite having a stellar spring, the kid began to rely on stuff more than command, abandoning bendy shit for Pure Rage and wonky movement on his fastball that worked only until bats started catching up to him. Today? Oh, I don't know, perfectly painting the corners against a perfectly competent hitter, using speed not like an orgy of one-note George Lucas explosions, but with damned ebbs and flows. This at bat here may be my single favorite Taijuan Walker at bat all year. Which it was, until he struck out Josh Donaldson with four curves a minute later. And then that looked lame after he snuck five past Jose Bautista to end the inning. He may still be a work in progress, but my god.

Still, the best moment of defense all afternoon came during the fourth, after Taijuan put two on with a walk and a blooper to bring up Ryan Goins to the plate, ready to drop another three runs in. And then, this:

Literally no one on the field knew what the hell just happened. Dave Sims and Mike Blowers, who combine for probably something like 10,000 baseball games, responded with twenty seconds of silence, an "OHH BABY," and then a "WE'LL TAKE IT," which basically means I have no idea what just happened and I sure hope I still get six figures by September.

After the buzz died down, Blowers was able to disambiguate the play a little, and it actually made more sense than you would have expected. With two on, Goins is out at first once Trumbo catches the ball for the force. He hesitates for a second, tossing the ball to Brad for the double play at second, who promptly sees a more important out waiting at home.

But Carrera hesitates between third and the plate, and Brad suddenly finds himself in the middle of a field-wide-rundown. He tosses the ball to Mike Zunino at home to initiate a pickle, and while Carrera rushes back to third, Kevin Pillar, the forgotten runner from second, is suddenly heading for the leftmost bag. But Carrera reaches the base first, making Pillar nothing but ancillary excess doubled up on the bag and hoping for the best.

triple1

Now according to Blowers, what you're supposed to do as the tagging player is just fucking wallop the runner while screaming OUT in the hopes that general confusion will give way to surrender of safety on the paths. Well sure enough, it worked. For just as he tags Pillar (on the right,) the safe Carrera, arguing with nearby umpire Jim Joyce, just launches himself off the bag with the assistance of Jays' third base coach Luis Rivera.

tp2

It was ruled a triple play, and with the double play from a tagging catcher at third, it was only the second 3-6-2-2 triple play since 1955. Dwight D. Eisenhower was president the last time something like this happened, and you actually used to be able to go to the doctor and have him tell you to smoke more in order to fix a sore throat. Baseball.

Still, it was blanks after the madness, until David Rollins came in to relieve the maxed-out Taijuan. He promptly gave up a dinger to Ezequiel Carrera. That is all I will say about David Rollins.

Thankfully, following a one-out walk to Kyle Seager, Nelson Cruz tied up the ballgame with one swing of the bat, depositing a 92 mph cut fastball out past the outfield wall to give the Mariners their fifth run of the ballgame.

It looked nothing like the single he hit off Buehrle in the second, which was literally at his feet and inside the dirt of the ground. No, this one was right over the middle of the plate, and while you kind of have to realize it was obviously a mistake--Jays reliever Bo Schultz was pitching him well outside the zone for the entire at bat--you also have to realize how great it is to have a hitter who can induce such fear in pitchers that mistakes are simply when balls are thrown inside the strike zone in the first place.

After Rollins, Lloyd went straight to Mark Lowe, who continued his season of surprising efficacy with three strikeouts over two innings, nearing 100mph and giving up a few singles that existed more as placeholders inside a lineup while he dug deeper in order to approach the hitters he actually wanted to face. My favorite sequence of his today came after Justin Smoak came up to the plate with a runner on in the eighth--Justin Warning Track Smoak, owner of the bottom portion of every baseball thrown in Safeco's strike zone resulting in either a foul or a towering pop up betraying what the scouting report said way back in high school. That guy.

Lowe threw four pitches to Smoak, and each of them perfectly skirted the outside corner of the plate despite the fact that he very well didn't have to be this cautious. Still, Lowe threw three straight 96mph heaters at the former M's first baseman, finally earning the out on what must have looked like a sloth on an 86mph slider on the corner of the plate. Then, up walked Russell Martin, who currently owns a 125 wRC+ with an ISO of .215. Lowe threw him this junk:

martink

Mark Lowe doesn't give a crap about you or your slugging percentage, sir.

*****

This, of course, all describes a baseball game which was tied into the bottom of the tenth inning, with one Fernando Rodney warming up under the beckoning cloud of unmet expectations and failed promises. Jesus Sucre sat on the bench, gritting his teeth and remembering when he hit that dinger yesterday--he's probably going to think about that moment at least once every single day until he turns 33 years of age.

Meanwhile, Franklin Gutierrez was standing in the on-deck circle. He probably felt the blood moving in his functioning knees, or perhaps scratched the side of his head that once wore the imprint of a baseball after an errant pickoff throw. Somewhere, at that very moment, his primary care physician was doing something other than rifling through MRIs and X-rays. Maybe he was diagnosing someone else with yet another iron wall between what could be and what is, the damnation of these flesh cages dumping childhood dreams yet again onto that landfill of unfulfilled aspirations.

And then, Franklin Gutierrez, who was not supposed to ever play another Major League Baseball game, stepped up to the plate for the team which had more faith in him than even he had in himself, the team which stuck by him through thick and thin and gave him a spot on his fireplace for a replica glove gilded in shining yellow. Franklin Gutierrez, a man who would not be playing in the Major Leagues had his team actually lived up to even half of what they were expected to do. Franklin Gutierrez closed his eyes, swung at the third pitch he saw, and then he started running.

As the wind started rippling the back of his baseball jersey, he refused to break eye contact with the ball, which was sailing well out to the part of the outfield where it had been caught so many times before. A diving grab into the glove of Colby Rasmus--IBS. Josh Reddick putting the cone and the web an inch above the yellow line--arthritis. A gapper scooped up before falling, and another season lost, another dream pulled out of the sky like it had never been hit up there where it never belonged in the first place. But neither of those players were in Seattle this afternoon.

No, today Franklin Gutierrez rounded first base and he put his arms in the air, and then he opened his mouth and screamed.

guti yell

I don't want to try and pretend to know what was going through Franklin Gutierrez' mind at this moment. But I'd like to think that do--we see it simply by looking at his face within the frames that compose that moving image above.

Before Franklin Gutierrez touches the bag, there is nothing but earnest hope, inchoate in its blossoming within a pointing finger on an arm dangling up in the air--no different than the hope, or lack of it, which for the past few years had found itself realized in the low-hanging fruit of a goal called One More Game.

And then, a split second before touching the bag, he sees the baseball land past the left field fence.

And at that moment, Franklin Gutierrez takes flight, his arms as wings finding a pocket of air, lifting him higher than he had ever been during any single damned moment of any of these goddamned nightmare years filled with doctor appointments and phone calls back home and meetings with the training staff--those kind folks who could really learn to do some work as soon as they find out how to funnel the power of sympathy into effective restorative medicine.

As Guti rounds the corner, you can see his eyes close, and then his head bobs up and down a few times and he is flying, flying, the clouds are the ground. Something died right there, after touching first base. Something died, and something was born again.

Franklin Gutierrez may never play in another meaningful baseball game as long as he lives. And before this afternoon, the most important moment in his career may have been saving a phenomenal performance by his friend Felix Hernandez, back in 2009. But today, Franklin Gutierrez saved more than a meaningless 'W' for a Cy Young candidate. He certainly didn't save the postseason hopes for a franchise currently dragging their own bloated corpse through the trash littering the street in their wake.

No, today Franklin Gutierrez saved himself--and as the ball traveled over the fence, as he closed his eyes and almost assuredly felt that little tingle in the back of his jaw and his throat, I can only imagine what he felt, for the first time, with his heart instead of the body which has until today only betrayed him.