Maybe you didn’t watch today’s game. That’s understandable. A Saturday matinee is a tough draw, especially on a day like this—a hazy and heavy midsummer weekend day. The city empties out on weekends like this, with people retreating to the woods or the mountains or the seashore, quiet places, green and blue places.
But for those who went to the green place that is Safeco, today you were rewarded with a pitching duel, a nailbiter win, and most importantly, many Astros being made to look very, very silly. After the Mariners frustrate us with a sloppy game like last night, they bring us back with a gem like this, the kind of game that settles over you like a warm jacket on a crisp fall night, the kind of nights that will be coming too soon.
Hisashi Iwakuma was in control from the first pitch he threw today, an 84 mph splitter to George Springer that Springer fouled off before hitting a weak grounder to Shawn O’Malley off an 82 mph slider. Marwin González (or Gordon Molasses, as my dad calls him) then took a fastball at 85 called a strike, fouled back a couple splitters in the 78-82 range, then whiffed at an 85 mph fastball high in the zone. But then Stupid José Altuve stepped up and did a Stupid José Altuve thing, in a 1-2 count nonetheless, and snuck a double right past Seager. Stupid José Altuve. But Hisashi Iwakuma was content to play tortoise to the aggressive, rabbity Astros. He took some breaths, took time with his pitches, and came back to strike out Carlos Correa on a called strike breaking ball on the outside corner, followed by a called strike sinker at 87 that took a funky boomerang bend over the plate, followed by a called strike fastball at 85 that just nicked the inside corner of the plate. He was walking back to the dugout before Correa had even taken the bat off his shoulder.
Unfortunately, the Astros put up Lance McCullers, who utterly stymied the Mariners hitters with his devilish curveball last time we played the Astros (which also feels like the first time, because it feels like we are stuck in a never-ending cycle of playing the Astros. I am so sick of the Astros). The Mariners wasted a golden opportunity in the first inning when with one out Leonys Martín cracked a double to right field, but Canó and Seager both struck out on that evil back-foot curveball. McCullers did not look comfortable in this first inning—he was fidgety and twitchy on the mound, and although his stuff was electric, with his fastball regularly touching 97, it was also all over the place. When he missed, he missed big. But the Mariners once again failed to capitalize early, and McCullers would face the minimum in innings two and three.
Through three innings, the two pitchers had almost identical stats, but there the two performances began to diverge. In the fourth, Kuma issued his lone walk of the day to Carlos Correa, but shut down the Astros by getting Valbuena to ground out weakly. For his part, McCullers issued his second and third walks of the day (the first was to Shawn O’Malley, who had been erased in the second when Daniel Robertson committed his second GGIDP). But no sooner had Leonys earned his walk than he quickly erased himself by guessing curveball on a fastball (to be fair, McCullers was pitching to Seager, who hasn’t been successful against the curveball) and getting himself TOOTBLANed. Even though Seager walked, Dae-Ho struck out on the curveball to end any semblance of a threat, and things started to feel unpleasantly familiar. Remember when the Mariners could score like, ten runs and it was just no big thing? I miss those days.
Kuma answered McCullers’s shaky fourth with a shutdown fifth inning. It took him six pitches to carve through Rasmus/Gomez/Reed and the Astros hitters were clearly frustrated, slamming their bats down after they hit into popups and easy grounders. The Mariners repaid him by not going 1-2-3 in the bottom of the fifth; Lind worked a full count before flying out, Guti knocked Valbuena on his wallet with a hard grounder, Sucre controlled the zone and worked a walk, but then McCullers struck O’Malley out on a series of nearly perfect pitches and got Daniel Robertson and his BluBlocker shades to fly out. This is the point at which it could have gone bad for Iwakuma. We’ve seen it go bad, before. The effort of carrying the team finally catches up to the starting pitcher as they watch their offense fail to put up runs, and they crack. Iwakuma did not crack. He walked out to the mound, slowly, like he does. He took his time between pitches. He looked at Sucre’s signs, took a second to consider them, nodded, and made his pitch. And he made the Astros look absolutely silly:
- Jason Castro: called strike on a slider that just caught a corner of the upper part of the zone, followed by a splitter low in the zone. Iwakuma kept changing speeds and eye levels, playing now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t with Castro, until he finally dropped a slider at 82 right at the bottom of the zone that Castro just watched go by before turning around and walking back to the dugout.
- George Springer: Iwakuma fed Springer a steady diet of sliders and splitters low in the zone that he hacked at wildly, fouling off pitches and getting himself into a 1-2 hole, before showing him a fastball at 89 perfectly located on the outside edge of the zone that Springer had to take a defensive swing at, and then putting him away on a low 83 mph splitter that Springer swung right over.
- Marwin González: I wish I had a gif of the “swing” González put on strike three. It wasn’t a swing so much as it was a real-time visualization of oh hey I can put a hurtin’ on that oh no wait where’s it going oh crap don’t swing don’t swing don’t sw—
Emboldened by this, the Mariners managed to come back in the sixth and score a run when Leonys Martín just missed a home run when he took a 95 mph fastball running inside and turned on it, coasting into third with a triple (sidenote: Leonys maybe looked a little gimpy running the bases—did anyone else notice that?). Canó followed him with a base hit to score the first, and ultimately the only run of the day, on this, the day of his bobblehead. Way to go, Robi.
Kuma came back out to pitch the seventh and despite giving up what could have been a triple to Springer (he blew a tire rounding second and had to run back and bellyflop into second), escaped the inning without allowing any more runs, thanks in part to Colby Rasmus grounding out to end the inning and leaving Correa stranded on third, a sentence that sends me into paroxysms of delight to type. The Mariners didn’t score, of course, because that would have made this all too easy, and for a fun bonus the inning ended on a Guti TOOTBLAN which means Shawn O’Malley got an extra AB (he used his extra AB to rope a first pitch single, so that shows what I know. Way to go, Shawny.) Kuma would end the day with 7.0 innings pitched, only allowing two hits and no runs. He struck out eight and only walked one. He threw 90 pitches, 66 of them for strikes, and of the 24 batters he faced, 20 of them saw first-pitch strikes. Where would we be without Hisashi Iwakuma? I don’t even want to think about it.
It can be a little nail-bitey at times, but Edwin Díaz is settling into his role as setup man. After Carlos Gomez made the...curious decision to bunt a 100 mph pitch foul for strike three, Enormous Human AJ Reed hit a single off a 99 fastball. Pinch runner Jake Marisnick made it to second on a pitch to Castro that Díaz buried in the dirt and then, with the count 3-2, Díaz threw an 86 mph slider inside that Castro swung right over. Two outs, with dangerous, fastball-loving George Springer coming up. Díaz threw him two fastballs off the plate, and when he couldn’t get Springer to chase, came back with an 87 mph trapdoor slider that Springer swung right over. He followed that up with a 100 mph fireball that Springer check-swung at, sending the ball into fair territory, and I swear to you Díaz leaping off the mound to cover first base was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen. Let’s go to the tape, from the wonderful Melissa (a great Twitter follow, @misc966):
Love this kid. @EdiDiaz44 @Mariners pic.twitter.com/pSCJ8DdtdO— MelWxyz (@misc966) July 16, 2016
Steve Cishek came on and closed the game and it was FINE, okay? Sure, he gave up a double to Marwin González on a 1-2 count (it was a good pitch, too, a breaking ball just on the outside corner that González managed to get to because DARK ASTROS MAGIC). But then for some reason Altuve, one of the best hitters in the American League this season, decided to...bunt? That can’t possibly be right. But bunt he did, and it was a firm bunt that Kyle Seager said yes please and thank you to, because he is a polite young man, and he threw to Shawn O’Malley, who nabbed González between second and third. Altuve made it to second but that was two outs. And then Luis Valbuena came up and oh no, we know how this ends, why is this
Okay, so maybe pitch two there looks a little outside (thank you SUCRE), but that pitch location. Mercy. After strike three was called, Cishek came off the mound and did a double-Hulk-pump and hugged Sucre and my heart flooded with happiness. The 78 milers carried the day, today. Just keep winning games like this, you Mariners, and we could slow-and-steady our way into a more advantageous place in the standings.