I still remember the first time I saw a legitimate breaking ball.
I was ten years old and it was the middle of batting drills at an early season little league practice. The majority of offerings from my coach were typical, soft tosses that fluttered across the middle of the plate, but every now and then he liked to mix things up to keep us on our toes. Up to that point, I understood these surprise pitches to vary strictly in location and velocity, but never in movement. That day, however, my coach wound up and delivered a curveball that started out in the middle of the plate before curling into the opposite batter's box. Now, my coach was never a star pitcher and I'm certain if I saw the breaking ball now I'd chuckle at the idea of ever swinging at such a pitch, but to ten-year-old me he might as well have been Kershaw, and I helplessly swung at the pitch as it spun so far away that a second bat attached to my regular bat probably wouldn't have helped me. I missed and I was out.
There are times, like the last two nights, when the #Mariners look like they've never seen an off-speed pitch.— Bob Dutton (@TNT_Mariners) September 18, 2016
The Mariners did not win Saturday night. The bats were completely overwhelmed by Astros starting pitcher Mike Fiers–who entered the day with a 4.29 xFIP and 4.65 FIP–and they fell, 2-1. Fiers effectively mixed velocity and location, keeping the Mariners guessing and flailing all night. He finished with four strikeouts, three hits, and a walk over six shutout innings.
With Fiers exiting and the Mariners trailing 2-0, the damage would have to come against the bullpen. First up was Chris Devenski and his changeup/slider combo. The Mariners were sending Nelson Cruz to the plate. It was time the perfect time to get this comeback going and get a base hi–
Okay, whatever. So Cruz swung at three pitches that weren't even in the same continent as the strike zone. It was just one out. Besides, the Mariners would eventually get a couple singles and bring Mike Zunino up to the plate with two outs and two on. One swing and the Mariners would be back in the lead, ready to march into that last playoff spot with authori–
Alright, so Devenski got Zunino to chase a slider way off the plate. That is fine. The next inning, Luke Gregerson took the mound and a Nori Aoki single and Seth Smith double cut the deficit in half. With two outs and Ben Gamel (who pinch ran for Smith) standing on second, Robinson Cano stepped up to the plate. The whole crowd was into it, waiting for that big hit that would propel the Mariners ahead of this annoying little team from Houston. It had been a rough series for Cano so far, but you just knew he would shake it all off and find a way to get the job don–
Okay, so the pitch bounced. Gregerson is a major league reliever, after all, and he gets paid to throw straight filth. The Mariners scored a run in the inning and now every batter represented the tying run! All it would take is just one hitter recognizing a breaking ball well enough to send a baseball soaring over the fence. Just one! I like the sound of tha–
In three innings, Astros relievers recorded six strikeouts, all on offspeed pitches. It wasn't very fun.
What made this all the more frustrating was that while the offense was busy scoring a single run on seven hits, James Paxton was busy being magnificent. The command wasn't perfect, but the stuff was great and the Astros struggled to square him up all night. He wouldn't even surrender his first hit until the sixth inning, when Teoscar Hernandez sent a bullet up the middle.
His only blemish in the run column would come in that same inning when, after Paxton battled back from a 2nd and 3rd, no-out situation, Yulieski Gurriel managed to scoot a ball into left field for a two-out, two-RBI single.
Paxton finished the night with a line of 7 IP, 4 H, 2 R, BB, and 7 K. It was a terrific outing that should've been enough for a victory, but, well, see above.
The Mariners will attempt to avoid a sweep tomorrow when they send Ariel Miranda to the bump to face old friend Doug Fister. Fister has struggled in 2016, but the same could be said of Fiers and McHugh. Let's all hope the bats take out a bunch of pent-up rage on some baseballs tomorrow.