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The Seattle Mariners and the Deathly Off-Speed Pitch

it was a battle at Hogwarts but this time the good guys lost

Toronto Blue Jays v Seattle Mariners
ahhh I almost had it
Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

Lately I’ve been really into this podcast called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. Started by two divinity students from Harvard, each episode covers one chapter from the Harry Potter series, in order, and reads them with the care and attention one would bring to the study of a holy book. If this sounds heretical or foolish or just plain uninteresting to you, I totally understand that. Some long-dormant Catholic school part of me clutched its rosary when I thought about reading Harry Potter like the Bible. But I gave it a listen and I’m so glad I did, because it’s not so much about religion or the Bible at all, but really it’s closer to the practice of close reading, about thinking about things deeply with care and attention, and doing so through the medium of meditating on this particular book. Each episode has a theme through which they read and discuss the chapter, and then select one passage at random to perform a traditional sacred scholarly reading (such as Lectio Divina or Chavrusa) upon to reflect on the deeper meaning of the text. The episode ends with each of the hosts delivering a blessing to whatever character they deem worthy of a blessing that week, and, even though I am not religious, I sometimes end the episode feeling blessed, as well.

In the first episode, one of the hosts suggests that one can bring this practice to anything that you love, as a way to love it better, and in fact suggests that baseball could be one of those things. So tonight, in lieu of a traditional recap, I am going to bring the practice of close reading to this Mariners - Blue Jays game, and read it as if it is a sacred text, in order to love it better.

Whenever we write recaps that go beyond the bare facts of the game, in a way we are constructing a narrative for that game, based on a theme. Sometimes the theme is “the Mariners can’t hit a breaking ball” and sometimes the theme is “Nelson Cruz is really strong” but there’s almost always an underlying theme of some sort. For tonight’s game the theme I want to read through is “almostness”—the idea of being so close to something and falling short, and the question I want to ask is if there is any beauty or strength to be found in almostness, instead of just the obvious frustration.

The theme of almostness becomes apparent right away, when Taijuan Walker—who almost had a perfect game before he almost had a no-hitter—almost had a dominant 1-2-3 first inning, striking out Devin Travis and Josh Donaldson. But then Edwin Encarnación hit a hard smash back to the mound that glanced off Taijuan’s hand, and after he was checked out by the training staff, he came back and walked José Bautista on four straight pitches. While we’re speaking of walks and almosts though...

Hmm well I suppose by a hair’s breadth that was

wait what now? Chris Conroy—whose name I have typed before, come to think of it, I believe he has a history of Brigadoonish strike zones—had a rough night behind the plate. His north-to-south zone was relatively generous, but the east-west axis was a late Jackson Pollock. For example, this was almost a walk:

Kind of like Adam Lind is almost a baseball player, I guess. But instead Lind saw another pitch headed towards that Department of Mysteries part of the strike zone and figured oh heck I guess I better swing and wound up popping it up. Part of this is because Adam Lind is not very good right now. But it also serves as a reminder that so many plays in baseball represent a hair’s breadth between success and failure; who knows what happens if Adam Lind gets on there in the seventh, and the inning continues? What’s funny is the player who did get tossed that inning for arguing balls and strikes was not Adam Lind, but Josh Donaldson, who was mad about Conroy not getting help on his check swing (he definitely went too far) before ringing him up on a low called strike three (it probably wasn’t a strike) (don’t argue with umpires) (especially ones with questionable strikes zones). Meanwhile, in a weird Mirror-of-Eriseding of Taijuan’s last start, Marco Estrada almost had a no-hitter until Canó finally broke through in the seventh with a single. Estrada pitched very simply, using his fastball high in the zone and his change low in the zone, and the Mariners hitters kept flying into it like those birds into the Vikings’ new stadium. Please do some drills on hitting breaking balls, Gar.

The theme of almostness is also prevalent in reading the offense tonight. While the balls from the Blue Jays’ bats found outfield green and also did this, the balls off the Mariners’ bats did this:

Again and again and again. It was like the spirit of Justin Smoak stole over Safeco like that cloud when the dementors start gettin’ busy. Finally Leonys Martín hit a two-run shot in the ninth to get the Mariners closer, but by that point the Mariners had already left six on base, going 0-for-4 with RISP, including a gut-wrenching lineout by Canó to end the eighth and leave the bases loaded. It was almost, and then it was not.

So to crib directly from the structure of the HP&tST podcast, having discussed the theme I’m now going to do a close reading of one of these almost moments, albeit not totally at random (although it is when I realized I should ask José for an image of this eminently un-gif-able game), and this is it:

Diesel Dan pumps a 97 mph fastball to the outside corner against Kevin Pillar here, and Pillar reaches out across the plate to spoil the pitch, but almost winds up getting a double out of it because it was that kind of night for the Blue Jays, luck-wise. Ben Gamel was ON HIS HORSE, though; he is part of the hands team and he was not going to let that ball fall without putting up a fight. We’ve seen so much play in right field over the past season(s) that is unathletic, lackadaisical, resigned, and here’s Ben Gamel, a Mariner for all of three weeks, laying out and giving his body up to the hard-packed dirt of the outfield. Look at how fast his legs churn in that gif! If he was running through milk he’d have made butter. Then there’s the epic belly flop, the sacrifice of his body, the eating of the dirt on Safeco’s Slip-and-Slide, and the fence suddenly looming large and close. And he almost had it. That play was an eighth of a second away from spectacular. And maybe this is the gift of the almost, the beauty in the frustration. The almost is the wabi-sabi, the human-made, the rough and the imperfect. It is a reminder of the dirt we come from and the dirt to which we will return. So I close by offering a blessing to Ben Gamel, who almost had an amazing catch, and who was the last strikeout of the game, in an almost-miraculous-comeback, for reminding us of our humanity, and of the importance of trying hard, even when the ball is just out of your grasp.