Today the Mariners won a wild one over the Cubs, 11-10, in maybe what was the most spring trainingest of the games we’ve seen so far. The most important hit in this game was a sacrifice bunt by Zach Shank. I’ll get back to that.
Today was one of those spring training games that fall pretty clearly into two halves—the Chris Heston vs. Kyle Hendricks part, and then Act II: Your 2017 Modesto Nuts. Except because the Mariners have so many players in the WBC, and the Cubs decided to leave their superstars back in Mesa, the offensive side of things looked a little more sleepy at the beginning. Encouragingly, Chris Heston looked good in his start, adding three more scoreless innings to the four he’s already thrown. His command looked a little wobbly in the first inning, but he was able to get three easy groundouts (okay, one of them wasn’t so easy, but Kyle Seager made it look that way) by keeping the ball low in the zone and showing good sink on his fastball and sharp bite on his breaking stuff. Stottlemyre has apparently described Heston as a good student, “open-minded and coachable,” and things certainly looked encouraging in this outing. Heston was controlling of the zone if not always commanding in that first inning, and as his outing went on he improved, ending on a ten-pitch one-two-three third inning. He made one mistake in an eight-pitch battle with Miguel Montero with an 88-mph sinker that didn’t sink, staying belt-high, which Montero just missed a home run on. Heston then gave up a base hit to Ian Happ, a really intriguing Cubs prospect who will probably be involved in some major trade later this summer because the Cubs are disgustingly deep, but escaped the inning without damage thanks to a strikeout/caught stealing combo. Something to watch might be how often teams try to run on Ruíz, whose arm hasn’t looked...awesome so far. Luckily, Taylor Motter made a great play on the ball to tag out Happ.
Speaking of Taylor Motter, let it be known that today is the day I joined the Taylor Motter fan club. Motter looked good at short all day, and also brought some offensive power, going 1-for-3 with a stolen base, after which he executed this hair flip for the ages:
But what really sold me on Motter is this booth interview he did with Sims and Blowers. Motter is gracious, well-spoken, and talks about how he wants to make friends with his teammates. Team Taylor.
Also encouraging: Marc Rzepczynski’s performance. After a shaky outing last time, Scrabble struck out righty Almora Jr. before giving up a sun double to righty Jeimer Candelario misplayed by Ben Gamel. Rzepczynski then rebounded to show why he’s a notorious lefty-killer on a four-pitch strikeout of Miguel Montero, the final swinging strike coming on a slider that dove away from Montero.
Unfortunately, the Mariners would see their string of strong pitching performances be interrupted there, as Nick Vincent, Thyago Vieira, and Micah Owings all struggled, giving up a combined total of 10 runs. Vincent showed shades of his dinger problem from last year, leaving balls up over the plate; he’s now given up a home run in each of his three spring training appearances. He was especially victimized down the right field line, serving up a double, triple, and home run to right field. Thyago Vieira would show signs of the same problem, getting hit hard and unable to make it out of the sixth. Micah Owings didn’t look sharp at all, starting off with a four-pitch walk before giving up a three-run homer and making Blowers do that “disappointed dad” voice he does when pitchers make mistakes. The game looked out of reach, with the Cubs ahead 10-2 headed to the bottom of the seventh.
But the mini-Mariners would not be denied. Mike Freeman atoned for some earlier mistakes with a single, and then Marcus Littlewood, who the Mariners drafted with the pick ahead of the Tigers taking Drew Smyly in 2010, singled, and then LL staff favorite Guillermo Heredia hit an infield single to load the bases. Kyle Waldrop hit a sacrifice fly to bring the Mariners one run closer, and then Joe DeCarlo, who spent last year in Bakersfield, channeled a little of that Cal League power:
Paul Fry—who, if you need a little trick to remember his name, sort of looks like a french fry, long and slender and golden-haired—came in and pitched an impressive inning in the top of the eighth, pounding the zone, working both sides of the plate, and recording two strikeouts in twelve pitches. That’s a good way to get yourself in good with the management around here. Then in the bottom of the eighth, things went full spring training when a pair of Clinton LumberKings scored two more runs: Luis Liberato, pinch-hitting for Marcus Littlewood, hit an inside-the-park home run, scoring teammate Rayder Ascanio, who had just gotten his first spring training hit on a single. Heredia would follow with a perfect bunt single but Kyle Waldrop popped out to end the inning with the Mariners still trailing by two.
Dan Altavilla rebounded from a rough backfield outing with a clean inning in the ninth, getting two groundouts before giving up a single to the pesky Happ. Tuffy Gosewich nailed Happ trying to steal second to end the inning.
The Mariners faithful in Peoria put on their rally caps and the Mariners repaid them in the bottom of the ninth. Joe DeCarlo started things off with a single, and was immediately pinch run for with Ian Miller, who immediately stole second base because that’s what he does. He now has four stolen bases this spring. D.J. Peterson then doubled him home to bring the Mariners within one (fun note! My daily “minor leaguer you’ve never heard of,” Luis Rengifo, actually made it into the game today, pinch-running for D.J.). Tuffy Gosewich then did a non-negative thing at the plate, and took a walk. Good job, Tuffy.
So back to that most important hit of the day. Zach Shank, pride of Marist College, was up with two on and no outs. Now, Zach Shank has been having himself a solid spring. In 11 AB, he has 7 hits and 6 RBI. Last year at Tacoma he slashed .290/.350/.395. It would probably have been fine to let Zach Shank bat here, and drive the runners in, and get jumped on by his teammates. But Zach Shank didn’t win the “Mr. Mariner” minor-league award because he cares only about covering himself in glory. Zach Shank is a team player. Zach Shank has heard the “haha, good thing you’re not a kicker!” joke millions of times, but he won’t shame you for telling it again. Zach Shank puts money in the tip jar when the barista isn’t looking. Zach Shank laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt to advance the runners, setting up Shawn O’Malley to once again be a hero.
But we all know who the real hero is, Zach Shank. We know.