It’s already become somewhat banal to have to include the caveat that “it’s only spring training.” That being said, today the Mariners narrowly won a legitimately exciting and close game. Even though, no, it doesn’t matter, this game felt good. I had almost forgotten the palpable tension that builds up in my chest cavity when the team is trying to protect a one-run lead in the ninth inning. I had almost forgotten the unique combination of elation and relief when the 27th out is finally recorded. You can say it didn’t, but today felt like it mattered.
Perhaps the most encouraging development from today’s game was the bounce-back of Yovani Gallardo. Following a disappointing spring debut, Gallardo had more riding on this game than one normally would in their second spring training game. This was Gallardo’s last chance to impress before leaving the team for the World Baseball Classic, and he delivered. Gallardo was as sharp as we could have hoped for. He pitched three scoreless innings, striking out three without issuing a single walk. Most encouraging of all is the fact that he threw 28 strikes out of 39 pitches, showing a command that looks far-improved over his debut. It’s obviously just three innings, but this was certainly encouraging.
The spring debut of James Paxton, unfortunately, did not go nearly as well. In Paxton’s first inning of work, he faced Ian Desmond with two outs and a man on second with an 0-2 count. An ideal time to try to make Desmond chase a pitch out of the zone, one would think. Unfortunately, Paxton left the 0-2 offer way up in the zone, and Desmond made him pay.
Paxton’s second inning went far better, and he ended his day with two strikeouts and one walk in two innings of work. This isn’t anything worth being concerned over, but it’ll be worth keeping an eye on Paxton’s command when he starts next Thursday.
On the offensive side of things, the trio of Jean Segura, Robinson Cano, and Nelson Cruz combined to go 1-for-9 in their final game before the WBC. Of course, they’ve already shown us plenty, and their lackluster showing served only to accentuate Mike Zunino’s absolute bomb to left field in the second inning.
More encouraging than the home run itself was just how hard Zunino managed to hit it.
Per Statcast, Zunino's exit velocity of 111.9 mph on second-inning HR was higher than his hardest-hit HR of all of '16 (111.8 mph).— Greg Johns (@GregJohnsMLB) March 4, 2017
While exciting, I am going to have to pump the brakes for myself on the enthusiasm. Zunino’s other two at-bats resulted in strikeouts, thus giving us the complete Zunino Experience™. It is, however, worth watching to see if Zunino’s increased exit velocity continues.
The very next inning, the Mariners showed us the two reasons why I personally am most exciting about this upcoming season. First, in the top of the inning, Leonys Martin doubled to put himself on scoring position. Then, with Jean Segura batting, this happened.
Yes, this was mostly Tom Murphy making a bad play on a ball in the dirt, then getting fairly unlucky. What this play is representative of to me, though, is the speed that now permeates the Mariners lineup, especially in comparison to last year. More speed leads to pressure on defenses, opening the door for mistakes like this.
Going hand-in-hand with speed is defense. In the bottom of that same inning, Jean Segura showcased not only his otherworldly range, but his strong arm.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved Ketel Marte. But according to Fangraphs, the man had a very negative contribution on defense last year. Of course, Segura was also negative last year, but to a lesser extent. Last year was also the first year of his career that he did not rate as a plus defender. If this play was any indication, he will certainly be an improvement over Marte.
Following Desmond’s dinger off of Paxton, the Mariners and Rockies traded runs over the next four innings. These innings were highlighted by a Tyler O’Neill walk (encouraging), a Zach Shank RBI double, and a respectable two scoreless innings of relief from Chris Heston (despite some shoddy command). The game entered the ninth inning tied at 3-3, and I suspect I wasn’t the only one less-than-excited about the prospect of a tie.
Coming up to bat for the Mariners were Tyler Marlette, Kyle Waldrop, James Ramsey, and Zach Shank. The names didn’t matter. Marlette led off the inning with a double to right, and just like that, I got that feeling in my chest. After Waldrop grounded out and Ramsey walked, Zach Shank again came to the plate. On the second pitch, he got a fastball down the middle and ripped it into left field, scoring Marlette and giving the Mariners the lead. It didn’t matter that it was Zach Shank hitting the game-winner and not Kyle Seager. It didn’t matter that Tyler Marlette scored and not Jarrod Dyson. In that moment, the Mariners came through in the ninth inning of a Major League Baseball game, and it all felt real.
Well, maybe it did matter a little. I really hope that I’ll soon be cheering for Edwin Diaz to close out 4-3 wins, and not Christian Bergman. Still, as Bergman retired Anthony Bemboom (quite the name) for the final out, the excitement that I feel for this season reached a fever pitch. There’s still a month to go, but I think we might just make it.