First and foremost: holy hellfire James Paxton. In five and a third innings last night he was dazzling, hitting the high 90s with pinpoint control. He was fantastic. He was the big story from this game—literally and figuratively.
I am going to tell a smaller story. Last night Danny Valencia was very good, as well. He went 2-for-4, with the highest WPA of all position players, at .084. His double in the second gave the Mariners their first two runs of the game, and a lead that would never be threatened, pushing the Mariners’ win expectancy up to 80% for the game, never to look back. In a game that had a win expectancy chart that looked like Hannibal scaling the Alps, Valencia’s double was the first ascent up Mt. Du Chat.
But it was after the game that Valencia, unlikely hoplite, delivered a spear right into my heart:
STOP DANNY VALENCIA I CAN ONLY LOVE YOU SO MUCH pic.twitter.com/eGwp0BApw8— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) June 1, 2017
I sympathize with those on Twitter who thought I was talking about his eyes, those leaf-fringed legends. But no, I meant the hat, because even without the word “Sonics” the Space Needle + basketball equation works on any of us who have lived in this region for some time. It’s better, even, I think, not having the word, a word that causes an involuntary hunching of the shoulders, a downturn to the mouth. So: Danny Valencia is not only wearing a Sonics hat, he’s wearing a hipster Sonics hat, one that sent the denizens of Twitter scurrying to source (thank you, friend of the site Joe Veyera). “Lambon,” teased Jean Segura in a comment on the photo Valencia put on Instagram: kissass.
Let’s be clear: this is some gold medal sucking up. It’s a broad appeal to a hometown fanbase, but in a sly, winking way, to put on a cap that does everything but say Sonics. “Bring ‘em back,” he commented below the Instagram picture, with little tan praise hands. (He responded to Segura’s dig with a series of cry-laughing emoji, the most emotionally complex of all emoji). But consider this: Danny Valencia has been in MLB for seven years, and during that time, has played for six teams. Rumors have abounded about his clubhouse demeanor. He’s been considered expendable, which has led to him being rootless. “It’s tough,” he admitted to Danny, Dave and Moore in an interview this off-season, even while saying he loved the chance to see all different parts of the country. It’s fun to travel around when you’re younger, but when you’re older, you want to be settled. You want to have roots.
This year, Valencia is doing what he can to establish his roots. This off-season, Valencia traveled to Cuba, to reconnect with his heritage. Coincidentally or not, this season he has been enfolded into the team’s Latin core, sitting with them on plane rides and celebrating with them in the dugout:
Danny, Dave and Moore asked Jean Segura about Valencia’s warm reception in the dugout after hitting a home run in a particularly good game for him: “He gets mad when he strikes out, when he gets out, he’s mad, and yesterday was a big game for him, and we joke around with him,” Segura responded breezily. “Have a little bit of fun, because it’s all about having fun.”
Danny Valencia is currently having a lot of fun. After slashing just .181/.259/.306 in April, Valencia has a .306/.364/.459 mark for May. He has a wRC+ of 129 for May, more than double the 56 he put up in April. He’s had key hits in several of the last few games, including last night. He’s also providing above-average defense at first base, with 2 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) already. It took a little while, but Danny Valencia finally feels at home. Can we keep him?