If you will, think back to your Opening Day notion about what the 2018 Mariners would be. Once the 25-man roster came together most of us began to realize that this team could field a very potent offense. Dee to Jean to Robbie to Nellie had a nice ring to it. The rest of the lineup, while potential-laden, carried some question marks.
Kyle Seager endeared himself to us years ago, but his dip in production last year allowed for creeping thoughts about him hitting his ceiling. Mitch Haniger showed several flashes, but was still young and snake-bitten by injuries. The Vogelbach-Healy platoon made the Mariners younger but unproven at a premium offensive position. Gamel and Zunino had hurt themselves already. Ichiro was there.
It seemed like a top-heavy starting nine that would either break out as it accumulated more plate appearances or regress into a mediocre offense yet again.
Tonight felt like the beginning of a breakout.
Granted, the Mariners were paired against Kendall Graveman, who has been the opposite of good this season. But from the very first inning, in which Graveman was visibly shook, it was fairly clear that the M’s have an offense that should smack the ball around all summer.
Even though the offense couldn’t muster any runs in the first inning, it was encouraging to see each of the first six hitters put together competitive at-bats. Dee Gordon extended his hitting streak to 12 games with a single to left field that feels like it’ll be a big part of our lives. Robinson Canó and Kyle Seager worked walks, but were left stranded after Mitch Haniger struck out. Again, even though no runners were plated, making Graveman throw 24 pitches gave the M’s an early micro-advantage. For a first inning that left the scoreboard blank, and took approximately seven weeks to complete, it was still oddly fulfilling.
While Graveman was fighting for his life with every pitch, Marco Gonzales breezed through his first two innings like he knew his teammates were about to explode. Marco should be given an assist for the subsequent three runs in the bottom of the frame. His hyper-efficient start fed the offense’s hot hand, quickly getting them back in the batter’s box to feast on Graveman’s mistakes. A David Freitas single, followed by Dee CTRL-V’ing his first inning knock set the table for Jean Segura.
Early as it was, Graveman inhabited the mound with the body language of a man clearly on his way to a fourth-straight short outing. That’s when Segura twisted the knife even more. On one of Graveman’s better pitches of the inning, Jean casually dropped down and deposited the low-and-in fastball to the back of the bullpen. 3-0 Mariners.
Of course, nothing in life is that easy. In his first trip through the order, Marco was in full galaxy-brain mode. All of his pitches were working. All of his pitches were complementing each other. He was hitting his spots and eliciting weak contact. Then, the A’s got their second looks at him, and we got our first look at a thwarted inside-the-park home run that was actually just a ground-rule double.
The discussion about challenge vs. no challenge feels worth having. Hindsight being 20-20, it is obviously better to get out of the inning with just one run allowed rather than the eventual three. But, just as one is less than three, zero is less than one. It always makes more sense to hang a zero any time you can. However, after exerting himself in a very athletic way to apply a tag at home plate, one can imagine Marco was physically and mentally taxed. Having to re-focus and essentially end the inning twice is a tough ask.
When Mark Canha lined a two-RBI single, I heard all of your collective screams about just ending the inning when it was originally over. If I can cop out for a second, you’re all wrong and right. Of course you’d rather escape with a 3-1 cushion, but you’d also rather escape with a 3-0 cushion. Had Marco fanned Canha instead of allowing a hit, we’d all be praising Scott Servais for his deft challenge and celebrating Marco for limiting the damage completely.
The first two innings of Gonzales vs. the last 1.1 innings of Gonzales highlight the growth he still needs to make. When located effectively, his changeup and cutter create a cacophony of swing-overs and weak contact. The thing is, hitters understand that too. Laying off the ground-level changeup and under-the-hands cutter forces Marco back to the fat part of the plate.
As the ROOT Sports crew pointed out during the broadcast, Gonzales is a completely different pitcher when he falls behind in the count. When batters know a strike is coming, they barrel the ball up. This is especially true for Marco, who is still learning how to pitch to MLB hitters, and is never going to get people out with velocity. The day he can consistently dot the corners on 2-0 and 3-1 counts will be the day we all fall in love with Marco. Until then, we’re going to have to stomach some hard contact and gappers against him.
Not that any of it mattered though.
This offense is extremely good, y’all.
Mitch Haniger, the most overqualified six-hitter in the league, continues to stick it to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Whether you like standard or advanced statistics, Mitch passes all of the tests. Coming into the game, he was hitting .297/.426/568 with three homers and 12 RBI, with a line drive percentage above 20 percent, and hard or medium contact more than 80 percent of the time. Tonight, he added to each of those numbers, and turned all of us into the real life version of this GIF.
Mitch is demonstrating what kind of asset he can be. He is absolutely raking, and the one guy in the order who I always want hitting with runners in scoring position. This does not mention anything about his defense, which is also good, and stands to make him one of the more complete outfielders the Mariners have had in many moons.
This game was one of those rare combinations of familiarly comforting and pleasantly surprising. Everyone from Gordon to Freitas contributed to the box score, but did so in a kind of eclectic way that reminds you why baseball is so great. Segura, Haniger, Seager and Vogelbach left the yard, Dee and Ichi slapped infield hits, and the Altavilla-Díaz duo breathed flames at everything in their paths.
But the beauty of baseball and its 162-game season is found in its little surprises. Like when Chasen Bradford is forced into a high-leverage situation in the fourth inning, and needs just one pitch to get two outs. Or when the second of those two outs is secured by Daniel Vogelbach snaring a short hop, who then scampers home like a VoGAZELLE one inning later.
A random burst of speed from Vogey was surprising because that didn’t match our idea of his skill profile. What happened later was surprising for a different reason.
I didn’t know he was capable of THAT. I didn’t even really know humans were capable of that. Statcast had that one leaving the bat at 112 MPH on a 28-degree launch angle. But enough about fancy shmancy numbers, let’s go to Nelson Cruz for his analysis.
We are all Nelson Cruz after Daniel Vogelbach just crushed the living hell out of a baseball. pic.twitter.com/d883Nx3d4r— C.J. Tumbarello (@TumbarelloHB) April 15, 2018
Getting ten runs with a combination of small and long ball was just what the doctor ordered. In part because of a sloppy outing from Gonzales, and a leaky performance from some relievers, double digit runs were necessary to make us feel safe. We can’t expect the bats to do that every night, but we also probably shouldn’t not expect that either.
Of course, not every game will be against the A’s and their woeful run prevention. But getting this confidence early in the season can go a long way. You have to assume that every Mariner in the clubhouse is feeling the effects of its high-octane offense. That is a lot to say for a team that was 13th out of 15 AL teams in runs just three seasons ago.
The Seattle Mariners are 8-4. They’ve gotten zero combined plate appearances from Ben Gamel and Mike Zunino. For the first time in a long time, the Mariners are an offensive team, and they stand to get even better.
I like the sound of that.