This should have been the 2019 Royals’ night. Instead, the ghost of the 2017 Mariners rose up, dragged them underwater, and allowed Mitch Haniger and Anthony Swarzak to sail deeper into territory unknown to Mariners fans.
In 2017, Jerry Dipoto had an idea for how his aging, expensive ballclub could be competitive: they were going to pride speed and defense. The suprisingly-nimble-yet-statuesque Robinson Cano would be offset on the middle infield by Jean Segura, who would also create havoc on the basepaths for a team ranked 26th in baserunning by BsR the previous season. Jarrod Dyson, Mr. Zoombiya himself, would trade off with the wide-ranging Leonys Martin in center, while the corners wold be held down by speedy Guillermo Heredia, capable-at-everything Mitch Haniger, and professional slip-n-slider Ben Gamel. Child’s wind-up toy rabbit Boog Powell played on that team too! I have no idea where we put all these outfielders, but they were all there at various times. With an outfield wall of sound rivaling anything that came out of Motown, the Mariners could, Dipoto theorized, support a flyball pitching staff—one ranked by most outlets in the bottom third of baseball—within the spacious confines of Safeco Field. On the offensive side, if any of the speed guys could get on, the lead-footed big bats like Canó, Cruz, and Seager could drive them in. It wasn’t a bad plan! It just didn’t work. The Mariners ended 2017 ranked in the bottom third for pitching, as expected, but they finished a staggering 27th in BsR, and while they did finish 6th overall in offense, they lagged a full 15 points behind the next-highest club.
The 2019 Royals are built very similarly to the 2017 Mariners: they’re paying 15 million dollars a year for Ian Kennedy to not start games for them, so some flexibility is key with the position players. The Royals currently have the ninth-best BsR score in baseball, which is a significant achievement for a team with all of two wins. Their lineup alternates between noodle-bat/elite speedsters like Billy Hamilton and Terrance Gore and decent hitters with plus speed like Whit Merrifield and Raul Mondesi. This makes the Royals very pesky on the basepaths, when they can reach, and more importantly somewhat entertaining for a beleaguered Kansas City fanbase. And sometimes, sometimes those noodle bats will run into one, and the good bats will hopefully do what they’re supposed to do, and the defense will pick up the pitching.
All those things happened tonight. The Royals, by rights, should have won this game. Whit Merrifield bunted for a base hit right in George Brett’s face while breaking his record for most consecutive hits. Billy Hamilton took a walk. Raul Mondesi had two hits and two stolen bases. Jorge Soler only struck out twice and hit a home run to Mars. Chris Owings hit a double! And Terrance Gore had the best night of his career, making the first start of his career, with three hits and two stolen bases. The pitching didn’t totally implode. When you plot it out, do the math, crunch the numbers, this should have been a W for the Royals.
But these Mariners don’t crunch numbers. These Mariners crunch bones.
Truthfully, the Mariners left some runs on the board tonight. In the third, they only scored two runs off a shaky Heath Fillmyer in an inning where they had the bases loaded with none out, the same kind of inning where we’ve seen them punish a starter and chase him from the game. To be fair, that could have been a big inning, but both Encarnación and Vogelbach were robbed (well, in Vogey’s case it was maybe more of light extortion) by fine plays by the aforementioned outfield, including Whitt Merrifield who last I checked was an infielder? How pesky! The Mariners also had a chance to make the fourth a big inning when they finally did chase Fillmyer after he loaded the bases on three straight singles without recording an out. Mallex Smith did come through with a big two-run hit, but a strikeout looking from Haniger—his second already of the game—and a GIDP from Domingo Santana, replacing Jay Bruce (Bruce left the game with some Achilles tightness), ended the inning with limited damage.
It’s funny how spoiled we are with this offense/how terrified we are of this bullpen that five runs is a ho-hum day at the office, although the Royals kept it close, tagging Yusei Kikuchi for three runs in his six innings. After the Mariners took a 1-0 lead in the first, the Royals answered right back with an Adalberto Mondesi single/stolen base, knocked in by Jorge Soler. Soler would get Kikuchi again later on a mammoth solo shot on a poorly-located fastball to tie the game at third, and Hunter Dozier also hit a solo shot off him. Kikuchi was lucky to have kept Soler’s home run to a solo shot, as Mondesi had been caught stealing earlier in the inning. But those would cap the runs Kikuchi surrendered today as he settled in, started mixing in his slider more, and recorded a 1-2-3 4th, 5th, and 6th innings, with two of his three Ks on the day in the later innings. Kikuchi’s fastball velocity was also up at 95 on his final pitch of the game, a good sign as he continues to stretch out over the season and adapt to his new MLB schedule. Of his strikeouts, one came in the third, when he froze Chris Owings on a curveball, and two came in the sixth, both on his slider.
Matt Festa was wobbly again today, putting on runners, giving up a run, and Zac Rosscup could not keep the other runner from scoring, but Anthony Swarzak righted the ship by striking out two, and is my favorite Metal Dad Who Also Plays Professional Baseball.
Mitch Haniger has a rap for being boring, but it turns out that Haniger has just been playing a long con with all of us, and he actually has a sense of the dramatic, and also is a little bit of a messy bench who loves drama when he wants to be. Haniger looked at Merrifield’s historic night, and Gore’s career night, and thought:
A home run by Mitch Haniger gives the @Mariners the lead in the 9th inning. It also means 14 games to start the season with an HR. Join us for the finish on @ROOTSPORTS_NW #WHEREiROOT #TrueToTheBlue pic.twitter.com/WTqCEn4YVN— ROOT SPORTS™ | NW (@ROOTSPORTS_NW) April 11, 2019
So the Mariners were ahead, 6-5. But then Roenis Elias saw Mitch’s drama and raised him one Confession Room, loading the bases en route to locking down his second save.
Sorry, Royals. You did everything right. The 2019 Mariners are just on this kind of a tear right now. Don’t worry about it. In fact, none of us should. Let’s just enjoy the drama, together.