There was a time when exerting just a little more effort than my peers could keep me on top of my elementary-school world. Study a little harder for the spelling bee? Boom, school representative. Enlist the help of my engineer dad on my science fair project for a perfect 100/100. Literally just showing up every day earned a perfect attendance ribbon. That’s it! All you had to do was show up! My report card was filled with accolades that made it seem like I spent my days in a pint-sized lab coat curing cancer and solving the crisis in the Middle East. Life was good. Life was easy.
Like most people cursed with the label of “gifted” as a child, eventually I grew up and got kicked in the teeth by the world, specifically when I couldn’t pass the entry-level mathematics exam at my college and was forced to take a form of remedial math that involved me, as a college freshman, using something called Wikki Stix to measure the circumference of...apples I think? The details are lost to the sands of time. The teacher was a well-respected older stats prof who probably should have hated teaching a remedial class to math-averse dummies like me. Instead he approached the class with a joyful, exuberant spirit, bringing in a bag of tricks every day like a mathematical Mary Poppins.
At first I was embarrassed by the hands-on nature of the class: what if one of my pals from Advanced Spanish Literature passed by in the hallway and saw me with my Wikki Stix? The vergüenza! But little by little, the shame fell away because for the first time in my life, I was really learning math—not just memorizing formulas and moving through a series of pre-determined steps, but understanding the underlying concepts and applying what I learned each week to a paragraph-long puzzle-problem that took multiple steps to solve. It changed my relationship with math forever. And I would have never gotten there without failing that test.
For the past few weeks, the Mariners have been succeeding at an elementary-school level, winning a ribbon essentially by showing up against bad teams. This Astros series has been their college entrance exam, and so far, it’s looking like they’re headed for a hot date with some Wikki Stix (which are actually really fun and tactile, and now I want to run down to Target and get some.) But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Tonight the Mariners faced a Justin Verlander who was as good as I’ve ever seen him. His fastball was zippy, his off-speed was crisp, he was painting the corners, he struck out double digits. He was hitting 99 when nearing a triple-digit pitch count in the sixth. He won, seemingly, every battle, including a twelve-pitch battle with [checks notes]...Dee Gordon?
But about that triple-digit pitch count in the sixth. The Mariners might have struck out 11 times, but they made Verlander work for it. Six of the 20 batters he faced ran full counts, and it took Verlander over 20 pitches to get through the first, even as the side went down 1-2-3. Even on a night when he had his best stuff, Mariners batters forced Verlander to make a couple of mistakes, the first being on this pitch to, who else, Mitch Haniger:
Make it 17 straight games with a home run to open the season—courtesy of #17. #TrueToTheBlue x @M_Hanny17 pic.twitter.com/IqEFG0bvpx— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) April 14, 2019
The other was a deep flyout off the bat of Ryon Healy, which would have tied the game and had this statline:
That was the only barreled pitch of the game that didn’t go for a home run; it actually had a higher xBA, or Expected Batting Average (which is what Statcast is now calling the old “hit probability”), than Chirinos’s home run.
It was just that kind of a night for the Mariners. The Astros scored just three runs, two on home runs, and one on a single after Altuve got aboard with a bunt base hit that stayed fair by inches. A softly-lobbed Gurriel parachute double luckily didn’t cause any damage, but those were the whims of the BABIP gods tonight.
Beyond the puckish BABIP gods, the reason to walk away from this game, at least, feeling good is the way the pitching performed. This was the best Félix has looked since last August, when on the 28th he went seven innings against San Diego and struck out nine...and again took the loss. Death, taxes, etc. Tonight Félix’s record carries three blemishes: two home runs, plus the single which scored a hit batsman (but also included the Altuve bunt base hit). He struck out five and only walked one. Truthfully, he looked a lot better than his line looks, spotting his pitches well and getting some particularly hilarious swinging strikes out of Altuve, who eventually did run into one and put a pitch over the wall, but also, well, I didn’t record any of the swinging strikes because I honestly thought this game was going to go very differently, but to describe it to you visually, it was like watching one of those rubber band-powered helicopters wound up by a sugar-saturated toddler with no regard for physics or drywall.
Brandon Brennan also continued to look extremely filthy, and make the White Sox player development look extremely silly, with a 1-2-3 inning with a strikeout. Speaking of player development snafus, it’s still too early to say the Mariners got a steal with Connor Sadzeck, but he doesn’t look like the wild-eyed galoot I remember from a one-inning “opener” performance against the Mariners last September when he walked two in one inning. Sadzeck worked two hitless innings tonight, striking out two and walking no one while working in the upper 90s. He was prettyyyyy pumped about it too.
The only part of this night that doesn’t feel like a win is, well, the part where they lost, and specifically the part where they couldn’t get to Roberto Osuna, who should not be allowed to breathe the same air as Dee Gordon.
Julio Rodriguez, the Mariners’ 18-year-old prospect, has had a heap of challenges thrown at him this season, including an aggressive assignment to A ball and appearing in Spring Training games against players much older and more experienced than him. Julio had a particularly rough day this spring at Camelback Ranch, facing some of the Dodgers’ upper-minors and MLB-experienced arms. He struck out twice in key spots that could have helped the team come back from the 2-0 deficit that eventually sank from them. It would be understandable, expected even, for the hyped teenager to slink away to lick his wounds. Instead, he posted this directly after the game:
You have two choices when life kicks you in the teeth: you can sulk in the corner of a classroom with your Wikki Stix, or you can set aside the embarrassment and embrace the lessons failure has to teach you. After weeks of feasting on lower-level competition, the Mariners came up short tonight. They might tomorrow, as well. Contrary to what we’ve heard (some of which we ourselves at LL have said), this series doesn’t teach us who the Mariners are. It tells us where they are. What comes next, what they may be—that’s up to them, and what they choose to learn.