If you told me the Mariners lost to the Cubs 5-1 in a Justus Sheffield start here is what I would picture: poor command, a handful of walks, a great many balls flying into and over the ivy. Happily, this was not the case! Instead we tossed it back to June, when the offense flailed and the bullpen would blow it. Remember those days? Ah, bad old times. (Fun fact: Mariners starters took the loss 6 times in June compared to 10 for the bullpen.) The Mariners may have taken the L today, but it’s hard to be too despondent when Justus Sheffield turned in his best MLB start to date.
This is not to say Sheffield was perfect; the command was iffy at times and he hit Anthony Rizzo twice (although in the exact same spot, so points for accuracy). It took Justus 91 pitches to get through five innings, which is not a model of efficiency, as he threw only 54 of his pitches for strikes, walking two in addition to the two free passes to Rizzo. But Sheffield also got 21 swinging strikes, a new career high, and struck out seven. His slider was especially deadly, and he collected six of his seven Ks on it. In the third, he put down Kris Bryant on three pitches: a fastball at 93 Bryant swung through, and then two straight sliders he swung at and missed, chasing one in the dirt for the K.
Sheffield also got some help from two excellent catches from Braden Bishop, one sliding and one leaping, both of which you can see in the above video. He...did not get as much help from Jake Fraley in center or Dylan Moore at short, although each time Sheffield was able to work around any potential damage. In addition to benefiting from some defense, Sheffield also benefited from a Cubs team that struggles to hit off-speed pitches, and a game plan that had him throwing almost as many sliders as he did fastballs (the fastball, by the way, sat 92-94 and touched 95). Sheff also threw a few changeups, which clocked in at 88; none were particularly dreadful, although Castellanos did go down and get one at the bottom of the zone for a double (a ball Jake Fraley had one of his outfield adventures with), but the changeup’s shape needs more work to differentiate it from the slider, and if the fastball is going to be consistently 92, a little more separation velocity-wise would be ideal. Gameday called a couple pitches fastballs that I’m pretty sure were hard changeups, if that gives you an idea.
The Mariners went into the seventh inning clinging to a 1-0 lead, thanks to an RBI double from Dee Gordon who drove in Dylan Moore, who had also doubled in his continued assault on the laws of physics. Matt Wisler had pitched well in relief of Sheffield in the 6th, a 1-2-3 inning with two strikeouts, but his command wobbled in the 7th, and he walked Jason Heyward and Kris Bryant. That activated Scott Servais’s hook function, and for funsies he made it a double switch, putting Austin Nola in for defensively-limited Daniel Vogelbach at first. Unfortunately, that decision would not stop this from happening:
“Kyle Schwarber triple” is not a phrase you hear often, and it was the difference-maker in today’s game. (Also, confidential to @Cubs: what??? If that tweet sat next to me on the bus, I would move.) The Cubs had already tied the game on an Anthony Rizzo single (and a dreadful throw by Fraley), and they would score again on a poor throw from Dylan Moore on the contact play, so not a shining day for Mariners defenders not named Braden Bishop. To add insult to injury, former Mariner David Phelps came in and shut things down against the Mariners. Ah well. Down the stretch here, it’s all about finding joy for 2020 and beyond, and the memory of Cubs batters looking positively helpless against Justus Sheffield’s slider will keep me warm over the long and cold off-season.