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Mariners’ first day of class: some kids clearly studied harder than others

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Kikuchi falters, Kelenic doubles, and Julio gets schooled in Seattle’s first Spring Training game

Photo courtesy of Seattle Mariners/Twitter

Forgive me for a possible overreaction, or for getting swept away by naivete and my own biases, but the beginning of Spring Training is such a refreshing occasion that I can hardly contain myself. Acknowledging that the first Spring Training game is essentially a 15-year-old taking a spin around the neighborhood, today still provided a look into what we could see on the road for years to come. But above all else, baseball’s return is more about easing our abandonment, knowing that we’ll have this comforting blanket to drape ourselves in until October.

These Mariners being designed to suck also means that Spring Training carries a slightly heightened importance. Our minor league guys are not just placeholders on the Cactus League roster or a feel-good locker spot next to their heroes. They, whether fair or not, represent everything we want sports to be: an enjoyable distraction from the monotony, a reason to believe that things get better, and especially, a reason to care at all.

When Yusei Kikuchi fired the first pitch of the Mariners’ exhibition season, its very existence signaled those things. Watching baseball is a generally preferable option to other Sunday afternoon activities, and it is a distraction I will entertain 11 out of 10 times. Kikuchi is a paragon for revival and redemption opportunities, and the fact that he’ll get to work at it 40something times between now and Game 162 is both terrifying and sanguine. Working with a new delivery against opposing hitters for the first time, Kikuchi dazzled in some areas while stumbling on some of the more basic obstacles.

Per Ryan Divish, the second-year starter was hitting 95 MPH on his fastball. The extra hair on his heater simply overmatched the first two hitters of the day, as both Shin-Soo Choo and Nick Solak were reminded what it feels like to face a pitcher with something to prove again. Kikuchi collected strikeouts against the Rangers’ one and two hitters—a noteworthy feat after falling behind in the count to both of them—before swiftly going up 0-2 on human grain silo Joey Gallo. An unfortunate bit of direction doomed Kikuchi when Gallo squirted a jam shot through the shift for an opposite field double, but avoiding the barrel was both a win for the Mariners and the ozone layer, which remains more intact with each Gallo at-bat that doesn’t end in a homer.

Gallo ended up scoring on the next play when Kyle Seager turned a slick play up the line into an abbreviated throw to first, tying Evan White in a knot and skipping past him to allow Gallo to score. The short hop was surely a makeable play for White Claw, but certainly not a gimme. Luckily, the newly-rich first baseman got a chance in the next inning to cash the defensive check that so many scouts have written.

GIF courtesy of Kate Preusser

This play spawned the first of nine thousand comparisons to J.T. Snow and John Olerud. Sadly, Kikuchi did not garner any favorable comparisons to successful MLB veterans. Much of the salivating over his boosted velocity and smoother mechanics was quenched in the second inning. Kikuchi showed an inability to put hitters away, and even more troubling (as much as it can be in the first outing of Spring Training), had very little command of his pitches. The 28-year-old could not complete the second inning and was pulled after drilling Choo on the 43rd pitch of his tumultuous afternoon. This started the conveyor belt of quad-A, minor league grinders, and “two years away from being two years away” pitchers.

The first, site favorite Penn Murfee, delivered one of the moments that makes Spring Training so dang cool. Though Murfee has made a name for himself in the Arizona Fall League and for Team USA, a showdown with Gallo was unquestionably the toughest test of his career thus far. Unfazed by Gallo’s great white shark physique, Murfee spun him back to the dugout with this sexy slider.

Things mostly dragged along from that point, mirroring the sleepy desert air that engulfs Peoria, until a jolt touched down on the valley. In the bottom of the sixth, we got the first taste of what every Mariner fan hopes will be the meal to sate our starved and deprived appetite. Jarred Kelenic glided to the plate with his cocksure demeanor. His quiet, dangerous stance portrayed both a potential for venom, and an intimidation that many of his peers lack. Like a viper waiting to strike, Kelenic watched his prey and held for a possible misstep. The Wisconsin wunderkind stayed on a slider until the very last second, demonstrating a nice tracking eye, and calmly let it plunk off his beefy arm. The hit by pitch was a minor disappointment for fans looking to see him punish some poor 18th-rounder, but Kelenic would get his chance again in the eighth.

With Rangers’ sidewinder Tim Dillard on the hill, Kelenic sized up the first two pitches, which both went for called strikes. A wildly important skill for prospect development is the willingness to make adjustments. To do so during an at-bat is even more encouraging. Kelenic would do just that—against a pitcher 16 years his senior, no less—and smack an opposite field double. Seattle’s prized prospect shortened his approach, sat back on the side-armed offering and served it into left field like a tennis player on their backhand.

I personally hope that Kelenic gets a chance to see as many different types of pitchers as the Cactus League has to offer. Submarine specialists, LOOGYs, power arms, finesse lords, fellow prospects, and graybeard journeymen, let Jarred stare ‘em all down.

His partner in crime had a rougher go in his first 2020 game. Julio Rodriguez strode to the box in the seventh inning, standing sixty feet and six inches from Brian Flynn, a Rangers’ reliever who is both 6’7” and a big leaguer since 2013. After whistling some loud fly balls out of play, Rodriguez went down looking on a 2-2 fastball at the knees. No matter, right? There would be other chances. One in the very next inning, as a matter of fact, against another dude with extensive MLB service time. In this go-round, against the same Tim Dillard that Kelenic bested, Rodriguez took a backwards K again. This one looked to be a classic case of expecting the wrong pitch, as Rodriguez loitered on a hanging slider that could have been destroyed. Knowing what we know about Julio, he is in a batting cage right now taking nothing but breaking stuff, readying for the next time he sees that pitch.

For those worried about the final score, Seattle lost 7-5. Cal Raleigh struck out to end the game with the bases loaded on a curveball that absolutely froze him. For the guys we’ll be relying on in The Show this year, results were as wide and varied as the team’s scattershot roster.

Shed Long Jr. had a walk and a two-out RBI double. Kyle Seager collected a hit, Kyle Lewis logged a walk and a strikeout, and Daniel Vogelbach brought his trademark plate discipline to Arizona, working his first walk of the spring. On the defensive side, White added to the diving grab with a skillful snare on a tricky hop later in the game, but Mallex Smith ran into the wall to secure Seattle’s shiniest highlight of the day.

The Mariners will be back tomorrow, Monday the 24th, for a 12:10 tilt with the Cubs. 710 radio will have the call on that one, but the next televised game isn’t until Saturday the 29th vs. the Royals.