Rebuilds are all about the small victories, ideally hewing closer to symbolic than pyrrhic. The Mariners season, relative to the torch being toted by many clubs, has had a promising beginning. Yes, they leave Houston 1-3 after tonight’s 8-5 loss, but the club is mostly healthy (knock on Kyle Lewis’ off-gray wooden bat). Just ahead of first pitch, Brandon Brennan hit the IL with an oblique strain, but compared to the league-wide avalanche of injuries, illness, and outbreak, things seemed quaintly at ease in the Mariners’ final game of the series at Minute Maid Park. The specter of the league’s fragility loomed over the game the entire day, but I’d be lying if I told any of you today’s game wasn’t nearly the most enjoyable loss I’ve watched in years.
Things started even sharper, though Astros starter Josh James did not. The squat fireballer routinely touched 98 mph alongside a slap shot sweep of a slider and a late-burrowing changeup. Whether the ball was at the catcher’s glove, mask, shoes, or normal batting spot, however, was anyone’s guess. The effective wildness was sufficient for two innings despite a walk from J.P. Crawford (one of two for him, on a 1-for-3 day with a double) and a Nice Piece of Hitting™ by Kyle Lewis on a two strike slider. Lewis drove two balls to the right side again today, and I am curious if pitchers will find themselves forced to lean on their changeups, as they’re the only pitch he’s yet to spoil rotten this summer. For the first two frames, however, this had the looks of a fireballing pitchers duel.
Fireballing is scarcely an exaggeration, as M’s starter Kendall Graveman took the hill for the first time in the bigs for well over two calendar years. After looking so sharp in camp, would he have the same stuff, much less success, against the Astros that he did against the less-vaunted Mariners mixed squad? Out of the gates, it looked real good.
Hey.— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) July 27, 2020
How are ya?
Welcome back, Kendall Graveman. pic.twitter.com/yRy6ohwszd
All three strikeouts in the first came on heaters, with Graveman settling closer to 94-96 after his adrenaline fueled 97-98 in the first, but he showed a deft hand at mixing the shape on his heater. At times, like with George Springer and José Altuve above, it was a more traditional four-seam. To Bregman, he worked a bit more cutting action, which he used on occasion in later innings as well. Against lefties and on occasion elsewhere, he’d lean on his sinker-heavy roots, working a more 91-95 pace with significant run and some sink. It was eye-popping, but unfortunately, like most spell-casters who use all their fireballs up, it didn’t last.
The third inning started swimmingly for Seattle, as Josh James saw his fleeting command fully erode. Three straight walks loaded the bases, and while a Kyle Seager GiDP spoiled the fun somewhat, a run came across, leaving J.P. Crawford as the lucky remaining RBI for Evan White’s first career home run.
White has looked appropriately overwhelmed at moments this young season, facing two future Hall of Famers sandwiching a trendy pick for the 2020 Cy Young, but the first step in the big leagues is establishing that you belong. James makes a mistake, with a mediocre changeup, but White crucially is ready to punish it. I’ve never heard the ball come off bats as thunderously as I have these first few fan-less games, nor heard the crushing echo of the ball thudding off signage, metal, and stone, save for some scouting showcase batting practices. It’s no substitute for the roar of the crowd, and a collective celebration with our fellow human being, but it has its own beauty.
The wheels came off in the bottom of the frame for Graveman. His initial dominance lulled me into sedation when Kyle Seager flubbed a grounder to open the inning, but a walk to Houston’s lone weak link in the lineup, backup catcher Dustin Garneau, proved costly. He did strike out George Springer once more, who would finish 0-for-5 with three strikeouts to conclude the first truly wretched series for the leadoff extraordinaire against Seattle in my memory. Alas, things spiraled. Altuve won a 3-2 count with a double down the line, and before the camera could properly reset Bregman clobbered a wretched sinker far above the Crawford Boxes, taking a 4-3 lead.
This was the turning point of the game, as Seattle would never lead again, but perhaps the clunkiness of the transition smoothed the experience for me. Graveman’s electrifying start was mostly spoiled, but the potential was there, and in the righty’s first outing in 808 days, it was far less dispiriting seeing Houston chip away further. Garneau smacked a triple in the fourth that Dee Gordon couldn’t quite rope in while leaping against the garage door fences in deep left. Altuve poked a pitch at his eyes off the top of the Crawford Boxes, doing his best Kawhi Leonard impression as he willed the ball to ultimately land on the home run side of the fence. By the fifth, Graveman was working 91-94, adrenaline draining, and he exited with a grisly line, but even that left me wanting to see more. It was enough, like a batting practice tryout where a kid looks inconsistent but smashes a few balls so hard, just foul, you feel there just might be something there.
The later innings blurred into a haze. LHP Taylor Guilbeau made his season debut, cashing in Graveman’s inherited runner before falling victim to lefty Josh Reddick and showing curiously diminished velocity (91-92) from his intriguing 2019 self (94-95). Houston reached 8 runs before taking their foot off the pedal, but almost every inning had a small slice of enjoyment. Tim “I Refuse Not To Give You A Reason To Start Me” Lopes checked in with a slicing double to center in the sixth, then Yohan Ramírez worked two shutout innings against his former club. In the seventh, J.P. Crawford and Kyle Lewis got back-to-back knocks, and Evan White nocked another RBI with an opposite field liner of his own.
8-5 is a lovely score to me in some reasons. Football coaches like to claim everyone is happy with a three yard run on first down. An 8-5 game like this, for this club, scratches that same itch for me. I saw enough to be hopeful, while the causes for concern were more fleeting or less central. The next two days I will be watching the pitching like a hawk, but today it was a pleasant surprise, followed by a quick recession to reality, papered over with some sharp swings by the prominent present pieces of tomorrow. We’ve had to get used to a lot of excruciating types of losses in Seattle, but I can get along with a loss like this.