There’s a thing called “prospect fatigue” where sometimes, when a prospect—especially a high school pitcher, a particularly slow-developing demographic—has been around for a certain amount of time, it negatively affects their prospect stock. Sheffield’s started to slide when he was seen as expendable enough to be dealt to the Mariners in the James Paxton trade, because obviously if the Yankees don’t want it, it’s trash, and took another hit when the Mariners moved Sheff out of the Bouncy Ball Funland of Triple-A and sent him to Double-A Arkansas, where he could develop alongside fellow pitching prospect and BFF Justin Dunn. Even when he ascended to join the rotation late last season, the national baseball media treated Sheffield as one whose star had set. Today, in earning his first MLB win, Sheffield reminded everyone that not only is his career young—he has fewer MLB innings than he pitched at Triple-A last year—but so is his chronological age; he’s still young enough to be on his parents’ health insurance,
If you’re a fan of pitching duels, and more specifically a fan of sliders, this game was tailor-made in baseball heaven for you and you should run not walk to your nearest MLB TV broadcast and re-watch it in all its glory.
German Marquez was very good for the Rockies, blending plus velocity with a nasty curve that he got a better feel for as the game wore on. There were a few at-bats where he spotted mid-90s at the outside edge of the zone that really visually reinforced why hitting a baseball is the hardest thing to do. He made one mistake pitch to Dylan Moore, though, and Dylan Moore, El Gigante de Yorba Linda, made Márquez pay:
That was a two-run shot because J.P. Crawford, who continues to make himself at home at the top of the lineup, was on base with a single. The Mariners batters took the approach of being aggressive early in counts on Márquez, trying to get to the fastball before he had an opportunity to break out the nasty secondaries, and while it worked for Moore here, Márquez went on lockdown after that, facing the minimum until the sixth inning, cleaning up any mistakes—both to Joe Hudson, of all things, a single and a walk—with double plays.
On the other side, however, Justus Sheffield was even sharper than Márquez. Sheff was able to command his fastball, which set up his wipeout slider to—well, wipe people out. One of Sheffield’s lone mistakes on the day was, after sawing off the first two batters in the game for easy flyouts, getting into a protracted battle with a god-tier Charlie Blackmon, allowing a fastball to catch too much of the plate that Blackmon turned around for a double, because Charlie Blackmon. However, Justus cleaned up his own mess on the next batter, Matt Kemp, by breaking out his safety blanket slider:
The slider was vicious today; Sheffield threw it between 78-84 mph depending on location and count, sometimes using it to wipe batters away at the back foot, as he does here, and other times using it to pepper different parts of the zone at different speeds. He actually struck Kemp out three times, twice on that backfoot slider and once on this, at 81 across the zone:
Even more impressively, Sheffield didn’t walk anyone, never getting to a three-ball count and consistently working ahead of batters. He even used his changeup a few times, getting Garrett Hampson to fly out weakly on it. The one inning where Sheff got into a little bit of hot water was the fourth, when the unstoppable Charlie Blackmon shot a line drive just out of the reach of Dee Gordon. Sheff nailed Kemp with that backfoot slider, but then David Dahl put a nice little inside-out swing on a slider to put runners on first and third. Sheffield got Isan Diaz to pop out on the infield on a slider up in the zone, and then got himself out of his jam with his fifth strikeout on the day:
The one quibble is that Sheff, with his seven strikeouts, was at 91 pitches through the sixth, tying a career high for himself in innings pitched. That meant it was time for everyone’s least favorite game, Mariners Bullpen Roulette. Today it was Erik Swanson first up, who is a minigame within himself: will it be the good Erik Swanson, or a steady serving of North Dakota’s favorite treat, Swanson’s Meatballs? Surprise! It was Good Swanson, painting 97 on the black for two strikeouts in his inning of work.
Perhaps realizing they would need to do more to hold on to Sheffield’s first major league win, the Mariners took advantage of some Rockies defensive mistakes in the bottom of the seventh. Kyle Lewis took advantage of Nolan Arenado’s day off to place an infield single down the third base line, and then Kyle Seager should have hit into a GIDP but Owings bobbled it once, twice, three times lady, and then compounded his error by throwing it away, putting runners at second and third with no outs. Vogey then grounded out, but Evan White, with two strikeouts on the day, pounced on Márquez’s first pitch, a high slider that caught way too much of the plate. White missed a three-run bomb by just feet—the ball came off his bat at 103.8 mph, the second-hardest hit ball of the game, with an xBA of .810—but it was enough to drive in Lewis from third. Tim Lopes followed with an RBI single on a breaking ball that Márquez, clearly losing some of his feel at this point, left in the middle of the plate, poking an RBI single into center and then snatching second base on top of that. Dee Gordon followed with an RBI single of his own, scoring Lopes and pushing the lead out to 5-0.
Unfortunately, bullpen roulette giveth and it taketh, and today’s bullpenning was committed by Dan Altavilla, who got two quick outs and then allowed a walk, stolen base, and RBI single to Trevor Story to put Colorado on the board. Blackmon then walked, and Kemp, very happy to see a pitcher not named Justus Sheffield, singled home Story. This caused Scott Servais to turn to his cabinet marked “Break Glass In Case of Bullpenning” and release the TWilly, who allowed a single to David Dahl, bringing the score to an uncomfortably close 5-3, but then wrecked pinch-hitter Daniel Murphy’s shit on this wicked fastball:
The Mariners had a chance to add on when the Rockies brought in Tyler Kinley, a clearly inferior Tyler, who loaded the bases with two walks and a hit batter, but the Mariners were unable to capitalize thanks to a poor plate appearance by Vogelbach (sigh) and a solid but ultimately fruitless plate appearance from Evan White, who did not strike out! Small victories. That brought the Superior Tyler back out for a true save situation, and he mowed through the last of the Rockies 1-2-3 with two more strikeouts, including a nasty backfoot slider of his own to Ryan McMahon and a running fastball that Chris Owings swung over helplessly. And thus the Mariners managed to Justus Sheffield’s first MLB win. Let’s hope it’s the first of many.