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Mariners and White Sox play own version of March Madness

Dress it up and make it real for me

Seattle Mariners v Chicago Cubs Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Sadly, because of a popular amateur basketball tournament that was foolishly scheduled for the same day, Friday night’s Mariners-White Sox Spring Training game was relegated to the second biggest sporting event of the day. While the trademark madness didn’t fully make its way to Arizona, this Cactus League bout did have some parallels to the famous tourney.

Marco Gonzales made the start for Seattle. Like his beloved Gonzaga Bulldogs, the lefty ace is typically a pretty safe bet. However, as every talking suit on television will tell you for the next three weeks, anything is possible this time of year. The scent of upset started wafting through this game when Gonzales allowed a three-run homer on a grooved fastball to Adam Engel. This was followed by a ringing double off Nick Williams’ bat. The ball would have been a home run too if it were hit a tad higher, but the two extra base hits nonetheless sparked the White Sox like a 12-0 run sparks a college basketball team. Scott Servais made a pitching change after the White Sox knocked five hits, plated four runs, and made infinite hard contact off his highest-seeded pitcher in just 1.2 dirty innings.

Luckily, one player rarely wins a game in March by themselves. Gonzales received early run support from a sharp Kyle Lewis RBI single, and Jake Fraley had a chance to do similar damage, but ripped a line drive right at Chicago’s waiting shortstop. Freshman phenom Jarred Kelenic fought off an inside fastball on a full count that went for a hustle double. The plate appearance was a master class in waiting for your pitch, as Kelenic expertly spat on the Lance Lynn pitches that he knew would be hard to handle. It was a wonderful showing for the MLB hopeful against an MLB constant, and a wonderful showing from Kelenic all game long, really.

After getting two of his pitches in the second at-bat off Lynn, missing them, and looking visibly frustrated, Kelenic eventually legged out an infield hit. His third trip to the plate also tested his banged-up knee. A lifeless groundball that could have easily been a double play ended up as an RBI fielder’s choice thanks to Kelenic’s hustle. If it seems like every March Madness team is keyed by a scrappy Midwesterner with a chip on their shoulder, it’s because they are, and the Seattle Mariners are no different.

Because this is still exhibition season and not a real championship tournament, Gonzales was able to return to the game after getting briefly lifted. He came back like a determined underclassman trying to avenge last year’s early upset. A brief hiccup in his third-inning return was quickly erased by a smooth double play, and Marco avoided going full Adam Morrison.

This game really leaned into the March Madness tropes from there. We saw a glimpse of the avuncular, experienced player mentoring the young and credulous when dugout cameras caught Ichiro positioned right between Kelenic and Julio Rodríguez. Bad officiating reared its ugly yet predictable head when Kyle Seager struck out on a called strike off the plate. There was even the obligatory program legend on hand to watch things unfold, as Mike Cameron dropped into the broadcast booth to share some of his post-graduation stories. My favorite type of March Madness moment, the one where defense goes optional for a tight second, also perked through in the sixth inning.

Sadly, one of the young starlets off the bench fell a bit short today. Rodríguez made his only plate appearance late in the game and used it to meekly pop up on the infield. Other Mariners had rotten luck at the plate too, mainly Evan White. According to the batted ball data available at the stadium, White had two instances of 100+ MPH balls not landing for hits.

White drew the unfortunate role of talented Big East school that gets sent to a regional in California. Had he been sent in a different direction, White might have been cutting the metaphorical nets down after today’s game. Instead, he heads back to campus with a sour taste in his mouth wondering why today just wasn’t his day. Thank god today was Kyle Lewis’ day though.

Lewis’ first-round RBI single was just a warmup for what he’d do later in the dance. Stepping in for his second shining moment – still facing noted out-getter Lance Lynn – the reigning Rookie of the Year coolly disposed this 3-2 pitch.

He had one more patient at-bat in the fifth inning, fouling off yet another 3-2 pitch before watching ball four sail out of the zone. At this point of the spring process far outweighs results, but it’s always nice to see good things happen in both categories. Lewis looks about as ready as a player can be for the games to start counting for real. He’s meticulously taking each at-bat as though they already have, and today he reached base three times because of his professional methodology.

The Mariners ultimately coaxed a 7-6 win out of this frantic game. To me, we’ve reached the part of the Spring Training schedule where any additional games feel pretty unnecessary, but alas they have eight more over the next eight days. The prevailing “Survive and Advance” mantra that dominates this time of year could certainly apply to the M’s, with the survive part mostly pertaining to annoying injuries. Mitch Haniger did get hit on the hand by a pitch but stayed in the game and didn’t seem any worse because of it.

You don’t have to split the atom to see that the Mariners are a mid-major team hoping to get lucky this season, but if Lewis and Kelenic cash in on their recruiting hype, Gonzales, Haniger, and Seager steady the ship with their veteran presences, and a few things break right, things could be a lot more fun than we anticipated in November.