Meeting acquaintances can be a weirdly stressful experience. Whether it’s somebody you used to work with, or someone you used to sit next to at school for a few brief months, I think there are a few commonalities that can make it stressful.
For one, the context has changed. If the only way that you’ve interacted with someone is in the role of “co-worker” or “lab partner”, it’s going to be a little weird if you encounter them at a bar. A few forced lines of small talk later, you’re back at your table, but then you pass them every time you go to the bathroom, and it’s weird if you acknowledge them, but it’s also weird if you don’t acknowledge them.
Um, hi Álex Colomé. What’ve you been up to? Oh, the same thing? That’s cool. I’ve been, uh, also just kinda doing the same thing as before. Yeah, anyway, it was good to see you.
Old friends, though? With old friends, you can pick up right where you left off without it seeming as though any time has passed at all. I don’t care how many years it’s been, I’m going to hungrily devour every second of each Nelson Cruz at bat. Every familiar mannerism he has is a place of comfort and each of his swings feels like they could have launched a dinger for the 2018 Mariners.
I’m not sure where on the spectrum Michael Pineda falls. There was always so much potential for him to become a Nelson Cruz-level friend but we only got to spend a year with him. He was so cool, but at just 22 wore his insecurities on his sleeve. It’s neat to see how he’s grown up, but he’s so clearly not the same person that it’s not clear that we’ve ever met him.
In any case, it was cool to see him again, and I’m going to be rooting for him for as long as he’s in the Majors. Pineda has lost a good four or five ticks off his fastball since his rookie season with the Mariners, but his command was solid today, and his slider’s movement was equally decent. The first inning saw the Mariners come out swinging in a familiar, uninspired fashion. The first six hitters were retired in order, with three of them (Ty France, José Marmolejos, and Dylan Moore) combining to strike out on a total of ten pitches between them.
Unfortunately for Pineda, he began the third inning with a flat 88 MPH pitch directly in the middle of the zone for Taylor Trammel. Trammel happily took the pitch over the right field fence for his first career home run. Three batters later, Mitch Haniger saw a similarly misplaced slider and obliterated it into the second deck. Just like that, the M’s were out to a quick 2-0 lead.
It didn’t last long. A quick single by Kyle Garlick gave Nelson Cruz a baserunner to drive in, and Nellie did what we’ve seen him do so many times before. We can only dream the Mariners find someone with this kind of opposite field power, because it sure was nice while they had it.
It really wasn’t a terrible pitch by Yusei Kikuchi, who was able to maintain his focus through the rest of the game. Kikuchi’s command wasn’t quite there today, but he was able to gas it up to 97 MPH at times and rely on his raw velocity and stuff to get through six innings. It was another reminder of Kikuchi’s potential: if he can ever lock in the command, the sky’s the limit.
Yusei Kikuchi, Overpowering 97mph Fastball. ⛽️ pic.twitter.com/KXThIkNUzF— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 10, 2021
Kikuchi and Pineda traded three blank frames each after that third inning, and Casey Saddler and Tyler Duffey each turned in a scoreless seventh inning of their own. It was in the eighth that the Twins turned to another familiar, glowering face.
Álex “El Caballo” Colomé hasn’t changed much since his Mariners days. He throws a 95 MPH fastball, as well as a cutter that he hopes ends up in the correct spot. A bad-luck infield single put J.P. Crawford on first base, and J.P. stole second base easily as Mitch Haniger struck out. Two batters later, one of Colomé’s sliders ended up in the decidedly incorrect spot, and Kyle Seager dropped a line drive in front of a helpless Byron Buxton to score Crawford.
Sadly, the Mariners probably wish that they still had Colomé, or in fact any of the several volatile relievers they had in the late 2010’s. Almost any of those guys would be better than Rafael Montero, who Scott Servais brought in for (presumably) a two-inning save opportunity.
Montero was, uh, terrible. A four-pitch walk to Nelson Cruz can be excused. All four pitches were below the zone, and the last thing you want is for a single Nellie swing to wipe out your lead.
Beaning Byron Buxton (which would be a fun name for a Hallmark movie) on the first pitch cannot be excused. Nor can burying a fastball in the dirt two batters later to score a run and blow the save, all without the Twins hitting a ball out of the infield.
And so it was that the Mariners headed to extras with the assistance of Kendall Graveman, who continued his excellent start to the season.
There’s room for debate, but the math doesn’t seem to endorse bunting to begin an extra frame with the new runner-on-second rule, at least in the top of the frame. While it increases your chances of scoring a single run, it does lower your overall run expectancy. With that said, Braden Bishop didn’t start off the tenth inning with a sacrifice bunt. Rather, he laid a perfect dribbler down the third base line to give the M’s runners on first and third with nobody out.
Unfortunately, the M’s couldn’t really capitalize. J.P. Crawford failed to do much with the table set for him, grounding out to third base. Mitch Haniger did manage to actually hit the ball out of the infield, scoring a run on a sac fly, but Ty France rolled over a sinker down the middle, grounding out to end the inning.
The Mariners should have been doomed. Like the Mariners, the Twins started the tenth with a runner on second base. Unlike the Mariners, the Twins had the 2-3-4 hitters of their lineup coming up. The Mariners were in luck, though. Remember way back in the eighth inning? After Nelson Cruz’s four-pitch walk, the Twins pinch ran Jake Cave for him. Jake Cave runs a lot faster than Nelson Cruz, but he’s also a much worse hitter than Nelson Cruz.
Kenyan Middleton got the call for the Mariners’ second save chance of the day, and he looked as good as he has all season. He got Willians Astudillo off-balance with a fastball up and away, and Astudillo popped out. Cave’s luck wasn’t any better than Astudillo’s as a changeup up and away induced a second pop up. Rounding out the order was by far the Twins’ best hitter of the bunch: Byron Buxton.
Buxton has this quality about him that I haven’t experienced since watching early 2000’s Ichiro: if he hits a baseball on the ground to the left side of the infield, it feels like it’s going to be a hit. Well, he hit a grounder to J.P. Crawford, but the Mariners had two things going for them: the ball was well-hit, and J.P. Crawford is an excellent defensive shortstop.
The sound of the ball slamming into José Marmolejos’ glove a split-second before Buxton’s foot hit the bag signaled a win that somehow put the Mariners up to a 4-4 record on the year. It doesn’t feel like an overstatement to say that this team has looked absolutely atrocious, and yet somehow they’re 4-4.
Maybe this past week is the worst they’ll look all year. After all, reinforcements are on the way, and as talent and experience diffuse into the young lineup, it only figures to get better.
Or, maybe the .500 results are unsustainable with a team this young and inexperienced, and we should be bracing ourselves for a long and miserable march to the bottom of the American League.
With only eight games in the books, I’m still at the point where I’m eager to find out.