You’re seven years old, and you’re climbing a tree. It’s not just any tree. It’s the perfect tree. At the very bottom, the branches are practically stairs. They’re thick enough to hold your weight, but not so thick as to hinder your climb. The bark is rough enough to provide traction, but not so rough as to skin your bare knees.
Each branch becomes that much more of an endeavor as you climb up and up, but also that much more rewarding. You begin to have to strain your arms to reach the next, hoisting first one leg above it, and then the other. You don’t think to look down, such is the ecstasy that each branch promises.
Finally, you reach a perch where the branches have grown thin, threatening to snap under your weight. And that’s when you finally look down. When you do, everything changes. That’s what you realize that you’re really, really high. You grow dizzy. You immediately begin to climb down, hugging the trunk and sliding your butt across each branch. The bark, previously convenient, shreds your new shorts, but that isn’t exactly your first worry.
Finally, after what seems an eternity, your feet touch the ground. You realize how fast your heart has been beating for what has surely been an hour. You quickly walk away from the tree, hoping that nonchalance might calm you down. It’s only when you get home that the thought finally crosses your mind.
How did I do that?
How, indeed. Many a seven-year-old has climbed a tree far too tall for them, just as many snake has swallowed a mouse far too big, and many a baseball team has played a game that they have absolutely no business winning. But the children climb their trees, and the snakes swallow their mice. And sometimes, not very often, but enough to keep watching, the baseball team wins their game.
Coming into tonight, it felt like the Mariners should probably be able to win this game. The Red Sox, despite their 12-7 record as of today, are not a good team. Nick Pivetta, whose primary personality trait is being Canadian, is not a good pitcher. It seemed at first like the Mariners would be able to take advantage of that.
Mitch Haniger, Ty France, and Kyle Seager were summarily retired to begin the game, but each of them was able to hit a ball in the air. Both Haniger and Seager hit the ball at 97 MPH or above. While the outcomes weren’t there at first, there was reason to believe that hits might eventually fall against Pivetta.
That sense of optimism was furthered by Justin Dunn’s opening salvo against the Red Sox’ dangerous top of the order. Alex Verdugo did hit a triple, but Dunn’s curveball fooled three very good hitters in Enrique Hernández, J.D. Martinez, and Xander Bogaerts. Bogaerts was fooled particularly badly.
Unfortunately, that’s about as far as the optimism took the M’s for the first part of this game. The Mariners kept getting opportunities against a clearly hittable pitcher, but their fly balls kept being contained within tiny Fenway Park. The same could not be said of Rafael Devers’ second-inning dinger off of a Dunn, which made it a 1-0 game.
It was in the third inning when the Human Element® of baseball umpiring came into play. If you are one of the people that likes the Human Element®, then let me weave you a yarn. If you’re one of the enlightened few that actually thinks the Human Element® is bad, then please stay with me, but you may first want to first toss back a few blood pressure pills. Just to be safe.
This first strikeout of Luis Torrens in the first inning was defensible. Is it a strike? No. Sure, it was closer to being a strike than the first pitch of the at bat, which Torrens also took. Do baseball players routinely have to adapt to the arbitrary zones that umpires “enforce” over the course of a game? Yes. Should they? No.
One inning later, Kyle Seager took the first of his second at bat well above the zone, and it was called a strike. The Red Sox pieced together a mini-rally that scored another run in the bottom of the forth to make it 2-0. That’s when the flood gates really opened.
What is a hitter supposed to do with that, besides be forced to swing at everything remotely close to the strike zone in order to protect themselves from the Human Element®? That’ll show up as a strikeout for Kyle Lewis. It hurt the Mariners in this game. It’ll hurt Kyle Lewis’ negotiating power in the future. It’s absolutely indefensible from a person who is ostensibly supposed to be one of the best 100 people in the world at his job.
But, um, occasional incompetence is good, because of the Human Element®. Or something.
Two batters later, Taylor Trammel struck out looking at a pitch at the edge of the zone. The first pitch of his at bat was a couple of inches of the zone, and was also called a strike.
I admit that I likely made a mistake in watching the Red Sox broadcast of this game, as each called strike was met with the exaltations of Red Sox color commentator Jerry Remy. As far as I can tell, Remy is paid to be the most stereotypical Boston Guy imaginable. He’s there so that every Bostonian can turn on a game and feel validated when they see an obviously ball get called a strike, and scream THANK YOU, waving one hand at their screen while the other precariously grips a Sam Adams.
The sixth inning, despite it being the first inning during which the Mariners actually scored runs, may have taken a solid five years off of my life by permanently increasing my blood pressure by ten points. Torrens and Dylan Moore were quickly retired, bringing J.P. Crawford to the plate. To his credit, J.P. focused up nicely and took a disciplined walk.
Pitch two was notable for Remy guffawing and loudly exclaiming “ya gotta give that to ‘im!”. Every Bostonion watching completed the sentence from their living rooms, in what must have been a synchronous chorus of “fer cryin’ out loud!”.
Mitch Haniger also worked a walk, bringing Ty France to the plate. Ty France experienced arguably the worst called strike of the night.
Ty France did not swing at pitch number four. Pitch number four was called a strike. This made the game more fun, because the game contained a Human Element® which apparently could not be supplied by the humans actually participating in the game itself.
France had also apparently had enough, as he lined pitch into left field and well over the head of Franchy Cordero. Cordero was inexplicably playing about 190 feet away from home, and it was this decision that gifted the Mariners what was somehow their first hit of the game.
When the sixth inning dust had cleared, here was Bill Miller’s masterpiece worthy of a newly renovated artsy stairwell in the Met.
A lot... A LOT... of balls being called strikes. pic.twitter.com/lvlxBr3Vtk— Daniel Kramer (@DKramer_) April 23, 2021
An inning later, Casey Sadler allowed the Red Sox to score another run off of a wild pitch, although Luis Torrens did him no favors by allowing an easily trap-able ball to go through his legs.
The Mariners immediately took advantage of a wild Adam Ottavino in the eighth inning to answer. Two walks led to an opportunity for J.P. Crawford to lay down a bunt right in front of Ottavino. Catcher Christian Vázquez appeared to make a terrible call by telling Ottavino to try to get the lead runner at third, and Ottavino made an equally terrible throw. The trying run scored, though Ty France hit into a rally-killing double play.
With Kendall Graveman, who is apparently the only robot currently allowed to be associated with Major League Baseball, on the mound for the eighth, the frame was basically an automatic zero-spot for the Mariners. The teams traded scoreless frames in the ninth, which set the stage for extra innings.
Extra innings which still have a runner starting on second base, for some reason. It’s an extra human that gets to be involved in the inning, I guess. More humans, more fun!
Taylor Trammel managed to successfully bunt Evan White to third, but Sam Haggerty whacked the Mariners second line drive of the game over Franchy Cordero’s head. This was also the Mariners’ second hit of the game. It scored White, and it put the Mitch Haniger in position to record the Mariners third and final hit of the game.
For so many reasons, this is not a game that the Mariners should have won.
Justin Dunn allowed three hits with an exit velocity of 105 MPH and above. The five hardest hit balls were all by the Red Sox.
The Mariners recorded three hits. The two in play had high expected base hit values, but could certainly have been flagged down had Franchy Cordero been playing at a reasonable depth in the outfield.
Finally, it’s hard to quantify the win expectancy of those called strikes by home plate umpire Bill Miller. But given how shockingly valuable pitch framing is a skill, I feel safe saying that it was hugely impactful.
Despite all of that, the Mariners won, because that’s been the story of the Mariners’ April. They haven’t been playing amazingly well, but they’ve been playing well enough to win if enough things go right. Tonight they played well enough to win when a bunch of things went wrong.
So tonight, the Mariners kept climbing their tree. It’s hard not to get the sense that the branches are thinning, and that soon the weight of the bottom of their order or their lack of bullpen depth might bring them crashing down to the underbrush.
But this is a young team, and young teams don’t think about stuff like that. Young teams keep hoisting one leg up, and then the other. They scab their knees, and they keep going. Maybe, eventually, their heads break through the canopy, and they can enjoy the dazzling sunshine for a few minutes before climbing back down.