Surely you share this recall with me: the absolute devil magic that was the 2016 Texas Rangers. It may have been a geological era ago, but somehow they won 95 games and charged to first place in the AL West, overperforming their Pythag win/loss by thirteen games, largley on that back of a truly absurd 36-11 record in one-run games. In other words, imagine the 2018 Mariners if they had actually snuck into the playoffs. After coming off of a surprise division pennant in 2015, the Rangers lucking into a strong year again - including Ian Desmond, Center Fielder actually working before bottoming out in Colorado? What the hell? - felt like a cruel gutpunch, especially considering that was one of three years in the decade where the M’s fielded a competitive team.
Guess who has that magic now, though? Guess who currently owns a 12-5 record in one-run contests and has beaten the former luck dragon kings by that margin two nights in a row? Guess whose feel for Chaos Ball has finally returned?
Yeah, in case you hadn’t figured it out, it’s our Seattle Mariners.
Justin Dunn took the hill tonight, and against the first time through the order, was about as good as I’ve ever seen him. Facing just one over the minimum thanks to the increasingly large thorn that is Adolis García smacking a leadoff single up the middle in the second inning, his fastball command was impeccable, and he rebounded from the García knock by leaning on his fabulous slider to strike out Joey Gallo...
...and Brock Holt in succession.
I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that that was one of Justin Dunn’s best innings of his career. To bear down after giving up a leadoff hit, not breaking a sweat after Adolis stole second? You may not like it, but in that inning, that’s what peak performance looks like. He would be rewarded by the offense with a precious run in the bottom of the frame: after a Kyle Lewis infield hit and a Ty France walk, J.P. Crawford unfortunately bounced into a double play, though thanks to K-Lew being able to make it to third safely, José Godoy pounced on a 2-1 sinker from Mike Foltynewicz and got Seattle on the board.
Yeah, it’s a small sample - Godoy hasn’t even cracked 20 Major League plate appearances - but I’ve liked what I’ve seen from him on both sides of the ball since he made headlines as the 20,000th Major League Baseball player. In his first six games in the bigs, he’s struck out only three times and has shown he’s capable of exit velocities in the 105 MPH range, with strong defense to boot. Throw in his left-handed hitting, and color me very interested in seeing what he can do over the next few months until Cal Raleigh forces the org’s hand.
Early run support is great, and it’s even better when it’s followed by a quick inning from your starter, and Dunn breezed through the third on just nine pitches - which included a swing-and-miss on a changeup to Jonah Heim - one of just two he threw on the night!
Alas, as has been a trend throughout his time in the Majors, the wheels came off, this time in the fourth. After hitting Isiah Kiner-Falefa on a 2-0 count and surrendering a four-pitch walk to Nate Lowe, Dunn found himself on the ropes once again. He managed to vanquish García with a curveball in the other batter’s box after an eight-pitch tussle, but followed that up with a five-pitch walk to Gallo, and Solak got Texas on the board with a sac fly. Boooooo, but as has also been the story of Justin Dunn, it could have been a lot worse. He bounced back with a 1-2-3 fifth that included strikeouts of Heim and Jason Martin, and nearly got out of the sixth if it hadn’t been for Adolis García again biting the Mariners by poking a two-out single into left. Fourth inning aside, it’s hard to call Dunn’s outing tonight anything but strong. Eight strikeouts to go with fifteen whiffs? Two hits allowed - both to the game guy? That’ll play. He has yet to complete six full innings in a start this year, but this is the third time he’s gotten within one out of doing so - and tonight was unquestionably his strongest outing out of that trio. If he can develop just a bit more confidence in that changeup and deploy it more than twice an outing, I can see him developing into both a more effective and efficient pitcher.
With Dunn’s outing finished (yeah i’m not going for that easy pun), we were treated to the Mariners debut of Daniel Zamora, who retired Gallo on an easy flyout to end the sixth. He also came out to pitch a clean seventh, and immediately found a place in my heart with this lefty sidearm wiffle ball business to quickly dismiss Solak:
Once again, the bats rewarded strong pitching with some run support, and on a 1-1 count, J.P. Crawford locked in on a hanging changeup and buried Foltynewicz.
Yeah, Folty got out of the inning 1-2-3 after that. Whatever. We all knew that he was done for the night after that, and that we had the last laugh after he had multiple close calls go his way thanks to Tripp Gibson III behind the plate. Paul Sewald spun a shutdown eighth, and with one out in the bottom of the frame, Mitch Haniger added some insurance.
Adolis isn’t robbing that one! It ended up being crucial, too, thanks to Rafael Montero allowing back-to-back hits with one out in the ninth to put runners on the corners. The hits from García (AGAIN! AAAAAA) and Gallo may have had respective xBAs of .230 and .050, but do you expect me to be rational about mercurial relievers? Really, now? Gallo would swipe second - bafflingly without a throw - but José Godoy saved a run with a nice block of a breaking pitch in the dirt to Nick Solak.
As much as it pains me to write this, 2021 Luis Torrens could never. Solak would hit a sac fly to pull Texas within one run, but that didn’t matter thanks to Holt hitting a can of corn right to Haniger to end the game. And hey, maybe the sac fly was meant to be. After all, you can’t exactly crow about your record in two-run games.
Tomorrow marks the 54th game in the 2021 Mariners season - or one-third of the way through the year for the fractionheads. Memorial Day is often the point where one has a good idea of where their team stand, and asking for a four-game sweep always feels greedy no matter who you’re facing. If Yusei Kikuchi and friends can pull out a win tomorrow afternoon, though, this maddening, inconsistent, enigmatic, young, fiery, exuberant team will cross that checkpoint at .500 - and once you’re there by then, anything can happen once summer gets into full swing. Chaos Ball is back, and it’s rearing to shrug off the last three weeks of doubt. Strap in.