I’m going to be real with you all: the 48 hours or so leading up to first pitch tonight were the lowest I’d been on the Mariners all season. Faceplanting against the Diamondbacks was bad enough, but Wednesday’s fate of missing a walkoff by a foot and then getting stomped in Manfredball to seal a second series loss against a direct Wild Card competitor? With an off day to stew over it? Absolutely cursed vibes. Whether it was many flushing faint playoff hopes down the drain, a Midwest time zone game throwing people off, or a combination of both, the energy surrounding tonight’s game was tepid at best going in, and a flat top of the first from the offense against Jon Heasley - in his Major League debut - combined with Whit Merrifield and Nicky Lopez grinding out sixteen pitches from Chris Flexen before Salvador Pérez made not one, but two outs didn’t inspire confidence early.
Thankfully, Ty France put to bed any worries of being no-hit with a clean single to lead off the second, and after Abraham Toro beat out a double play ball, Jarred Kelenic worked a 3-1 count, got a hanging changeup, and turned on it harder than I’d seen him turn on one all season:
The exit velocity scraped 111 miles per hour, and just like that, so many bad feelings of the homestand washed away. Luis Torrens lined out hard to center, and Jake Fraley barreled up a ball for the first time in what feels like a long time for a two-out double. Cal Raleigh grounded to to end any more scoring that frame, but seeing the bottom half of the lineup consistently square up a solid pitching prospect with no book on him was good enough for me. Flexen again held the Royals off the board despite a two-out single from Michael A. Taylor after yet another pesky at-bat, and tightened things up even more in the third inning, needing just thirteen pitches to work around a single from Hanser Alberto. An ugly strike-em-out-throw-em-out double play from Kyle Seager and J.P. Crawford snuffed out any offensive hopes for the Mariners that frame, but to kick off the fourth, the same sequence starting the second happened again: France singled, Toro erased him on a fielder’s choice, and Kelenic worked a 3-1 count. Surely that couldn’t happen again, right? The baseball gods aren’t that heavy handed, are they?
Well, they were at least self-aware enough to let Kelenic foul off a couple pitches before Heasley flopped a breaking ball belt high.
After that ball sailed over the center field fence, it didn’t matter what else happened: for me, tonight was a win. That’s Kelenic’s first career multi-homer game, he added on to his 100 wRC+ September, and he looked perfectly comfortable in the spacious Kauffman center field - all of these more than welcome developments. Add in Flexen needing just eighteen pitches to cruise through the fourth and fifth innings, and we were well on our way to a stress-free win.
If you started laughing after that last sentence, I can’t fault you - I chuckled a bit writing it out. Of course, things got a little hairy in the bottom of the sixth. After coaxing an easy Alberto flyout, Flex gave up a single to Whit Merrifield, who was promptly replaced by Lopez on a 4-3 fielder’s choice, and who else but Salvador Pérez was due up. Flexen worked a 2-1 count, tossed a fastball right on the outside edge, and Salvy popped it up to shallow right. Unfortunately, in what has been a not uncommon theme lately, none of Mitch Haniger, Crawford, or Toro could grab it, and the ball plopped harmlessly a foot foul. I was glad at the time that no one was hurt and it was a foul ball rather than a particularly embarrassing double, but after the collision of Kelenic and Jake Bauers a couple weeks ago, you’d think you’d see much less of that kind of miscommunication, not more.
Of course, the Royals pounced on this opportunity; Pérez walked, Andrew Benintendi dropped a perfectly-placed single to get KC on the board, and Carlos Santana worked an easy walk to load the bases with two outs, forcing Scott Servais to go to the bullpen. What should have been a third straight easy inning with a good shot to finish the seventh ended up being a nightmare of a frame for Flexen, and although Joe Smith against Taylor felt like a good matchup on paper, watching him miss his first two pitches badly had me chattering my teeth. Ever the wily veteran, though, Smith snapped off a perfect sinker on the low and outside corner to freeze Taylor, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out Cal Raleigh for a very nice frame on it.
J.P. drove in Torrens with a fielder’s choice in the seventh, which ended up being great for my stomach and blood pressure, because Drew Steckenrider was once again shaky. Giving up a leadoff dinger to Hunter Dozier was whatever, but immediately allowing a hit to Kyle Isbel and barely grazing the nine-hole hitter stung pretty badly, even though the rational part of me knows Steck has been arguably Seattle’s best reliever all season. He beared down to retire Merrifield and Lopez on flyouts, and with Salvador Pérez once again looming in a high-leverage situation, Servais smashed his emergency button.
I think all of us knew that this matchup was predetermined. Of course Pérez would come up in a high leverage situation this series - probably more than once! Of course Paul Sewald would be summoned to douse the fire, like he has so many times this year. While we all knew that this matchup was destined to happen, how sure of the outcome were we? A game-tying blast and a ferocious strikeout felt equally likely, and whatever happened, I was prepared to accept it.
I didn’t have “easy flyout” on my bingo card, and after the Royals were turned away in the seventh, we were back on cruise control. The M’s pushed their sixth and final run across in the eighth thanks to a Seager single that tore through the shift, a Ty France walk, and Luis capping off an excellent night with a hard-hit single through right side. Every one of his at-bats tonight came against a right-handed pitcher, and if he’s taken a step forward against them while still demolishing lefties? Baby, we just might have a 130 wRC+ bat on our hands.
Luis Torrens with a nice night against some righties. pic.twitter.com/YvX6sDeCbW— Ryan Blake (@_ryan_blake) September 18, 2021
Sewald worked a scoreless eighth, and Diego Castillo worked around a two-runner jam in the ninth to seal the win. Scoreboard watching may have faded away in the last week (Toronto lost, Yankees, Red Sox, and A’s all won, in case you were wondering), and expectations and excitement for the final stretch may have plummeted, but this team doesn’t care what we think. Previous Seattle squads may have folded by now, but not these guys. After the most crushing homestand of the year, they regrouped, landed in a new city to kick off a new series, and banished any bad vibes that may have lingered after Wednesday’s defeat. Strong performances from Kelenic, Flexen, and Torrens lent that much more hope to 2022 and beyond - man, how much better would we all feel if Jarred finished the year on a tear? Yusei Kikuchi is going tomorrow, hoping to end an up-and-down year on a high note before diving into an uncertain future. No matter how thin playoff hopes become in the next two weeks, these are all worth keeping an eye on through the final pitch, and to me, that is beautiful.