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Cal League game breaks out at Mariners game, Mariners win 9-6

Carlos Santana in right field, you say? Tell me more

MLB: Game Two-Detroit Tigers at Seattle Mariners
the eyes of Toro/are like an ouroboros/ (clap clap clap clap)/ deep in the heart of Seattle
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

One of the best baseball watching experiences I ever had was had from 800 miles away. In 2019, as the Mariners were slogging through the first year of the rebuild at the big-league level, the Modesto Nuts in the California League, Seattle’s High-A team, were playing thrilling baseball night after night, led by a crew of names that would soon become familiar to every Mariners fan: Cal Raleigh, Logan Gilbert, Julio Rodríguez, Jarred Kelenic, Penn Murfee. (And some that are not: shoutout to Ian McKinney, Eugene Helder, Nick Duron, and other lesser-hailed contributors). Many was a time when the Mariners would play some form of unwatchable baseball in the Eastern time zone, and I would turn on the sweet succor of Cal League promise to close out the night.

That experience—and others, more locally, at Tacoma Rainiers and Everett AquaSox games—helped me learn to relax and just enjoy baseball without worrying about the outcome. And it helped to see shots of the crowd, all hoping for their fifteen minutes seconds of fame, going wild in the stands to piped-in music from what I can only assume was a Now That’s What I Call Ballpark Music! CD. It reminded me that baseball is fun, and the experience of it is supposed to be fun. That’s something you have to be reminded of occasionally, as a Mariners fan over these long years.

Those games in Modesto are not what we would call Pitching Clinics. High-A ball, which Modesto was at the time, is not known for the most polished pitching, and the the Cal League, especially, is notorious for offensive-friendly parks due to the warm, dry desert air and friendly winds. Teams can run out of pitchers due to strict pitching limits or players being shipped elsewhere. Frequent doubleheaders exacerbate these issues. All of this leads to some inflated scores, often topping double digits. So tonight’s struggle against the Tigers, the second half of a doubleheader that saw 28 total runs scored across both games, felt a little bit like familiar comfort to me.

Justus Sheffield, maybe battling some nerves on his return to the big-league club, opened his return to the majors with a walk. He then wasn’t helped out by his infield when Spencer Torkelson smoked a potential double-play ball at Suárez, whose throw was a little offline to Toro, who couldn’t pick it cleanly. The official scorer handed Suárez the error, but the crowd gave it to Toro. Despite hitting Jeimer Candelario with a pitch, Sheffield was able to wiggle out of the inning without damage, striking out Kody Clemens, whose dad Roger clearly went to the Calhoun Skool of Child-Naming. Sheffield continued to dance in and out of trouble, falling behind batters but escaping with weak contact grounders and flyouts. He finally got caught up in the third inning, loading the bases on two walks and a single, but again wiggled (mostly) out of danger with just a sac fly scoring against him. The stadium DJ pumped the music, and the crowd, delirious on baseball and ballpark snacks, danced with wild abandon. The vibes at the second game of a doubleheader are always a little punchy, and especially one that starts almost immediately after the last one ends, but everything seemed a little louder and looser tonight, like the Mariners fans finally knew where they were going and were at peace with it, and now was just time to party.

Will Vest, a former Mariners Rule 5 draft pick, was less fortunate than Sheffield, unable to clear the first inning after loading the bases on a single to Julio Rodríguez and two walks. He was quickly lifted after hitting Dylan Moore on the arm with a 94.4 MPH fastball, inciting much booing from the crowd at T-Mobile, but giving the Mariners a 1-0 lead. That would be all the Mariners would get until the third inning, when a sharply-hit Eugenio Suárez single was followed by two little lollipop singles by Cal Raleigh and Dylan Moore, the latter scoring Eugenio and pushing the Mariners’ lead to 3-1. A two-run Toro Smash in the fourth, scoring Luis Torrens—following up his pitching win by catching a bunch of Justus Sheffield sliders, no good deed etc. etc.—pushed the Mariners out to a 4-1 lead.

Unfortunately, after four innings, Top Sheff’s slider was 86’d by Kody Clemens, earning my Bum Hat award for Most Annoying Tiger of the Night, who hit a grand slam to put the Tigers ahead 5-4. It wasn’t just Clemens, though—several Detroit batters found the Sheff’s offerings bat-smacking tasty.

Mama mia, pizza di pasta, things of that nature.

However, you know what’s better than an overcooked slider? A Beef Boy Cal-zone.

Fun fact: I forgot, in the course of writing both these recaps, whether this home run came in this game or the first one. All I remember is the ball flying into the air and seemingly disappearing, like Cal had literally obliterated it from this mortal coil. For a second, it was like I was back in 2019, squinting through Modesto’s fuzzy feed as a babyfaced catcher the Mariners took as a third-rounder lit the league on fire.

Cal’s batazo profundo tied things up at five. DMo then walked, Adam Frazier singled, and Luis Torrens walked to load the bases and A.J. Hinch decided that was quite enough of Elvin Rodríguez, whose name I constantly said in the intonation of Brittney Murphy’s character from Clueless, and brought in Garrett Hill to give up a two-run single to Abraham Toro before having to face Julio. Tough draw but Hill managed to punch out Julio looking on a nasty pitch at 95 on the edge of the zone and then get Kelenic to fly out. Still, 7-5 Mariners. More dancing at the inning break, everyone frantically flailing their limbs partly in celebration, partly to keep warm as the temperature in the ballpark nosedived towards a number that begins with 5.

Spencer Torkelson seems intent on reclaiming all his lost prospect glory in one series and continued to do so against Penn Murfee. Look, this isn’t a bad pitch, even:

That’s a slider Tork just ambushes for a TorkBomb. Prospects/young rookies! Sometimes they struggle while getting adjusted to MLB!

Things were not so smooth running up that Hill the second time. This time it was Hill’s turn to load the bases with three straight singles, but instead of getting a grand slam, the Mariners got an RBOuch when Hill hit Dylan Moore with 93 on the wrist/hand area, and subsequently will be hearing from my lawyers. Adam Frazier then hit a shallow flyball to left and Carlos Santana, bless every day of every one of his 36 years, hustled home as fast as his legs could carry him to push the score out to 9-6.

look at our Lumber Lord

As the ballpark emptied—there was a mass exodus of the 24,564 who packed T-Mobile at varying times today after the sixth inning—everyone had more room to stretch out and dance, really get their backs into it, as Ice Cube exhorted. The kids who were able to wheedle their way into staying this late were wild-eyed, feral off cotton candy, and I remember that: the thrill of staying up past one’s bedtime, when it was a special treat rather than an adult indulgence or the consequence of time ill-spent (dear reader, if only you knew how many articles you’ve read on this site were written through the dead of night and into birdsong the next morning). I hope all those kids go to school tomorrow with a note that says “sorry my child is sleepy; we were busy celebrating history and enjoying our Jumbotron fame.”

Murfee brought it back for a scoreless inning in the top of the seventh, giving the Mariners a workmanlike two innings and a bridge to Matt Brash in the top of the eighth, who pitched a scoreless inning, looking fairly sharp with his pitch location and making Victor Reyes look like he wished he hadn’t bothered coming to the plate at all. The Mariners went down quietly in the bottom of the eighth, with Casali pinch-hitting for Moore (hopefully precautionary; x-rays were apparently negative), setting up some truly weird baseball in the top of the ninth: Frazier moved to shortstop for Dylan Moore, Curt Casali went to first, and Our Lumber Lord himself, Carlos Santana, went to right field. Thankfully, Diego Castillo kept the ball in the infield, mowing down the Tigers 1-2-3 with a strikeout and two groundouts. It’s literally the Tigers, but it’s nice to see Diego pitching free and easy. Bring that mindset to Toronto, Diego, please and thank you.

If we can’t have a desirable WC matchup, I’m not mad about having a night like this at the park: a game that’s largely meaningless other than in the win-loss column, and a night that’s all about fun, a reminder of what baseball can be in its purest, most cotton candy form.