I’ve been a Mariners fan for my entire life, and I’m not sure if I’m better for it.
What I mean by that is: there are a number of qualities I have, both negative and positive, whose presence in my psyche I ascribe to my Mariners fandom. Dry, existential wit? A net positive, at least in moderation. A specific brand of learned fatalism that pervades my personal and professional lives, hamstringing my efforts to be a happy and productive member of society? A net negative, I’m told.
One thing I particularly cherish, however, about the “opportunity” to have been a Mariners fan from a young age is that I think it’s made me like baseball for its own sake. 2,500 miles from the snarling gladiatorial dome of Yankee Stadium, in which legions of rabid fans live and die with each pitch from the first inning, the early-millennium Mariners taught their own fanbase to find joy in the nuance.
Sometimes the joy was easy, if only because it was so infrequent: Luis Rodríguez walking off the Blue Jays in what proved to be an otherwise dismal season. Other times, the joy was born of absurdity: who doesn’t remember Eric Byrnes? Most of the time, though, it’s a quiet joy. It’s a joy born of simply watching a baseball game. Sitting in the sun with friends in the bleachers, or folding clothes alone between pitches.
So for most of my life, games like this have been easy. It’s been meditative, coming home and turning on a weekday night game against the A’s or the Twins. A 3-1 loss, I think as I allow myself a moment of feeling superior, can still be worth watching. Not that those East-coasters would understand.
Recently, however, something has changed.
Maybe it’s the fatigue of however-many years of the same shtick.
Maybe it’s the fact that the Mariners are so close that it feels like they should really be there, already.
Maybe I was lying to myself all along.
In any case, I found myself feeling decidedly less Zen than my ego would care to admit as I watched the Mariners chain together one hapless at bat after another.
The game began much like yesterday’s: without much fanfare. Ty France struck out, and Adam Frazier and Jesse Winker both made weak contact against what I assumed was the corpse of Dylan Bundy, neither hitter managing more than a 0.05 expected base hit percentage.
The bottom of the inning went much better than yesterday’s: like in yesterday’s game, the Mariners quickly found themselves down 1-0, this time after a Byron Buxton walk and a couple of hits. Like in yesterday’s game, the Twins had two baserunners and two outs. Like in yesterday’s game, the Twins hit a ground ball to second base.
In yesterday’s game, Adam Frazier made an error, setting the stage for a Gary Sánchez grand slam that blew the game open.
In today’s game, Abraham Toro fielded the ball cleanly, ending the inning with the damage limited to just one run.
Maybe that’s part of what made tonight feel so painful to watch. The game was always in reach, with the “Chaos Ball” Mariners seemingly always just one good break from being back in it. The break never came, but it took three hours to realize it wasn’t coming.
After a couple of blank frames, Julio Rodríguez led off the third inning with a walk. Almost immediately, he broke for second base, inducing a terrible throw from Sánchez.
Of all the things to love about Julio, the speed has caught me the most off-guard (later this game, he forced a Carlos Correa throwing error by blazing down the first base line on a grounder to short) Unfortunately, the Mariners couldn’t bring him home. Cal Raleigh ended up striking out, Frazier popped out weakly to center, and Ty France got a little too underneath a line drive and flew out to end the inning.
To his credit, Chris Flexen labored through 4.1 innings, though he needed 91 pitches to do so. The Twins consistently worked long at bats against Flexen, and every out he recorded seemed to require a tremendous amount of both effort and luck. He was finally pulled in the fifth, and Anthony Misiewicz promptly allowed both inherited runners to score with three instances of hard contact. It was lucky that a fourth hard-hit ball was snared by the infield for an inning-ending double play.
If the Twins were refusing to go down easily, it almost seemed like the Mariners couldn’t wait to get out of the batters’ box. Bundy cruised through five innings, striking out only two but preventing the Mariners from making any decent contact.
In the end, the Mariners only managed to record but two hits in one of their most ineffectual efforts since being no-hit (twice) last season.
In true mid-millennium Mariners fashion (but not, hopefully, what will prove to be 2022 Mariners fashion), the two flashes of intrigue came at the hands of the Mariners bullpen, albeit in very different ways.
The first came in the form of 39-year-old Sergio Romo, who tonight made his 800th MLB appearance. Romo has always gotten by more on wile than power: he’s never averaged 90 MPH on his fastball since debuting in 2008. These days, the fastball sits around 85 MPH, and he mixes it up with a slider and (more rarely) a changeup. Here’s Correa trying to deal with the slider.
Romo is a guy who knows how to use the tools he has, and he’s a lot of fun to watch.
Let’s be real, though. For as fun as Romo is to watch, it’s even more fun to watch the baseball go fast. Especially when it goes really fast. Enter Andrés Muñoz. Muñoz, who had a tough outing two days ago when Byron Buxton deposited one of his 100+ MPH fastballs into the upper deck, is perhaps the most exciting current member of the Mariner bullpen.
Tonight, he showed why. Going between his 85 MPH slider and that vaunted fastball, he simply overwhelmed Gary Sánchez, Miguel Sanó, and Alex Kirilloff. He got Sánchez and Sanó chasing sliders, while he simply blew this one by Kirilloff.
The Mariners will probably once again need an elite bullpen if they’re going to compete this year, as they again appear to be a team that will be winning by the slimmest of margins. For the bullpen to be elite, we’ll need to see more of this from Romo and Muñoz.
Well, there I go clinging to something I can enjoy amidst the entirety of a miserable weekday night game against the A’s/Twins/Royals/Amorphous Blobs. If any of you know of a good support group, let me know.