When I first became interested in chess, one thing that initially confused me about the game is why it hasn’t been “solved” yet. After all, there are only 16 pieces on each side. The top players in the world are prodigies who earned the title of “grandmaster” before they could drive a car. They themselves are assisted in their preparation by supercomputers and chess engines that make the strongest computers of the 2000’s look like glorified toaster ovens. How could there still be room for innovation? For new moves?
Well, it turns out that the nature of exponential growth means that the number of possible chess positions balloons out of control pretty quickly — beyond the capability of even our strongest computers to solve. After just seven moves per side, there are over 10 million possible positions. Considering that games often last over thirty moves per side, one quickly realizes that the number of possible different “games” might as well be infinite.
Similarly, it seems that baseball games, with the limited number of common outcomes in each at bat, should collapse to a common state with at least some frequency. It certainly seems like the Mariner games of old tended to blur together into a homogenous miasma. Some math, however, quickly shows how impossibly unlikely it would be for two identical baseball games to exist.
There are an average of 75 total plate appearances in a baseball game. Ignoring that batted balls can go in different directions, and ignoring also that weird things can happen in baseball outside of these commonalities, we have around seven total outcomes of each plate appearance: home run, walk, hit by pitch, out, single, double, and triple. Assuming the outcome of each plate appearance is independent of the outcome of other plate appearances (not a valid assumption, but it works for a rough demonstration), we end up with 1063 total possibilities. Now, not all of these possibilities are equally likely: there will (hopefully?) never be a 75-dinger game. Considering that the number of stars in the observable universe is on the order of 1024, however, you can see that this is a Large Number.
All of this is to say: it sure seems like the Mariners have played a lot of similar games, but each one is unique in its own special way.
From the beginning, tonight’s game reminded me of Game Two of the season. Game Two saw Logan Gilbert run into trouble early: he needed 25 pitches to get through the first inning. Gilbert settled down, however, and ultimately gutted through five innings to put the Mariners in a position to come back and win 4-3.
Likewise, Gilbert struggled out of the gate tonight. After striking out leadoff man Brad Miller (yes, that Brad Miller hit leadoff tonight), Gilbert found himself unable to fool Marcus Semien or Corey Seager. Neither was fooled by Gilbert’s stuff, and both hit hard line drives for singles. It seemed like Gilbert might be in for another rocky start. As Mitch Garver strode to the plate, it seemed like the Mariners’ hopes rested on the possibility of an inning-ending double play.
Ask, and you shall receive.
After Garver’s grounder bailed out the M’s, the Mariners got to have their say against the thoroughly whelming Dane Dunning, who had been off to a somewhat rocky start to the year. Things started similarly poorly for Dunning tonight: an Adam Frazier walk and a Ty France line drive single set the stage for a two-on, no-out chance for Jesse Winker. Winker, as I’ve had to remind myself over-and-over-and-over this season, posted a Mike Troutian 179 wRC+ against righties last year. It should only be a matter of time until he breaks through.
Um. Well. About that.
As Aaron Goldsmith went through a similar process, lamenting Winker’s bad luck to start the season and detailing the ways in which the Mariners have quantified the fact that he will turn it around, doggonit, Winker did this.
That’s right, the first triple play turned against the Mariners since 2006. This one wasn’t quite as cool as the last one, which was a fun strike ‘em out, throw ‘em out, throw ‘em out 2-6-2 affair featuring Raúl Ibañez, José López, and Adrián Beltré.
Anyway, thus continued Winker’s run of absolutely shitty lucky, and the Mariners found themselves locked in what became a scoreless slugfest against the Rangers. The two teams combined for twelve baserunners in the first four innings, and scored just one run combined. Gilbert, for his part, quickly settled down after that first inning, compensating for a seeming lack of bite on his changeup with supreme control of his fastball and slider.
The Mariners squeaked out their first run in the third, after an Abraham Toro double set the stage for Cal Raleigh to crack a 105 MPH ground ball that made it past Nathaniel Lowe’s glove at first base. Toro scored from second, but the Mariners ended up stranding the bases loaded after an Eugenio Súarez soft liner was caught — the liner had a 50-50 shot of dropping, per Statcast.
After a scoreless fourth, the Mariners finally broke through in the fifth. The Mariners finally got to Dunning with an Adam Frazier ground rule double and a Ty France single, before reliever John King loaded the bases by allowing a single and a walk. A J.P. Crawford sacrifice fly made it a 3-0 game, setting the stage for Julio.
Center fielder Adolis García came up on the ball quickly and threw an absolute rocket to home, which by rights should have nailed Winker at the plate. Fortunately, catcher Jonah Heim wasn’t able to apply the tag to Winker in time. The Rangers challenged the safe call and lost, making it 4-0 Mariners.
The next few innings passed in blissful uneventfulness. Gilbert continued to be effective, and was finally pulled in the seventh inning to a standing ovation, having allowed zero runs across 6.2 innings. The Mariners, for their part, didn’t create any chances to squander, which was thoughtful of them.
Of course, one had to wonder if all of those missed opportunities would come back to bite the M’s. Diego Castillo entered the game in the ninth with a four-run lead, but found himself facing the heart of the Rangers order: Semien, Seager, and Garver. In case you didn’t catch the half-second moment on the broadcast, it seemed an ill omen that he dropped Abraham Toro’s around-the-horn toss before he even threw a pitch.
An ill omen, indeed. Semien and Seager each singled to lead off the inning, prompting acting manager Kristopher Negrón to frantically call the bullpen and ask Matt Festa and Erik Swanson to begin warming up. Things continued in equally horrifying fashion when Garver hit a chopper to Abraham Toro, who airmailed the throw to second base into right field. The game, which had minutes ago been 4-0, saw the Rangers with the tying man at home plate and nobody out.
Castillo, who always seems terrified on the mound, regardless of what he might actually be feeling, took a deep breath, and hucked a slider to Nathaniel Lowe. Lowe, who seemed to be looking for a fastball on which he could tie the game, rolled over on the pitch, sending a grounder to Ty France for a fielder’s choice at second base.
Lest the Mariners and their fans catch their collective breath, the next man to the plate was slugger Adolis García. García, who also seemed to be looking for a fastball, got his wish. He leaned back, swung, and sent a fly ball into deep left field. Immediately, I feared the worst.
The ball, which was hit at 100 MPH off the bat, died in the chilly April air and settled into the glove of a waiting Jesse Winker. Though Castillo still had Nick Solak to contend with, the worst of the danger had passed. Solak struck out uneventfully, and the Mariners came away with a win that ended up being shockingly difficult to eke out.
This game was a microcosm of what has made the Mariners so fantastic, yet so difficult to watch. In contrast to the Mariners of a decade ago, these Mariners refuse to allow their games to blend together. The 3-2 weekday night losses, punctuated by the one or two competent hitters being left on base, have been replaced with 4-2 weekday night wins punctuated by the seven or eight competent hitters being left on base.
There might be 1063 ways to play a baseball game, and these chaotic Mariners seem determined to find more than 162 of them. That they’ve been unlucky so far based on the batted ball numbers would seem to suggest that even more good things are coming. With the next four games coming against the Rangers and Royals, it’s easy to entertain dreams of sitting atop the division this time next week.