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Mariners discover the limits of the will in 2-1 loss to Rays

when nothing goes right

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Tampa Bay Rays
“It’s the laws of cause and effect that you criticize But sir, criticize them you must”
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

A popular misconception surrounding human agency is that our striving is rewarded: that in “doing our best” we ingratiate ourselves to “the Universe” as such. While this notion has its place, we find it rings false more often than not. We quickly learn that our attempts to exert our will upon the world are met with resistance, that providence is not mocked. To the surly will it responds in kind with a reminder that both humbles and humiliates: “You’re not in charge. You never were.”

The Mariners found themselves face-to-face with this reality today. The entire slog of a game unfolded in an almost heavy-handedly didactic way, every encounter laid out so moralistically as to seem like a collection of lessons. I’ve decided to honor this aspect of the game today, and offer 4 case studies in the limits of the will.

Lesson 1: On Luck

Baseball has developed a number of ways to represent the reality of forces outside of raw skill. Whether accounting for the presence of fielders who make outstanding catches and throws, the capriciousness of the ball itself, or the treachery of the grass, it’s critical to be able to describe what happens in the time between a ball’s departure from the bat and the cessation of play.

One particularly relevant way of capturing this volatility is xBA (expected batting average), which attempts to describe the odds that a given ball in play will become a hit. In today’s unlucky extravaganza, there were 5 outs on batted balls that had an xBA over .560, meaning that over 56% of time the same balls would have been hits rather than outs. All 5 were hit by Mariners.

The first and most egregious example of this divergence between the will and fate was experienced by Jarred Kelenic, who I would contend exists in a morality play of some kind:

His hit was well-stroked, 107 mph off the bat, sounding like the kind of line drive you know is going to score a runner like Julio from first. Confirmation of this intuition may be found in the batted ball’s xBA of .720, making it a hit nearly three-quarters of the time. In those three-quarters of all possible worlds, this was no less moving than any other Julio and Jarred back-to-back moment so far this season. Instead, in our reality, it was swallowed by the glove of Wander Franco, who turned a double play and sent the game to the third.

Jarred has had no shortage of these moments, and he’s spoken before on the ways such indignities wear thin. What more can he do? What more can he change? He, wilful as he is, will find things to change and work tirelessly for them. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to wonder along the way, however, whether his efforts are in vain, whether his striving is an affront to some loom-spinning Fate on Olympus.

Lesson 2: On arbitrariness

Julio Rodriguez, who has suffered more greatly at the hands of umpires than can be reasonably understood without an appeal to legitimate injustice, was not spared from providence’s teaching hand today.

There’s no way to understand the thought process of home plate umpire Shane Livensparger here, no way to know what he saw, or (as the case may be) thought he saw.

I’ve half-joked before that I won’t take a stance in favor of automating umpires’ role as ball-and-strikes caller because their presence, in tendency toward error and arbitrariness, heightens the effect of baseball-as-drama. Umpires represent the capriciousness of fate, the inconstancy of life, the perplexing whims of chance or God.

Julio himself has expressed a stoic resignation and grace to the bad judgement and possible bias of umpires that is wholly undeserved by the officials in question.

Despite the umpires best efforts and a pitch to the hand, he managed a single and two (2!) stolen bases on the day. His hit was made possible by his decision, derided as reckless by announcer Mike Blowers, to slide into first. He seems to, at once, grasp the limits of his will and rebel against them with a vigor only someone with as endless an optimism as he has could muster.

His manager, Scott Servais, finally emerged from the dugout to take the culprits to task for their lapses in judgement. In his eminently paternal disappointment we see the alternative kind of rebellion against the brick wall of constraints we stare down, one of rebuke. Jacob may have won his wrestling match with an angel of the Lord, but sometimes it just gets you ejected from the game.

Lesson 3: On fairness

While Jarred’s defeat at the hands of fate was a more explicit rebuke, it was starter Chris Flexen whose confrontation with reality elicited the most pathos. His outing began a bit shaky, with walks and a faltering changeup marring his usual constancy. Between the second inning and the sixth, however, he managed to retire 12 batters in a row. Even the 13th batter he faced in that sequence should have been an out, were the whims of the game truly “fair”. Instead, Yandy Diaz was credited with a hit and stood at first like a mocking reminder that notions of fairness rarely align with the world we inhabit.

Worse still, with a runner at third by way of a single, another single, and a double play, this happened:

Flexen, so often unfazed by his successes and failures, could not contain his dissatisfaction. Not with himself for his role in the sequence of events, not with his teammates who gave his quality start one run of support, not with the disregard of chance for fairness.

Lesson 4: On acceptance

In the final lesson of the day, the Mariners found themselves in business with one out in the ninth and the tying runner at first in J.P. Crawford, whose single averted his collision course with a golden sombrero. Julio Rodriguez, still unfazed by the game’s attempts at breaking his will, sent a ball careening down toward Brandon Lowe and Brett Phillips in the shallow outfield grass between first and second. What looked to become a certain out in the glove of the former found its way to the ground, forcing J.P. to switch directions rapidly and head toward second.

It wasn’t enough: the first ounce of luck on the day instantly dried up. Brett Phillips made the throw to second and J.P. was replaced by Julio as the runner at first. There’s a cruelty here, in the offering of an opportunity that’s ultimately impossible to take fate up on. I’d argue that no amount of speed would have been enough to make it safely onto second, and the moment’s hesitation was grounded in a good sense of the situation. J.P. made no mistakes: he was offered a promise of hope that became null and void from the moment it was spoken.

In jogging off the field, he stared headlong at the dugout, no scalding glances heavenward the way I know I would have done. His resignation is a reminder that some days you will be taunted, perpetual admonitions that you’re not in charge ringing in your ears. What is there to do but keep playing?