When assembling a puzzle, there is nothing more satisfying than when you place that last piece and can see the entire picture, perfectly matching the photo on the box, and sometimes even more impressive in its full scope than you imagined it would be. If the Mariners’ rebuild is a puzzle, they came into this season with most of the edge pieces in place, but a lot of the picture in the middle still needing to come together. Over the course of the season, more and more pieces have started connecting, and today a major one fell into place as the healthiest and arguably most complete lineup we’ve seen all season topped the Rangers 6-2 behind solid pitching from Kirby and the bullpen.
One of the key pieces to the puzzle of a successful baseball team, a corner piece if you will, is starting pitching. George Kirby was not a piece that had landed into place coming into the season, but he is solidly locked into the picture now. It’s his rookie season, and at times that shows through, other times you would think he has one or two seasons behind him already at least. Tonight it was very much a little bit of both feelings as he worked efficiently for much of the game, but did make a few costly mistakes.
You can tell by looking at his pitch chart today that Kirby lacked a little bit of the command he is known for, leaving a lot of his fastballs hanging in the middle of the plate. He kept his composure through most of it though, and while he paid for it in hits, giving up seven, he only allowed two earned runs in his 5.2 innings of work, and just the one walk. When he was on, he was able to sufficiently fool the Rangers, racking up five strikeouts, and getting strikes on 51 of his 83 pitches. He relied heavily on his four-seam and two-seam to do so, generating four and two whiffs on them respectively, both topping out at a little over 96 MPH.
He was also working the slider as his third most pitch, and while he only got the one whiff, he managed to land four for called strikes. Kirby definitely has some of those pieces still missing before he is a complete major leaguer, lessons to be learned, but already it’s becoming clear the type of pitcher he will be, and it’s good. More importantly, he has the demeanor of a Major League pitcher beyond his years, never seeming to get shaken, never timid in his approach. If he even approaches his ceiling, he’s going to be an elite threat and then some.
While the starting pitching this year for Seattle has stayed miraculously healthy, their lineup is not so lucky as to be able to say the same. That is, until today’s game. Mitch Haniger has been back for a few games now from his long IL stint, and Julio Rodríguez is back just today from his temporary wrist issue. Both players are key pieces to the puzzle, for their competent bats of course, but also for their competent defense. Haniger may not have the outfield range he once had, but he certainly still has the arm, which he put on display in the bottom of the second when he made a leaping catch at the warning track, and gunned it back to first to double up Lowe to end the inning.
The Mariners have had the pitching, they’ve had the defense to be sure, but the big question mark at times this season has been the offense. Today, they had an advantage in that the Rangers came into this outing deciding to make it a bullpen day. Good teams take that advantage and break it wide open, and since this was the first game of the series, the implications for the next few games were huge. Seattle didn’t start out tearing the cover off the ball, but they were able to grind out some good plays. They first got on the board in the top of the third. J.P. Crawford patiently worked a full count into a walk, Julio hit a sharp grounder up the middle for a single, moving J.P. to third, and France managed to get it into play to score Crawford, getting tossed out at first in the sacrifice play. It was patient, smart small ball, but it would be all they would manage that inning.
The bottom of that third inning the Rangers answered back, tallying one against Kirby, but the Mariners weren’t having any of it. They are back, they are healthy, and they are putting other teams on notice. Santana got things going in the top of the fourth with a one out double, then Frazier got on the bases with a walk. Raleigh did give the Rangers a second out with an ugly, ugly strikeout, but Crawford was unfazed and drew his second walk of the night to load the bases. The Rangers opted to replace their opening pitcher Taylor Hearn for José Leclerc. Now if Julio facing Leclerc with the bases loaded sounds familiar, you might remember that it was off of him Julio hit his first grand slam of his career earlier in the season. Bold move, Rangers, bold move. Bold, but not bright. Julio didn’t slice up a salami this time, but he did slice a line drive to right field, scoring Santana and Frazier. The damage stopped there, but it was nice insurance for Kirby, that proved useful when he gave up another run in the sixth before his exit, but not having given up the lead.
Julio almost managed to go yard in the 6th inning, but apparently somehow this ball managed to hook into foul territory and then back again just around the foul pole. Or rather, hooking around it in theory, because this was an absolute tower of a blast significantly taller than the foul pole. Even when Julio misses, he impresses. Julio isn’t just a puzzle piece, he’s the picture on the box you strive for.
Piece after piece just kept falling into place as the game went on. In the top of the eighth, Frazier and Raleigh hit back-to-back doubles. Then Crawford, deciding he had walked enough for the night, hit one just deep enough to left field for a sac fly, scoring Frazier, putting the Mariners further ahead, 4-2.
It was a healthy, comfortable lead, especially for Seattle’s bullpen which has been pitching with style and making it look easy. And yet, the Mariners were still not satisfied. The game had reached the point in the puzzle where it becomes easier to find the remaining pieces, the momentum peaking, but they wanted to emphatically complete the image. Haniger worked a full count before hitting a ground ball single to center, and Winker followed it up with a sharp ball hit to right field for a single as well. At this point, Eugenio Suárez was hitless, but he wasn’t going to be left out of the picture. With no outs, he hit a ball hard to the right field warning track that if caught would have at least advanced Haniger to third. Adolis García barely missed it though, and Ayyyyyugenio racked himself up a two RBI double, giving the Mariners a decisive 6-2 lead.
Every piece of this puzzle matters though, and I would be in gross violation of my duties if I didn’t give significant love to the M’s bullpen. Matt Brash was the first one to come into the game as relief. Kirby may have taken his spot in the rotation after he struggled as a starter, but Brash backed up his teammate tonight, and himself, with poise, proving he belongs at this level. Over his one inning of work he struck out three, and generated eight whiffs, or 50% of all his pitches. He did give up two hits though, cue Andrés Muñoz. Rookie pitching just absolutely showing up and getting each other’s backs, Muñoz got the last out to erase Brash’s runners like Brash did for Kirby before him, and struck out two the next inning in the eighth completing his 1.1 innings of work. Erik Swanson came in to work the ninth with a comfortable lead, and shut the door facing the minimum and striking out two.
As this season has gone on, the identity of this Mariners team has come into view. There have been a few players lost to injury or struggles, but even more players have stepped up. More important than the view games like tonight give us of this season that is inching closer to its end, we are getting a more clear sight on what this means for the franchise for years to come.