What’s been most frustrating for me in watching these early games is seeing the Mariners so often play the same game, and lose the same ways. Time after time it feels like the club hasn’t been able to come up with a clutch hit or a big inning to back a strong outing from their starter; in the rare moments when they have, the pitching staff hasn’t been able to keep the other team off the board, resulting in a cold start to the season, both literally and figuratively. But tonight the Mariners broke the cycle of spoiling good starts with lackluster offensive efforts; tonight it felt a little more like the team playing as they were designed to do on paper, with strong pitching backed by a few key hits, and a lockdown performance from the bullpen.
George Kirby started off a little shaky: after a quick first inning where he dismissed the top of the Cardinals lineup on 13 pitches, he struggled a little in the second, needing 20 pitches, uncharacteristically hitting a batter, and giving up two runs on a well-struck Jordan Walker double. Kirby’s only traffic that reached via hits that inning was Nolan Arenado, who singled, and then Walker’s double; both pitches came on particularly poorly located sliders.
But Kirby battled back, even though he had to fight Brendan Donovan to begin the third in a 10-pitch, pitch-count-chewing battle that eventually ended with Kirby getting Donovan to pop out harmlessly. He would then go on to get two more quick outs, ending by getting All-Star Paul Goldschmidt flailing after a slider for his second strikeout of the night.
Lots of late break on this inning-ending K from George Kirby to Paul Goldschmidt, who cuts through with a sword-like swing. pic.twitter.com/JHhuGPIAlm— Daniel Kramer (@DKramer_) April 22, 2023
After that it felt like Kirby snapped into another level. He only needed six pitches to dispose of the Cardinals in the fourth inning, had another 1-2-3 inning in the fifth that featured Jordan Walker doing the splits on a nasty slider for a strikeout, and cleared the fifth without damage, although he had to work around a base hit and a couple of counts where he was behind 3-1 (not entirely his fault). After failing to get strikes or whiffs on the curveball early on, Kirby found the feel for that pitch, using it to steal first pitch strikes and induce weak contact; he’d end up with a 42% CSW% for the pitch tonight. He also didn’t abandon his slider, collecting an inning-ending strikeout on the pitch to close out the fourth from Nolan Gorman; the young slugger was held hitless tonight by Mariners pitching, with two strikeouts at the hands of Kirby.
Postgame, Scott Servais praised his young starter’s ability to make an adjustment, specifically the way he worked here to get his breaking ball down in the zone. “He can repeat his delivery as well as any young pitcher I’ve ever seen,” said Servais, when asked about Kirby’s consistency and ability to get back into his mechanics when he gets out of sorts. Teammate and spring training throwing partner Robbie Ray has also praised Kirby’s ability to adjust, saying he’s never seen anyone able to make such effective adjustments on the fly like this outside of former teammate Zack Greinke.
Kirby’s ability to adjust is founded on his confidence and knowing who he is as a pitcher. “I believe in myself. I know I can throw all my pitches for strikes. I don’t get discouraged if I throw a ball; I’m just going to go right back and attack them in the zone.”
George Kirby, 94mph Sinker and 85mph Slider, Overlay pic.twitter.com/dM7EiQNSmr— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) April 22, 2023
The Mariners bullpen was particularly lockdown tonight, with Trevor Gott, Justin Topa, and Paul Sewald combining for three shutout innings where they didn’t allow a baserunner. Topa was maybe the sharpest of the bunch, striking out two and making this incredible snag:
Justin Topa flashing the leather: pic.twitter.com/B0bORH8glP— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) April 22, 2023
But there’s no winning this game without the offense rallying back from a 2-0 deficit. After being unable to make the catch on Walker’s two-run double, Teoscar Hernández immediately answered back with a leadoff double that just snuck down the left field line. He’d then be brought home by Jarred Kelenic, who blooped a single into center field off of the lefty Matz, to draw the Mariners within one. Then in the fourth, it was once again Teo Time:
Earlier today, John begged the Mariners—specifically Teoscar—to stop hitting the ball to the deepest parts of the park, and Teo said, lol no. We love our oppositionally defiant sons.
(Teoscar also made a nice sliding catch to rob Lars Nootbaar of a hit, much to the dismay of the many, many Cardinals fans and not-insignificant amount of Japanese media present to watch the WBC champion. WBC revenge for Teo.)
Earlier today, Scott Servais discussed the importance of his club sticking to their process, not naming any names but indicating that he’d been a little disappointed in the at-bats taken by the Mariners as a group on Wednesday, saying that it doesn’t work if only two or three guys are sticking to the plan and five or six are “going rogue.” Tonight the Mariners did do a better job of taking their walks, and that helped them score the go-ahead runs they’d need in the sixth inning—the big inning that has proved to be so elusive so far to the 2023 Mariners.
Julio led off the inning by working a walk off a tiring Steven Matz and proceeded to steal second. Eugenio Suárez followed him with a walk, and then Teoscar struck out, but made a heads up play to note catcher Willson Contreras had dropped new pitcher Drew VerHagen’s changeup and lost track of the baseball, and hustled himself down to first base to reach on what was ruled a wild pitch. That brought up AJ Pollock with the bases loaded, and for once, the 2023 Mariners did not squander this opportunity, with Pollock doubling home two runners, and a sac fly from Kelenic polishing off what was left of the crumbs to give the Mariners a 5-2 lead, all the run support they’d need to navigate to a victory behind their strong bullpen.
Postgame, Pollock was measured when asked about his big moment, speaking in general about the team and the struggles they’ve faced. “You go through stretches in the year where you think you’re playing well, and you’re just waiting, something’s going to happen eventually, and it will.”
The term “veteran leadership” gets thrown around jokingly sometimes but it’s clear that Pollock’s measured, even-keel disposition is an asset for a team that’s still trying to find an identity.
Right now, though, the most important identity is winning. As a clearly relieved Servais said postgame, “I feel like we’ve played that game tonight at least seven or eight times this year—we just haven’t gotten the big hit. Tonight we got the big hit.”
Here’s to a few more of these kinds of games, then.
OMG pic.twitter.com/T9XukTBXBK— Seattle Mariners (@Mariners) April 22, 2023