If you turned off today’s game in the third inning, you would not be alone. Seeing the Mariners, who have struggled this season to get the offense going and especially at clutch moments, fall down to baseball’s best team 6-1 does the opposite of inspiring confidence. But for those who stuck with it, they were rewarded with one of the most satisfying wins of the 2023 series to date.
It all started with a tiny spark that threatened to blow into an inferno. In the third inning, with the Mariners down 2-1 thanks to two solo homers from the Rays that had an xBA of .130 and .290, respectively, Jose Caballero miffed a throw on a routine grounder from leadoff hitter Vidal Brujan, allowing the runner to reach on the error and rolling the Rays lineup back over to the top. By the end of the inning, the entire Rays lineup would have had a turn at the plate, Castillo’s pitch count had swelled by nearly 30 pitches, and the Rays would hold a 6-1 lead. Again, if you turned the game off here, understandable.
In a surprise turn of events, however, the Mariners offense—whether spurred by this weekend’s players-only meeting or not—answered right back in the bottom of the third. After mustering up just one run in the first two innings on an Eugenio Suárez solo shot, the Mariners racked up four more in the inning against young Rays starter Taj Bradley, reinvigorating the crowd at T-Mobile. Julio Rodríguez led off with a double, making a nice adjustment on Bradley’s changeup after he refused to give Julio a fastball to hit. Ty France, who had like Julio not seen a single competitive fastball in his first at-bat, followed with a nice adjustment of his own on a curveball for an RBI double.
Teoscar Hernández then hit what would have probably been a fielder’s choice out, but France and Rays third baseman Isaac Paredes got tangled up in a scary collision that resulted in Paredes having to leave the game. (For those interested in why France wasn’t out: while usually runners are out if they interfere with a player making a play, the umpires determined the ball was already past Paredes at the point of the collision). That put France on third and Teoscar on first for the red-hot Jarred Kelenic, who also made a good adjustment on the changeup Bradley had struck him out on earlier in the game:
But wait! There’s more! Mike Ford also adjusted on Bradley’s changeup, which earlier he had popped up harmlessly. You can’t fool a Princeton man twice (a Yale man, maybe).
(Please don’t get mad at me Yale alums, that is a lighthearted jape at our own Yale alum Grant Bronsdon, aka Yale Earnhardt)
That would draw the Mariners to within a run, with Luis Castillo providing a shutdown inning, and then posting two more zeroes—including, it must be said, some help from a very nifty rolling snag by Caballero that would go on to likely save a run after Manuel Margot doubled in the sixth. The Mariners were able to tie it up in the sixth because the Rays apparently were so frightened of Mike Ford’s might (if there’s something a True Florida Man fears, it’s an Ivy League education), it caused them to forget about Tom Murphy’s bloodlust for lefty pitching, leaving poor Colin Poché in to do this:
The newly-tied game set up another opportunity for adjustment. I listened in on a conversation the other day between Andrés Muñoz and team interpreter/Mariners staffer Freddy Llanos where Muñoz was expressing surprise at how much the Rays batters were able to make contact with his stuff, saying you sometimes just have to tip your hat to the hitter. Muñoz certainly seemed to relish the opportunity for a second shot at the Rays, striking out the first batter he saw. He would have gotten a second easy out but Eugenio Suárez mishandled a ball hit by Wander Franco, allowing him to reach. However, the Rays’ aggressive baserunning bit them in the inning, as Franco was easily doubled off to end the inning when Randy Arozarena went after the second pitch of his at-bat, flying out easily to Teoscar Hernández. Tip that cap right back, then.
The Rays brought in yet another reliever with yet another arm slot to work the bottom of the seventh, this time Jason Adam and his over-the-top delivery. Adam had some extreme trouble locating the strike zone today, though, getting two outs but also loading the bases with three free passes (two walks and a HBP). That brought up José Caballero for his own make-right moment, doing what he does best: also getting hit by pitch. All joking aside, this was a good inning for the Mariners despite them not recording a hit. The bottom of the lineup forced Adam to throw 27 pitches, worked counts, and ground out a run from it.
Speaking of trouble locating the strike zone, the Mariners opted to go with Matt Brash in the top of the eighth, which struck me as a tough matchup: the Rays don’t often expand, and Brash can really struggle with the zone. Sure enough, he opened by walking Luke Raley but then seemed to lock it in to the zone more, striking out Harold Ramírez and getting into a long battle with Taylor Walls, in for Paredes, before getting him to pop out harmlessly. He then took care of nine-hole hitter Francisco Mejía, getting him to fly out to Julio in center to end the inning and set up Paul Sewald for the close, who was every bit as shutdown as he’d been yesterday. Paul Sewald for the All-Star Game or we riot.
This team has been Lucy-and-the-football with us all year, tantalizing us with big, fun wins and then sinking back to mediocrity. But today’s win, leading to a series win over the best team in baseball, felt different. The offense didn’t cruise to an easy win over a beleaguered starter or weak bullpen; they battled back by making clutch, in-game adjustments. Shaky defense at times didn’t snowball into disaster. Players worked counts and stopped being so easy to get out. The entire team clamped down in the later half of the game and refused to let go of that one-run lead, something last year’s team was so good at but this year’s team has struggled to do. I know it’s setting me up to be kicking empty air, but I can’t help but feel like something important’s happened here.