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Pop-up of the Week: George Kirby ends the game with panache

Pop me up before you go-go

George Kirby #68 of the Seattle Mariners catches the ball for an out during the ninth inning against the Baltimore Orioles at T-Mobile Park on August 12, 2023  Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images

Here’s a fun fact: George Kirby is already 29th in franchise history by fWAR. He’s only pitched two, partial seasons, but it’s already impossible to imagine the Seattle Mariners without him.

A scary thought is that this may not even be his final form. Consider that Logan Gilbert only really figured out his arsenal this year, his third season on the roster, and it’s taken his game to another level. Kirby seems to be on his way there, and is doing so by following a similar plan. After ditching his circle change for a splitter, he’s throwing that offspeed pitch more often and with much more success. That sounds pretty reminiscent of a certain winner with an alter ego.

Incorporating a splitter isn’t an obvious choice for a guy who makes his living with his command; it’s a feel pitch and has a tendency to end up all over the place. But the thing about being a command artist is that it gives you a margin for error. Kirby hasn’t thrown a single splitter when he’s been behind in the count, which makes perfect sense. It’s a boom-or-bust pitch, either generating weak contact, whiff, or foul on the one hand, or it’s a waste pitch that merely costs him a ball. Some pitchers can’t afford to give away balls, but it’s no big deal for Kirby, who can feel pretty sure he’ll get himself back into the count.

This increase in poor contact has gotten Kirby to keep his pitch count low and go deep into games. It’s no wonder that on Saturday, he was able to pitch nine shutout innings on just 103 pitches. It was the 14th time he’s pitched into the seventh inning this year, and he’s averaging 6.1 innings per start, which puts him in 99th percentile. The game’s tragic ending in extras prevented him from getting a coveted CGSO, so I’m giving him a rare off-recap Sun Hat Award.

Considering his new profile, it’s hardly surprising that he ended his nine-inning shutout on a harmless pop-up, which he caught himself for your Play of the Week. (Also note recently-acquired enemy Cedric Mullins taking his bat halfway up the line only to drop it right in front of Kirby’s path.)

It was an emphatic ending to the best game of his career. So far.

Honorable Mentions

Logan sets a new personal best

Not to be even a little bit outdone, Logan Gilbert racked up a career-high 12 strikeouts on Wednesday, doing so against a perhaps-underperforming-but-undeniably-elite lineup. 12 strikeouts is no joke: Mariners starters have only done it six other times in the past decade. Getting his 12th punchie from no less a hitter than Juan Soto with this perfectly placed slider was nearly the play of the week itself. Soto is among the best in the game against sliders specifically, but he was no match for one this good. The way Soto just contemplates his life after this one is a pretty big compliment.

Julio puts the Show in J-Rod Show

But Gilbert’s outing very nearly wasn’t as good as it turned out to be, and the J-Rod Show is to thank. Twenty-five years from now, when they have a ceremony to induct Julio into the Mariners Hall of Fame, there will be a highlight reel of his best moments. I think there’s a decent chance this showmanship will be on it. If you missed it when it happened, the replay does not come close to capturing how long this pause felt in real time. Tatís’s smile doesn’t make it into this clip, but credit to him for being such a good sport about it.

Cal Raleigh Breaks It Open

Cal’s had some pretty beefy bombs over his career, but none has gone farther than this 450-foot moonshot to set up Seattle’s seventh win in a row.

Emerson Hancock Tries Harder

Hancock had an impressive first MLB strikeout, getting a sword from Fernando Tatís, Jr. But I think this is the more lasting moment from his debut.

Sauce Makes A Barehand Grab

Yep, this is officially Pitchers Are Athletes Too Week here at Play of the Week.

Dominic Canzone Sends It To Extras

His first home run as a Mariner? Blah. Tying the game in the bottom of the ninth with two outs? Whatever. This bat flip? Now, that’s amore.