A worthy enough of a protagonist ideally will have an equally worthy villain to overcome on their journey. An underdog with sound morals weighed down with inexperience, but lifted by potential, might be matched up against a naturally talented juggernaut, proudly bearing no scruples and suffering none for it. It would be easy for a Seattle Mariners fan to slot the team of their affection into this protagonist role, and in doing so have a perfect fit in the juggernaut rival of the Houston Astros. The Houston Astros of course being a team that frustratingly cheated their way to winning a World Series, had a major chip on their shoulder about it, and then still were talented enough to win it again without cheating but with the remaining smugness. Sounds like a villain worth rooting against to me, and today the Seattle Mariners gave their admirers plenty to root for when they completed a three game sweep of the Astros on their home turf, defeating them 7-6.
In the realm of storytelling there is a particular style of manga and anime known as Shōnen which particularly embraces this narrative trend of unlikely heroes overcoming impossible odds. Mariners fans, eat your hearts out. It truly is serendipitous then that the brightest star in Seattle’s constellation is Julio Rodríguez, a self-professed anime fan, and who cites his favorite anime as Naruto. Much like the titular hero of the anime, Julio has made it clear his goal is to be successful and to make proud the village he calls home. Much like the titular hero, he has overcome various doubts and low moments through dedication, patience, and flat out hard work. And, once again like Naruto, his success is intricately knotted to the fate of those close bonds he keeps, his teammates.
After the Mariners won the first two games against Houston, and Julio lifted the team on his shoulders for much of the last week (in particular the record-breaking, 17-hit four game stretch), it was inevitable there would come a time when our hero would reach his limits and it would be up to his team to do their part. Julio would reach base once today, and come around to score, but against a Houston team with their backs against the Gulf of Mexico and division-land running out fast, much more would be needed. Julio did practically score all by himself when he first reached on a double, advanced to third on a wild pitch, then scored on another one. Hunter Brown was starting out as sharp as a Squishmallow, and Seattle took advantage. Teoscar Hernández and Mike Ford both worked walks, then Dominic Canzone ripped a liner down right field for an RBI double.
The damage stopped at the two runs in the first, and they forced Brown to use 33 pitches to get through it. They continued the attack in the second, Josh Rojas singling and then stealing second base, only for the steal to matter not except for the back of his baseball card when Eugenio Suárez blasted one to the left field bleachers, his eighteenth of the year.
Again the damage stopped at two runs, the Mariners now with a lead of 4-0, and Hunter Brown was sitting on 59 pitches after two. He wouldn’t see the end of three, but that was at least in part due to Bregman falling victim to some unknown genjutsu (to oversimplify, think of this as illusion magic). Canzone reached with a one out single, and when Dylan Moore hit a ceiling scraper that stayed in the infield, that was when Bregman fell under the spell and called off the rest of the infield, only to let the ball harmlessly drop a few feet away from him, Canzone moving to second and DMo safe at first. Josh Rojas then upped the outs to two with a groundout, but that didn’t phase Brian O’Keefe, who used a Scroll of RBI Double to bring the Mariners lead up to 6-0.
Up two games in the series, and up six runs in the game after the top of the third, it was nearing the realm of comfortable for Mariners fans. Well, the ones new to the fandom, maybe. Because any diehard anime or Mariners fan know one truth to the type of story we have chosen to enjoy, and that is when victory is closest to being grasped, the shadow reaches out fiercer than ever to snatch it from you. Losses are suffered. Ground that was once gained, is lost, and more.
Emerson Hancock started out his night well enough. His first batter in Jose Altuve reached with a soft liner into right field for a single, but he then got out of the inning by striking out Alex Bregman, a particularly impressive strikeout of Yordan Álvarez, and getting Yainer Díaz to ground out to Suárez at third base. He allowed another runner in the second, this time Chas McCormick just beating out a great barehanded throw from Eugenio that was hit just a little too softly for him to field in time. For the second inning in a row it was the only runner he would allow, but this time he would rely on his outfield to get out of the inning, with three relatively easy fly outs divided between Teo in right and Canzone in left.
Emerson Hancock’s night ended with those two innings, two strikeouts, two hits, and no walks. Thirty-one pitches, and twenty for strikes. I mentioned losses, and in this case did not mean play on the field. Hancock was pulled with shoulder issues, and we now sit in the injury update limbo of not knowing exactly what that means for him or his season. Perhaps not as devastating a loss as that of the Third Hokage, but potentially an impactful one. The impact in today’s game was immediate. Tayler Saucedo was made to warm up quickly, and would be taking the mound in the third inning. Five earned runs on four hits later, and Saucedo left the game without recording an out.
From there the game reached the middle-of-the-fight part of the anime. The part where both sides mostly stare each other down, enumerate their many motivations and feats, maybe trade a few mostly harmless blows, and charge their internal energies for the final push that would be needed for a potential victory. The Mariners would score again, and for the final time, in the fifth inning. Mike Ford reached with a single, Dominic Canzone moved a super-hustling Ford to third with a single of his own, and Dylan Moore sent one up the middle for his own single, and scoring Ford from third. They would go on to load the bases with an O’Keefe walk, but the threat ended there. Houston answered back in the bottom of the sixth inning, off of Isaiah Campbell. Jeremy Peña reached base, and was lucky to do so, when he lined it to center and Julio made a brilliant sliding grab... but the ball popped out of his glove when it met grass. Bregman tripled Peña home, and the game was at its closest with a score of 7-6.
The score stayed 7-6, and they did so because of how this team is built. Dare I say, a little bit because of why this team is built, why they fight. After Hancock’s early exit, Seattle needed seven innings of clutch pitching against a fierce opponent, an opponent that has defeated them seemingly without end for all of recent memory. Yes, Saucedo slipped. Campbell crumpled, a bit. But Trent Thornton stood tall, Matt Brash braved to be bold, Justin Topa came out on top, Andrés Muñoz was money in the bank, and Gabe Speier sealed it shut. Julio Rodríguez, their star player, their record breaker, their leader, would only contribute the one run offensively today. But what makes Julio special, to me, isn’t the record he broke over the last four games, it was the way his team rose around him today to keep those wins going. Naruto doesn’t want to be Hokage, the leader of his village, for fame or glory. He does so out of a desire to earn the respect of his village, the Village Hidden in the Leaves, to uplift those around him, and to do so in a way that does not compromise his morals because that is his nindo, his ninja way. Seattle has its own Juliokage, leader of the Ballpark Hidden in the Evergreens, who fights his fights for the right reasons, and that inspires those around him to fight for the right reasons too.
Today’s game reminded me of a specific arc in Naruto known as the Sasuke Retrieval Arc. The exact details of it are unimportant, besides the fact that in it Naruto assembles a team of comrades and the team was comprised of characters that had been featured very little if at all, and were almost all of them seen as incompetent or underdog characters. Over the course of the arc we see our hero Naruto struggle, and at times outright fail. His comrades are isolated and besieged, and things look grim for all involved. Then, little by little, through great sacrifice, they begin to individually overcome their opponents. Their driving motivation was simply belief in each other, loyalty to their comrades.
The Seattle Mariners won today against the Houston Astros, and completed a three game sweep. They now safely have won the season series, and that might be vital to storylines still developing for the end of the season. Like the Sasuke Retrieval Arc this series reminded me of, it may actually hold little importance in the long run of events and the shaping of the story in that sense. Greater battles will come later for that, if for no other reason than these two teams will meet in the last week of play. Individual moments in a story hold their own power, though. Too many times have the Houston Astros loomed large over our heroes, casting jutsu after jutsu and always seeming to find another form when thought defeated. Too long have Mariners been doused in the noise of cacophonous garbage receptacles and other ninja tools. Today, perhaps for the right set of eyes watching the story, the Mariners gave hope that the hero can defeat the villain in the end. Today the Seattle Mariners started the attack behind their leader Julio Rodríguez, and then rest of the entire team finished it, because that’s their beisboldo, their baseball way.