In the Natasha Lyonne vehicle Russian Doll, the protagonist Nadia Vulvokov, played by Lyonne, gets caught in a time loop, repeatedly dying on her 36th birthday, waking up again to relive the day, and dying again each night. The deaths vary: sometimes they are mundane (getting hit by a car, freezing to death); sometimes more plausible-but-uncommon (attacked by bees, an unfortunate incident with chicken bones), but most often annoyingly predictable and yet unavoidable—there’s one particularly pesky flight of stairs that plays a central role. Watching Russian Doll is an experience in helplessness, watching Nadia battle against forces bigger than herself, knowing not exactly how the end will come, only that it will come. It’s a lot like being a Mariners fan, with the Astros—and Justin Verlander, specifically—being the flight of stairs.
Despite playing the Astros tough over this season, the Mariners crumbled tonight against the team that has so often been their downfall. Luis Castillo started off strong in front of a jumped-up crowd, working around a Yordan Álvarez double in the first, but ran into trouble in the second with a leadoff “triple” to José Abreu (from what I saw, the ball clanked off Julio’s glove and it got wedged under the wall for Teo to dig out, but with MLB’s generous scoring interpretation this season it was ruled a triple). Castillo did yeoman’s work to get the next two outs, getting Chas McCormick to ground out in a way that didn’t advance the runner and striking out Jeremy Peña, but couldn’t sneak a 98 mph fastball past Mauricio Dubón, despite having him on the ropes in a two-strike count.
That scored the Astros’ first run of the night, but there would be more to come, as light-hitting catcher Martín Maldonado found a 97 mph sinker to his liking and hit it right where a fielder wasn’t (only a .430 xBA) for a double and a 2-0 lead for the Astros. José Altuve then pounced on a first-pitch fastball that leaked too much over the plate for a single to make it 3-0, a lead the Astros would never give back. The old chestnut is “make them beat you with your best stuff,” but unfortunately Castillo’s fastball, lively as it was—up a full tick!—was hittable to the fastball-loving Astros when he left it over the plate, as he did a couple of times tonight.
The Astros would add on another pair of runs on solo homers, one in the third—this time not on a fastball, but on a slider well below the zone that Yordan Álvarez did Yordan Álvarez things to, knocking it over the wall for a solo homer. Kyle Tucker also got to Castillo for a solo shot, again on a fastball that wasn’t terribly-located but too much in Tucker’s lefty loop zone. WPA, and Twitter, will tell you Castillo was the weak link tonight, and his mistakes on the plate can’t be excused away, but also he gave up two solo shots to two of the game’s best hitters, and suffered some poor sequencing luck on balls that found grass instead of leather (as well as the “triple,” which had an xBA of just .190). Castillo battled, as he always does, striking out eight—the same number as Verlander did over two more innings of work—but ultimately, the number of runs he gave up wouldn’t matter as the offense managed to scrape up just one run in garbage time.
Down 4-0, the Mariners had a chance to claw back in the third inning. Dominic Canzone and Josh Rojas hit back-to-back singles, and J.P. Crawford worked a walk to load the bases with just one out. That brought up Julio Rodríguez, who earlier had lined out on a curveball. Facing the savvy veteran Verlander, almost twice his age, Julio laid off the first pitch, a slider in the dirt, but then swung at the second—a perfectly located curveball right in the “DO NOT SWING” zone for an inning-ending double play.
That would be the most trouble Justin Verlander found himself in all night, as he didn’t allow a single other baserunner until the ninth inning, when he came out for the attempt at the complete game shutout but his plans were quickly spoiled by Josh Rojas, who for those of you keeping track at home was responsible for two of the three hits against Verlander, this time a strongly-smacked double to the right field corner that finally forced Dusty Baker to break the seal on his bullpen and bring out Bryan Abreu. Abreu got Crawford to ground out before giving up a long sac fly to Julio to keep the score from being a shutout, before getting Cal Raleigh swinging for the Mariners’ ninth strikeout of the night—one fewer strikeout than the Mariners pitching staff handed the Astros—to end the game.
Despite living in a Russian Doll-esque time loop where the Mariners see Verlander over and over again, season after season, the team didn’t have answers for him tonight, as the veteran mixed his pitches and recorded eight no-muss no-fuss innings. While he didn’t get the CGSO, Verlander threw his curveball and slider over and over again at the Mariners, eliciting tons of weak contact and quick outs, working through the eighth inning and scattering just two hits, allowing no runs. Eventually Justin Verlander will walk off a mound and directly into Cooperstown, but until that blessed day comes: it’s bees, all bees.
Spoiler alert: what Lyonne’s tattered, Black-Knight-not-dead-yet protagonist has to learn in order to stop the time loop is how to right the wrongs that got her into this predicament. It sounds tautological but it’s true: if nothing changes, nothing changes. Unfortunately, the 2023 Seattle Mariners—and ownership—don’t seem to have grasped that fact, not in the micro (this game of bad at-bats) and in the macro (using a rotating cast of bounceback candidates and minor-league lightning-in-a-bottle types rather than finding a long-term answer at second base for the past several seasons, failing to make any significant offensive upgrades at the trade deadline). The fans can come and they can boo Altuve, they can gnash their teeth about Verlander, a pestilence of which we will apparently never be free, they can bang trash cans, and gleefully celebrate every time Álvarez makes an out; the end result is the same. Nothing changes if nothing changes.
Rest up if you can. Tomorrow it all starts again.