Early September can mean many things. A slow change to the weather, still warm but not unbearably so, the sun often joined by a pleasant breeze. New seasons of television, those that cling to traditional broadcasting schedules, returning to light up our screen. New popular video game releases that let you choose between giant robot battles, fantastical adventures, or striking out among the stars (if you like annihilating your free time like I do, you choose all three). Or, if you are so lucky to have a competitive team to root for, meaningful baseball. This year both Seattle Mariners and Cincinnati Reds fans are lucky in such a way, and today it was the Cincinnati fans that had the reason to cheer as Seattle dropped the series with a 6-7 outcome in game two.
While it is certainly a blessing to have something to cheer for this late in the season, that doesn’t negate just how fraught that success can be. With plenty of rookie and sophomore players on each team, it can become a fun balancing act of youthful enthusiasm and lack of experience playing in games this big or this late into the season. Seattle sent out rookie starter Bryce Miller, having a successful season so far but still learning the ropes at this level, and Cincinnati answered back with former Mariners farmhand Connor Phillips, who today made his major league debut.
The young Reds lineup proved to be sufficient challenge for Miller, who struggled to miss bats throughout his appearance, ultimately managing six whiffs scattered across all of his pitches excepting the seldom used changeup. Miller also struggled to miss Cincinnati batters, plunking former Mariner Jake Fraley not once but twice on the foot, and also nailing TJ Friedl. Not only was Miller not sharp with his command, he was also saved by his defense on multiple occasions, his only 1-2-3 inning in the fourth when all three batters flew out to Julio Rodríguez in center field. He ended his night with ninety-seven pitches across five innings, only striking out two and walking one (plus the three hit batters), and allowed one earned run against seven hits.
Connor Phillips had similar command issues, and the Mariners similarly had runners reach in every inning he pitched with the exception of a 1-2-3 fourth inning. They were able to do more damage than the Reds managed against Miller, and managed to strike early. A first inning, two out walk from Cal Raleigh was table dressing enough for Teoscar Hernández to get the party started, with a two run home run to straightaway center field.
Command issues aside Phillips handily outperformed Miller in one arena on the night, in strikeouts. He managed 12 whiffs against Mariners hitters, seven on his sweeper, and racked up his first major league strikeout and six more (for a total of seven). He did allow two walks as well though, and ultimately was chased from the game in the fifth inning with two outs. First Josh Rojas reached on a liner into right field, and J.P. Crawford copied with another one to put runners on the corners. It didn’t matter where the ducks were on the pond, because Hurricane Julio came ashore, and after working a full count JRod hit one over the right field wall to put the Mariners up 5-1.
Bryce Miller did a lot to keep his team in the game by only allowing one run, but perhaps what Seattle needed most was something very few rookie pitchers this late in the season could give, a deep run into the late innings to spare the bullpen. Recent re-addition to the lineup, former Mariners minor leaguer Dominic Leone took over in the sixth inning and pretty promptly gave up two runs to the Reds. First by allowing a leadoff home run to Christian Encarnacion-Strand, then on the fourth batter gave up a two out home run to former Mariner prospect Noelvi Marte, his first major league home run. Gabe Speier was needed to come out and get out of the sixth inning.
Matt Brash came in and worked the seventh, striking out Spencer Steer and allowing a walk to Elly De La Cruz for the only baserunner, answering those that may have been worried about The Matt Brash Experience with a firm “I’m not the problem.” Justin Topa has definitely not been the problem lately with his rock solid performance, but even rocks and Topaz must erode given enough time, as was the case with his appearance in the eighth inning. Noelvi Marte reached base first with a one out walk. Tyler Stephenson pinch hit for Luke Maile and promptly reached with a single into left field. Nick Martini pinch hit for Stuart Fairchild, and the pinch hitting strategy paid off twice in a row for the Reds, this time with Martini taking Topa deep and tying the game at six runs apiece. Two balls hit right to Geno later and Topa was out of the inning, but the damage was done with only an inning left and Cincinnati with home field advantage.
Seattle did threaten in the top of the ninth, first with a Teoscar Hernández walk, and then when Ty France hit into a fielder’s choice and after initially being called out, a Seattle challenge overturned it and hope stayed alive. Mike Ford took a pitch off the knee that looked especially painful, and runners were on first and second with two outs. Eugenio Suárez, who didn’t start his first game of the season but came into this one late, started out with a promising 3-0 count. He hit it hard, he hit it deep, to straightaway center... and straight into Harrison Bader’s glove to end the inning.
Andrés Muñoz came into the bottom of the ninth, but Elly De La Cruz proved to be one fire that Bomberos could not put out. Elly De La Cruz led off the inning with a 3-0 count as Muñoz danced around the plate, seemingly fearful to attack him. Then on that 3-0 count De La Cruz hit a soft chopper that J.P. Crawford charged well, but even the speediest infielders would have had trouble getting the throw to first to beat this particular runner. Encarnacion-Strand came up to bat, De La Cruz stole second, and all it took was from Encarnacion-Strand to hit a single and the Reds were walking off the fields victors in the game and in the series.
Last year, the Cincinnati Reds lost one hundred games. This year, they are a playoff contender. They are like Seattle in the respect that they are a young team, new to the playoff race and with a desire to prove they belong there. Seattle Mariners fans have long desired to see meaningful baseball in September, with the promise or hope for October. On the one hand, that means the hard fought victories can taste all the sweeter, but the losses like today can be a tough load to bear. September separates the hopefuls from the willful, the fallen from the fulfilled. There is still plenty of season left to fight for and maintain a playoff spot, which the Mariners are still in line for as of now, but if they want that fight to be meaningful against tough teams like Cincinnati, or tougher, they will have to fight harder than they did today.