Many would say an ideal strategy in any endeavor is to work smarter, not harder. In September baseball, a culmination of a grind of one hundred and sixty-two games with all the looming implications of the playoffs around the corner, teams are often not afforded the luxury of choice. The Seattle Mariners played game three of a four game set against a Tampa Bay Rays team with a better record and ahead of them in the wild card standings, and despite the Mariners best efforts the Rays were ultimately smarter and harder working, Seattle losing with a score of 5-7.
That season long grind was especially felt today with the Mariners intended plan to opt for a bullpen start instead of rookie Bryan Woo’s regular spot in the rotation, opting to rest the young arm in this final stretch. Taking on the opening role would be midseason addition Trent Thornton.
Before Thornton would get a chance to throw a single pitch, the offense was working hard early, a smart move against a scrappy Rays team. Tampa Bay starter Aaron Civale started out his day missing the zone badly, and J.P. Crawford led off working a full count and a walk. Civale did a little better getting ahead of Julio Rodríguez 0-2, but Julio took the next pitch straight up the middle into center field for a single. This shook Civale enough that he promptly went wild and hit Teoscar Hernández, and just like that the bases were loaded in the first with nobody out. Eugenio Suárez had a tough at bat where he was caught looking on an impressive curve that should have honestly only had been strike two, but Dominic Canzone kept the momentum going by working a full count walk to score the Mariners first run. Then Ty France was kind enough to immediately add on two more with an RBI single.
Mike Ford worked the third full count of the inning before chasing a fastball high and off the plate, and Josh Rojas went 2-2 before flying out to end the inning, contributing not much but at least helping to make Aaron Civale put his hard work in early with 36 pitches just through the top of the first. Trent Thornton also started out his inning by giving up a full count walk, to Brandon Lowe, but had better luck than Civale overall. Randy Arozarena grounded into a fielder’s choice that erased Lowe at second and Josh Lowe flew out to Julio in center field and Thornton was almost out of the inning. If not for a Dominic Canzone bobbled ball when Isaac Paredes hit a liner into left field then Thornton might have gotten out of the inning clean, but instead Arozarena came around to score, and Thornton instead escaped on the next batter by striking out Luke Raley.
Julio Rodríguez took responsibility for his fellow outfielder’s mistake and made up for it by hitting a towering home run that was caught by Randy Arozarena in left field. Yes, you did read that right. A bizarre feature of Tropicana Field are rings that hang from the dome, one of three of which is a home run if the ball hits (apparently). The ball hit one of the aforementioned rings, the good one (apparently), and it was ruled a home run. Oddities aside, it would have been a home run in 27/30 parks, and was Julio’s 29th home run of the season, a career high.
Thornton was even sharper when he came back out in the second, and worked a 1-2-3 inning including getting José Siri and René Pinto to strike out swinging. One hit, no earned runs, one walk, five whiffs, and three strikeouts was more than sufficient enough of an opening act from Trent Thornton. But the Mariners offense quickly went silent, and keeping the Rays suppressed would prove an impossible task.
Luke Weaver took over the work in the third inning, and was a mixed bag overall in effectiveness. Ultimately he ended the day the leader in whiffs with nine, five on his changeup, and he racked up a couple strikeouts over his 4.1 innings of work, but he also allowed two walks and four earned runs. His first two innings, the third and fourth, were scoreless. Weaver held a 1-2-3 third including an impressive strikeout of Brandon Lowe chasing a 2-2 sweeper, and faced the minimum again in the fourth. Credit for that minimum in the fourth goes to Brian O’Keefe though, as Weaver had hit Isaac Paredes on the wrist, and when Weaver threw one in the dirt that O’Keefe was only able to block with his pads, he recovered lightning quick and nabbed Paredes attempting to steal second.
The fifth inning was less kind to Weaver, and Brandon Lowe was less fooled than the first time they faced each other. Jonathan Aranda singled, Taylor Wall was able to draw a walk, and Brandon Lowe brought them home to bring the Rays within one run with a score of 4-3. Weaver was charged with two earned runs again in an inning when Tampa Bay took the lead in the seventh, although he wasn’t in the game when the damage happened. Jonathan Aranda once again started the Rays salvo, this time with a ground-rule double, and Taylor Walls followed it up with a line drive into right field to bring him home and tie the game at four. Gabe Speier took over and Tampa answered back by pinch hitting Yandy Díaz for Brandon Lowe. Speier and Díaz battled to a 3-2 count, and Díaz came on top by hitting a line drive into left just out of reach of Sam Haggerty’s glove, scoring Walls and giving the Rays a lead of 5-4. Speier escaped with no more damage, but enough damage was done.
The Mariners offense mostly disappeared after the first two innings, but it cannot be said it was entirely invisible, merely translucent. Brian O’Keefe nearly hit his first major league home run in the top of the seventh, but then he didn’t and it was ruled a ground-rule double. I guess Tropicana Field felt it owed the home team one after that Julio home run earlier.
The Mariners were able to add on in the eighth inning, with a little help from some c̶̛̃̈́̎̔̀̿͗̓͜͝h̴̡̡̛̳̖̞̫̗͉̤̅̆̀̿̏̓̀̎̐̍͘ḁ̶̡͓͖̗̘̀͋̅̉͑̕ơ̶̛͍̓̇̈́̍͆̉͆͂́̚s̵̰̗͎̩̟̝̝͍̫̋̅͊̋̚͝, to tie it up and keep the game interesting. Julio and Teo quickly made for two outs, but Eugenio Suárez hit a grounder just hard enough that Osleivis Basabe was unable to glove it and Geno was safe at first. Sam Haggerty started down 0-2 but was able to work it back 2-2 before hitting a line drive into right field for a single, moving Suárez to third. The Rays swapped Kevin Kelly for Roberth Stephenson on the mound, and while he did get France to strike out, not before throwing a wild pitch and allowing Eugenio to score from third.
Justin Topa engaged Topaz Gem Inning Mode and pitched the minimum in the eighth, getting Basabe to strike out swinging and Siri to strike out looking, but no help came from the offense in the top of the ninth. José Caballero pinch hit just to pop out, Dylan Moore struck out swinging, and Cal Raleigh came in for O’Keefe just to fly out easily to center field.
The home field advantage stood with the Rays, only needing one to win in the bottom of the ninth, and Seattle opted for Tayler Saucedo. At times the Sauce is hot, and he always works both smart and hard in his appearances, but today, the Rays were just smarter and hotter. Tampa Bay quickly was down to their last out after Jonathan Aranda and René Pinto grounded out, but the team in the top wild card spot with a record that would lead most divisions was not shaken. Taylor Walls worked a full count, and then drew the walk, an act inoffensive on its own but venomous when laced with the context of Yandy Díaz being the next batter up. It was Díaz that put the Rays up in the seventh, and this time he gave his team the lead and the win with a walk-off, two run shot off of a breaking pitch out of the zone that Saucedo can’t even be blamed for throwing. Díaz just worked smarter and harder today.
There are playoff implications in this series between two teams that have plenty of talent and are both currently in sole possession of wild card spots and chasing their respective division leaders, and so it can be tough to glean a silver lining from a loss like this one. Two comeback losses in a row only add to that burden. Yet when asked to work a little harder so some of their teammates could rest today, the Mariners worked smart and worked hard to step up in the moment. Thornton impressed, Weaver managed admirably enough as an inning-eater, and Topa dazzled. The offense put five runs on the board, which is usually enough to win most games against most teams. The Tampa Bay Rays just worked smarter and harder today than the Seattle Mariners, and now Tampa has the advantage in the series two games to one, with Seattle having a chance to even the series tomorrow.