Simply put, having the previous series entirely wiped out sucked out loud. With the M’s winning seven out of their last ten games, rebounding from a truly brutal drubbing from the Angels on Saturday to wind up splitting a four-game set, and Marco throwing the best starting pitching performance of the season, it was more than a little deflating to suddenly have three days where Seattle and Oakland were the only two teams not playing baseball. Ty France’s and Luis Torrens’s Mariner debuts would have to wait, like opening all your Christmas presents and not being able to play with them until having lunch with your grandma. Oh, well. Such is life.
Tonight was worth the wait.
Yusei Kikuchi, coming off a full week’s worth of rest, came out of the gate striking out Leody Taveras on a wicked 93 MPH cutter, and didn’t look back after that. Although he battled all evening – he only got three first pitch strikes out of the first ten hitters he faced, and home plate umpire John Libka was calling a pretty tight zone for both teams – his stuff had some extra life on it. The fastball never reached the heights of 98 like in San Diego, but his cutter routinely sat 92-93, and he mixed in his slider all evening, spotting it for strikes and getting four whiffs from it. He coaxed plenty of ground balls out of Texas’s bats, allowing Evan White to once again do some Evan White things in the third:
The Mariners were able to snatch a run in the bottom of a second, and got started with a Kyle Seager walk on a generous ball four call in a full count. After an errant pickoff throw (side note: in a delightful ingame interview with Dee Strange-Gordon, he gave us a hilarious quote about how Seager was “a terrible baserunner” before Dee arrived in Seattle. Truer words have never been spoken) moved Kyle to second, Ty France made his first at-bat as a Mariner an endearing one:
We won the trade! Alas, France would be fully baptized in Marinerdom five pitches later by being thrown out at first on a José Marmolejos flyout while attempting a straight steal. Not to worry, though – they had the lead, and Kikuchi kept rolling, setting down the first ten Rangers he saw. New Mariner pest Isiah Kiner-Falefa got to him in the fourth, poking a one-out single in between Seager and J.P., but Nick Solak tapped a pretty routine grounder to Dylan Moore for a pretty 4-6-3 double play.
Once again, the bottom of the inning brought joy from the bats. After a one out rally from a Seager plunk, France walk, and Marmolejos single, Evan delivered with the bases loaded:
Unlike the constant vigilance of the Padres series, a 90.1% win expectancy at this point felt pretty certain, and wouldn’t you know it, they held on to seal the victory. Woohoo! That’s not to say there weren’t several other good things to take from tonight:
- Yusei ended up going six, allowing just one run in a fifth on a José Trevino solo shot. This was just the second dinger he’s allowed all year, and it came off a cutter that didn’t catch quite enough of the insider corner. Was he perfect? Nah. Are the Rangers an offensively anemic, swing happy team? Absolutely Was his command great tonight? With just seven first pitch strikes, I don’t think anybody can say it was. Despite all these caveats, though, he induced ten swinging strikes, wormed ten groundouts, and didn’t walk a soul all night. Oh, and he ended his outing by getting possibly the only low strike call of the game, in no small part thanks to a wonderful frame job from Luis Torrens:
If he can tighten that command a little better and keep mixing in the slider like he did tonight? Look out.
- New papa Dylan Moore made his return tonight, back in his familiar second spot in the lineup. He didn’t disappoint, either, roping a 104.8 mile-per-hour double into the right field corner in the fifth. That ended up being the hardest-hit ball of the night, and I have given up trying to find out where this man gets his power from. It is beyond mortal comprehension.
- Kendall Graveman made his reliever debut, fresh off the injured list. We got confirmation that thanks to a benign bone tumor in his neck, he’d be in the bullpen for the rest of the season, and that the Grave Man was looking forward to the opportunity. After tonight, so am I! Graveman hit 99 on his sinker, and kept every bit of movement he had earlier in the year. After getting two easy grounders from Kiner-Falefa and Solak, he dumpstered Joey Gallo with 97 on the corner:
Graveman has a $3.5 million team option for 2021 in his contract, and if he keeps having more relief outings like this one, picking that up should be a no-brainer. The starter-to-reliever pipeline can be a frustrating process, but when it works? You love to see it.
- Evan White had arguably the best game of his young big league career tonight. I’ve already gushed about his perpetually plus defense and his two-run double, but he also worked a pair of walks and smacked a single back up the middle at 101 MPH in the eighth. For the first time all season, his strikeout rate starts with a 3, and his season wRC+ has climbed up to 72. Oh, and that double he hit? Off of a breaking ball. Keep on eating that crow, Mr. Heyman.
- Of course, how could I forget the biggest hit of the night?
Per Statcast, this wasn’t actually the biggest hit of the night. An exit velo of just 94.8? An xBA of .280? For J.P., though, this was his very first career home run off of a lefty, gave the team some insurance that proved crucial, and kept a strong stretch at the plate going. After tonight, he’s pulled himself fully out of the three-week slump he was mired in and is sitting on a 98 wRC+. Combine that with his plus glove, and he’s right around 4 WAR/600 this year. What’s the plan, though?
Yoshihisa Hirano struggled to close the game out, giving up a pair of runs on some bloop hits and a walk. No biggie, though. Tonight’s game was just about as perfect of a return to baseball there could be. Strong starting pitching? Timely hits? Rookies thriving? Steamrolling a division rival thanks to your core? It was all here tonight. Justus Sheffield will look to keep things rolling tomorrow night against Kyle Gibson, and the M’s have a chance to take nine out of their last twelve. Despite everything, I’m taking those odds.