There is nothing more satisfying in putting together a puzzle than when you put in that last piece and can see the whole picture, perfectly matching the picture on the box, and sometimes even more impressive in its full size than you imagined. If the Mariners rebuild is any puzzle, they came in this season with most of the edge pieces in place, but a lot of the image in the middle had yet to come together. Over the season, more and more pieces started to connect, and today a big one fell into place as the healthiest and arguably most complete lineup we’ve seen all season outshone the Rangers 6-2 behind. solid pitching from Kirby and the bullpen.
One of the most important pieces of a successful baseball team’s puzzle, a corner piece if you will, is starting to throw. George Kirby wasn’t a piece that landed in place in the season, but he’s firmly in the picture now. It’s his rookie season, and sometimes it shows through, other times you’d think he’s already had at least one or two seasons behind him. Tonight it was a bit of both feelings as he worked efficiently for much of the game but made some costly mistakes.
You can tell from his pitch chart today that Kirby kind of missed the command he’s known for, leaving many of his fastballs stuck in the middle of the plate. However, he kept his composure for most of it, and although he paid for it with singles and gave up seven, he gave up only two earned runs in his 5.2 innings of work, and only that one walk. When it was his turn, he was able to fool the Rangers enough by striking out five and striking out on 51 of his 83 pitches. He relied heavily on his four seam and two seam to do this, generating four and two whiffs respectively, both reaching top speeds of just over 96 MPH.
He also worked the slider as his third most throw, and while he only got that one whiff, he managed to land four before called strikes. Kirby certainly has some of those pieces that are missing before he is a complete Major Leaguer, lessons to be learned, but it’s already becoming clear what type of pitcher he’ll be, and it’s good. More importantly, he has the demeanor of a major league pitcher older than his age, he never seems to be shaken, never timid in his approach. If he even approaches his ceiling, he becomes an elite threat and then some.
While the starting pitching has remained wonderfully healthy for Seattle this year, their lineup isn’t so lucky to be able to say the same. That is, until today’s game. Mitch Haniger is now a few games back from his long IL stint and Julio Rodríguez just returned today from his temporary wrist problem. Both players are key pieces of the puzzle, for their competent bats, of course, but also for their competent defenses. Haniger may not have the outfield reach he once had, but he certainly still has the arm, which he displayed in the bottom half of the second when he made a jumping catch on the warning lane and shot it back to the first to double up Lowe to end the inning.
The Mariners have had the pitching, they have certainly had the defense, but the big question mark this season has been the offense. Today they had the advantage of the Rangers getting into this outing and decided to make it a bullpen day. Good teams take advantage of that advantage and break it wide, and since this was the first game of the series, the implications for the next few games were huge. Seattle didn’t start tearing the cover off the ball, but they were able to pull off some good plays. They first came on the board in the top of the third. JP Crawford patiently worked out a full count in a walk, Julio grounded out sharply in the middle for a single to move JP into third place, and France managed to get it into play to score Crawford and was eliminated. first thrown out in the sacrifice game. It was a patient, smart little ball, but it would be the only thing they would save that inning.
In the bottom of that third inning, the Rangers answered back, scoring a score against Kirby, but the Mariners had none of it. They’re back, they’re healthy and they’re alerting other teams. Santana got things going in the top of the fourth with an one out double, then Frazier reached on base with a walk. Raleigh did give the Rangers a second out with an ugly, ugly strikeout, but Crawford was unfazed and pulled his second walk of the night to load the bases. The Rangers chose to replace opening pitcher Taylor Hearn with José Leclerc. When Julio faces Leclerc with the bases loaded, that sounds familiar, you may remember it was off of him. Julio hit his first career grand slam earlier this season. Bold move, Rangers, bold move. Bold, but not bright. Julio didn’t cut up salami this time, but he did line into right field, scoring Santana and Frazier. That’s where the damage stopped, but it was nice insurance for Kirby, which came in handy when he had to concede another run in the sixth before his exit but hadn’t given up the lead.
Julio almost managed to go into the yard in the 6th inning, but apparently this ball somehow managed to hook into foul territory and then back just around the foul post. Or rather, hook around it in theory, because this was an absolute tower of explosion significantly bigger than the foul pole. Even when Julio misses, he impresses. Julio is not just a puzzle piece, he is the picture on the box that you strive for.
Piece after piece just fell into place as the game went on. In the top of the eighth, Frazier and Raleigh hit back-to-back doubles. When Crawford decided he’d run enough for the night, hitting one just deep enough to leave the field for a sacrifice fly, Frazier scored to give the Mariners further lead, 4-2.
It was a healthy, comfortable lead, especially for the Seattle bullpen, who threw with style and made it look easy. And yet the Mariners were still not satisfied. The game had reached the point in the puzzle where it becomes easier to find the remaining pieces, the momentum peaked, but they wanted to complete the picture emphatically. Haniger worked a full count before hitting a ground ball single to center, and Winker followed it with a sharp ball that was also hit to right field for a single. At the time, Eugenio Suárez was hitless, but he wouldn’t be out of the picture. With zero outs, he hit a ball hard to the right field warning trail that, if caught, would have pushed Haniger to at least third place. However, Adolis García narrowly missed it and Ayyyyyugenio delivered a double RBI of two RBI’s to give the Mariners a decisive 6-2 lead.
However, every piece of this puzzle matters, and I would be seriously violating my duties if I didn’t give much love to the M’s bullpen. Matt Brash was the first to enter the match as a relief. Kirby may have taken his place in the rotation after struggling as a starter, but Brash tonight supported his team-mate and himself, with poise, proving he belongs at this level. In his one inning of the work, he struckout three batters and generated eight hits, or 50% of all his pitches. He did concede two hits, on the foot of Andrés Muñoz. Rookie just absolutely turned up and got each other’s backs, Muñoz got the last out to wipe out Brash’s runners as Brash did for Kirby before him, and struckout two batters in the next inning in the eighth, completing his 1.1 innings job. Erik Swanson came in to work the ninth with a commanding lead and closed the door facing minimum and struckout two.
As this season progresses, the identity of this Mariners team comes into play. A few players have been lost to injuries or struggles, but more players have risen. More important than the portrayal that games like tonight give us of this season as it draws closer to its end, we’re getting a clearer picture of what this means for the franchise for years to come.