Kirby on the rise with 'smothering' stuff

Mariners RHP logs 6th straight quality start with 7-inning gem vs. Rangers

May 10th, 2023

SEATTLE -- Luis Castillo is the Mariners’ prized ace, Bryce Miller is the rookie becoming the talk of the town and Logan Gilbert flirted with perfection his last time out. But, after twirled seven shutout innings with a career-high-tying nine strikeouts on Tuesday, the right-hander reminded everyone that they shouldn't forget about “Jorge.”

On Tuesday, Kirby carved through a Texas lineup that entered the day with the second-highest scoring offense in the Majors. And with a two-run double from in the third inning and a punctuating two-run homer in the seventh from , the second-year righty lifted the Mariners to a 5-0 win at T-Mobile Park.

France is red-hot, having followed a seven-game hitless drought with a seven-game hit streak that continued Tuesday, during which he’s gone 11-for-28 for a slash line of .393/.452/.536 (.988 OPS). Murphy was a logical choice to start against Texas’ Andrew Heaney, as he’s now a career 5-for-12 with three homers off the lefty -- including his emphatic Trident debut. France also sparked a bases-loaded rally in the eighth, which led to a sacrifice fly from to put the game out of reach.

But back to Kirby.

“He's already becoming one of my favorite pitchers I've ever had the pleasure of catching, honestly. … I don't think I've ever caught anybody that dynamic with that good of stuff,” Murphy said.

Kirby has now thrown six straight quality starts, trailing the MLB active high of seven held by Houston’s Framber Valdez, who also had one on Tuesday. Kirby surrendered just six hits and walked zero, lowering his walks-per-nine-innings ratio to a minuscule 0.60, by far an MLB best among 75 qualified pitchers across the league.

“He's on the attack and he's smothering them, I guess is the way I like to term it,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He's just right on top of them all the time. He does not back off the gas, and it's just fun to watch. I know our guys love playing behind him.”

Akin to virtually every outing this year, Kirby looked somewhat different compared to his last time out. On Tuesday, he showed more polish on his breaking balls than at any point this year, a development that he looked at as a big hurdle to taking the next big step.

Three of his nine strikeouts came via his curve and slider, and he generated six of his 11 whiffs on those offerings. More telling was that Kirby located them masterfully on the bottom edge of the strike zone to his glove side, which became particularly effective against the Rangers’ righties.

They led to seven ground balls among the nine in play, and the only hit against them was a slicing, inside-out double to pesky No. 9 hitter Josh H. Smith. Beyond the zero walks, Kirby prevented the leadoff man from reaching until a single from Jonah Heim in the seventh.

“I feel like something always bad happens with a leadoff walk or leadoff hit or something,” Kirby said. “I was able to just bear down and keep controlling the zone and keep them off balance. But yeah, first-pitch strikes are huge.”

In six outings since his 2023 debut against the Angels, when he surrendered four runs in 4 1/3 innings, Kirby is 4-1 with a 2.01 ERA. And he continues to dominate the Rangers after leading the Mariners to a win in each of his four starts against them last year. His 1.5 wins above replacement for the season, per FanGraphs, are tied with Castillo for the team lead and tied for sixth in MLB.

Moreover, Kirby has now thrown seven innings in each of his past three starts, leading to the grander look at Seattle’s rotation, which has thrown at least six innings in 21 of its 36 games, tied for the most in MLB, including 10 of the past 12. Yet the Mariners are just 11-10 in those outings, a byproduct of an inconsistent offense. But Tuesday’s showing underscored what this team could blossom into when all things are clicking.

“If you pitch, you have a chance,” Servais said. “You always have a chance. Every night, we're in the game. That's why even though our record is what it is, it's .500, but we're in every game. And now it's a matter of our offense getting going, and we're going to be just fine.”