'That's what we do': Mariners get early taste of winning formula

March 30th, 2024

SEATTLE -- The wind swirled frigidly, both starting pitchers were dealing, neither lineup could muster much out of the infield, and it became clear early that Friday night’s game at T-Mobile Park would be the type that the Mariners believe they are -- and should be -- built to win.

The criteria: an elite performance from their starting pitcher, a clutch late-innings hit that in the moment appeared decisive and a shutdown performance from the bullpen, headlined by Andrés Muñoz’s second career four-out save -- and despite a few hiccups from Ryne Stanek in his Mariners debut that put a late lead in peril.

was masterful, coming one out shy of completing seven shutout innings; ambushed an 0-1 cutter from Nick Pivetta for a solo home run in the sixth inning; and Gabe Speier, Stanek and Muñoz pushed Seattle to the finish line for a 1-0 win over Boston, the club’s first of 2024.

“That's what we do,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “It's the tight game. Every play is big, every at-bat is big, every out that your bullpen is able to get you late in the game is huge. And you really have to execute in those spots.”

If it sounds like a familiar formula, it is.

The Mariners led MLB in one-run wins in 2021 and '22 with a combined 67, but strayed from that identity in '23, when they were 25-26 in such contests. Much of that step back could be attributed to the club playing from behind in many of those games, given that its 19 blown saves were MLB’s seventh fewest, and that its batters admittedly pressed at the plate often when tied or trailing close.

It’s too early to say if Friday’s familiar blueprint will carry over more regularly in 2024, but there were a few instances that suggested perhaps it will.

It starts with Kirby’s dominance and that in just about any of his outings, the Mariners should be positioned to win. He overcame a shaky first inning in which he walked two of his first three batters -- a telling line given that he led qualified MLB starters with a 2.5% walk rate last year and that one free pass was via a pitch timer violation.

In spite of at times being emotionally charged, Kirby gathered himself and retired 19 of his next 20 batters, including 12 straight, and he would’ve become MLB’s first starter in '24 to complete seven shutout innings if not for a two-out single from Ceddanne Rafaela in an 0-2 count. And Speier wound up stranding Rafaela to preserve Kirby’s line.

It’s the quick-paced, cut-throat rhythm that Kirby creates that could allow him to take an even bigger individual leap, pitch deeper into games and tally the type of volume that could lead to even more consideration than the down-ballot votes he received for last year’s AL Cy Young Award.

“I could care less about all that stuff,” said Kirby, who wore a T-shirt reading "Angry George’s Dreamland" with an altered picture of the Nintendo character. “For me, I'm just going to keep commanding the zone, I'm going to keep trying to go as long as I can.”

Crawford had the best view of Kirby’s performance, playing a few feet directly behind. He also knew that Kirby would likely dial it up even more with run support.

Seattle had nothing going against Pivetta until its shortstop jumped on a low-and-in cutter and leveraged all of his lower half for a 105.5 mph, 381-foot homer that hooked just inside the right-field foul pole.

“You really just have to react to what he's throwing,” Crawford said, “because he does a good job of mixing everything and he had us off-balance all night.”

That lead paved the way for Muñoz, who punctuated the performance by striking out the side in the ninth. Yet his first out of the night was arguably more vital than all, when Ty France fielded a one-hop throw from Luis Urías that ended the top of the eighth.

“Plays like that often don't show up in the box score, but it actually won us the game tonight,” Servais said.

Friday featured a much cleaner effort than Thursday’s opener, and it was an overall showing more emblematic of what the Mariners want to, and believe they can, be.