Winker flying high after grand slam puts away Angels

August 8th, 2022

SEATTLE -- It was, objectively, a perfect day of baseball. And definitely for the Mariners. 

Seattle snapped out of its offensive funk thanks to Jesse Winker’s third-inning grand slam. Marco Gonzales bounced back big after a month-long skid. The Blue Angels regularly did flyovers as part of SeaFair on Lake Washington. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky on this low-80s sun-soaked afternoon. There were a whopping 34,837 on hand. 

And the club split a four-game series by running away to a 6-3 victory over the Angels on Sunday.

For the Mariners, one would be hard-pressed to pair the picturesque scene with the on-field results and find a more perfect backdrop for a ballgame than Sunday’s matinee at T-Mobile Park.

“You guys could probably guess that it’s a little distracting for a guy like me with all that going on,” Winker said. “But no, it was fun, man. It was cool. It was a huge weekend for Seattle.”

All the commotion from the fighter jets led Winker to a grander question -- what would it take for him to fly in one?

“If they guaranteed 100 percent that we were going to get back on the ground. ... Those planes are wild,” Winker said. “But I would do it. I can’t back out now.”

Winker certainly wasn’t distracted when crushing a 2-0 fastball from Tucker Davidson that hooked just barely inside the right-field foul pole and proved to be the difference in Sunday’s outcome. It was just their second grand slam of the year and Winker’s third of his career.

The left fielder yanked the middle-low pitch directly on the barrel then watched it sail, naturally leaning to his left in a golf-like pose as if willing it to stay fair.

In what’s been a mostly underachieving season, Winker returning to his 2021 form -- when he was an All-Star and crushed 24 homers -- would be a huge boon to a lineup that just activated Mitch Haniger. Winker’s 199-point drop in slugging percentage entering Sunday was tied for MLB’s third-largest, but he’s had flashes of power.

“Obviously, I know what my splits are,” Winker said. “But it doesn’t mean that you can’t get better in a certain area, and there’s still a lot of baseball to be played. I’ve always believed in myself. And I believe in this team and this group and what I’m learning here on a daily basis.”

The one big swing gave ample backing to Gonzales, who also found his footing, quite literally. The lefty was banged up twice, overcoming a minor collision with Shohei Ohtani behind home plate when backing up a throw and a 106.5 mph comebacker from Jo Adell off his left foot to finish six strong innings. He racked up a season-high seven strikeouts, gave up eight hits and one walk, leading to three runs, but not until after Seattle’s bats gave him a five-run cushion to work with.

“[Ohtani] came out of nowhere, and I had turned around and started backpedaling to watch the play and try to get back there, and he was watching the runner,” Gonzales said. “And yeah, I stepped right on his foot. I felt bad. I crushed his foot and luckily didn’t roll my ankle too bad and was able to keep going.”

Coming off a calendar-month stretch in which he’d surrendered at least five runs three times, Sunday represented a positive outing for the veteran lefty, particularly with pitch selection and mix. In Tuesday’s start in New York, he was already down 3-0 by the seventh pitch, yet he needed just that few to work through a 1-2-3 first against the Halos, sending him off and running.

A prototypical crafty lefty, Gonzales thrives when living on the edges and off weak contact -- precisely the territory he was in vs. the Halos, who had an 82.3 mph average exit velocity against him (anything 95-plus is hard-hit), the lowest among his 22 starts this season. He also kept them off balance by blending his repertoire more thoroughly.

“I thought we threw some good curveballs,” Gonzales said. “I thought that gave us a good depth, just something different than the fastball-cutter-changeup that I’m so used to throwing. And the cutter I thought was good today, too. It had some good depth to it. I thought it gave us some good avenues to make pitches.”

For both their longtime starter and their first-year left fielder, Sunday’s game -- in the ripest conditions -- was primed to get back on track.