Cruising into Motown, Mariners a well-oiled machine

Offense breaks out, Kirby turns in scoreless outing and Flexen reaches milestone vs. Tigers

August 31st, 2022

DETROIT -- The Mariners motored into the Motor City on Tuesday with one of their more dominant victories of the season, a 9-3 win over the Tigers at Comerica Park that pushed the club to a season-high 13 games above .500.

With the win, they maintained their grip on an AL Wild Card spot. Just half a game behind Tampa Bay for the overall lead with 33 games remaining, their playoff odds climbing to 95%, per FanGraphs.

Here were three key highlights:

The offensive onslaught
didn’t want to put too much stock into his first home in more than three weeks on Sunday sparking him from a slump, but the context changed when he went yard in his very next at-bat in Detroit, where he crushed an opposite-field shot into territory that hitters at Comerica Park rarely, if ever, touch.

France ambushed a first-pitch slider from Matt Manning with one out in the second, then he followed with two more knocks for his first three-hit game since July 25.

Yet the first-time All-Star was hardly the lone contributor. Every starter but Jesse Winker had a hit, and Seattle did its most damage in a six-run third inning against Manning, who entered the night with a 2.40 ERA while holding hitters to a .615 OPS since returning from right shoulder inflammation on Aug. 2.

The Mariners chased him with six straight hits followed by a walk in his fateful third, nearly all above Statcast’s 95 mph hard-hit threshold:

  • 98.6 mph homer (Cal Raleigh)
  • 89.9 mph single (Abraham Toro)
  • 111.5 mph double (Julio Rodríguez)
  • 108.1 mph single (Mitch Haniger)
  • 104.4 mph single (Eugenio Suárez)
  • 107.2 mph single (France)

Their key was to attack Manning’s slider, which had four fewer inches of vertical break than his season average and was more in the strike zone, making it far more decipherable out of hand. For France, who entered the night slashing .143/.191/.221 (.411 OPS) in August, it was hopefully the sign of a big breakthrough.

"A lot of guys on time, good swings -- none more important than Ty France,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “I was hoping it would carry over from what he did on Sunday."

The Kirby show continues
continued his dominant second half with five shutout innings, over which he surrendered just two hits and one walk while striking out five. Since returning from Triple-A Tacoma on July 26, where he’d been as part of an effort to curb his innings, Kirby has a 2.11 ERA and has held hitters to a .240/.279/.281 (.560 OPS) slash line, with a 29.0% strikeout rate and 3.2% walk rate.

Kirby’s outing marked the Mariners’ 18th in a row in which starters have pitched at least five innings, and in that stretch, they have a 2.67 ERA, second-best to only the Dodgers, and the club is 12-6.

Servais’ plan was to halt Kirby near 80-85 pitches since the club won’t have an extra off-day before his next scheduled outing on Saturday in Cleveland, an off-day that Kirby had in five of his seven second-half starts. Tuesday’s calculus was part of an effort to keep monitoring his workload, but also to pitch for the first time since Aug. 19.

“He has good stuff across the board,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “I know they're going to protect his innings a little bit and they're trying to make a run at this, but he's a really good young pitcher. He was impressive."

The $8 million option
With an 11-day hiatus since game circumstances warranted him to pitch in relief, Flexen had millions of things to think about. But he quickly created some clarity for himself with his first out in the sixth inning, which pushed him past 300 innings over 2021-22 to trigger an $8 million vesting option on his contract.

It seemed likely that, barring injury, the right-hander would reach the marker after he threw 179 2/3 innings en route to becoming the club’s pitcher of the year in 2021. Yet the long layover between outings lingered, which culminated with Flexen blazing through a high-five assembly line after returning to the dugout.

“I knew where I was at, of course,” Flexen said. “But I was just happy to be out there and helping the bullpen out and pick up a win.”

The Mariners transitioned Flexen to the bullpen three weeks ago after acquiring Luis Castillo ahead of the Trade Deadline. Doing so gave them six starters, and the logic was that Flexen’s stuff might play up better than Marco Gonzales, the other option.