Civale befuddles Mariners in dominant outing

April 2nd, 2023

SEATTLE -- This is the version of the Guardians knew he could be.

It’s been awhile since Civale has even been healthy enough to get into a rhythm on the mound. His start to the 2021 season was strong, becoming the first hurler in the Majors to reach 10 wins on June 16 of that year. But then, the righty was sidelined with a finger sprain and thus began a series of ailments he’d battle the next season and a half.

During this time, Civale never looked like the pitcher he was at the start of '21, but Guardians manager Terry Francona continued to say the same thing: “When Aaron’s healthy, he can pitch.” Now that all his injuries are in the rearview mirror, Civale proved his skipper right, tossing seven scoreless frames in a 2-0 Guardians victory over the Mariners on Saturday night at T-Mobile Park.

“I thought he pitched his heart out,” Francona said. “I thought he pitched a great game. I mean, when Aaron’s going good, that’s what it is. In this day and age of maybe high 90s or a lot of strikeouts, he pitched to contact, I think he had 10 ground-ball outs. … His cutter was very good. That was really, really impressive.”

Civale gave up a leadoff single to Julio Rodríguez but faced the minimum through the rest of the order. When Rodríguez got back in the box, he picked up another single to left field. After that, Civale was lights-out.

The Cleveland righty permitted just those two hits with one walk and three strikeouts in his seven sparkling frames. It marked the second scoreless start of at least seven innings of his career. The first time, he tossed eight scoreless, allowing just one hit -- also against the Mariners -- right before he sprained his finger in June 2021.

“It was a lot of fun,” Guardians catcher Cam Gallagher said. “It’s missing barrels, not necessarily striking out the world, but getting ahead, throwing strikes and get weak contact.”

Civale mixed in five offerings on Saturday night, relying on his cutter the most. Of the 32 cutters he threw, nine were put in play. Just one of those resulted in a hit. The other 10 were whiffed at (three) or fouled off (seven).

This is the early feedback Civale would’ve hoped to see with his cutter after it went from being a pitch that held batters to a .190 average in '21 to a .286 batting average in '22.

“Something I focused on all offseason, just reestablishing the feel for that cutter and keeping it hard,” Civale said. “It’s nice to have essentially three fastballs. It’s nice to be able to use all three.”

“It was really effective and it kind of opened up a lot of his pitches and stuff,” Gallagher said. “But did a heck of a job.”

Earlier in Civale’s career, he turned to his sinker frequently. The last two years, the cutter took over. And if it can stay as sharp as it was on Saturday night, there’s no reason to believe he’d stray away from it any time soon.

“He was pretty dominant tonight,” Mariners first baseman Ty France said. “He had everything working and makes it a lot harder, especially when you have a plan going up there just based off how he's pitched you in the past, and he completely did the opposite.”

Having a bounce-back season for Civale was going to be critical for the Guardians no matter what. The club is used to relying on its starting pitching and both he and Zach Plesac were question marks heading into the year due to the obstacles they’ve each faced the last few seasons.

Civale became even more crucial for the Guardians when Triston McKenzie went down with a teres major muscle strain last week that could prevent him from getting back in the mix for two months. McKenzie was poised to be ace Shane Bieber’s right-hand man again in '23. And as rookie Hunter Gaddis finds his footing in the rotation to replace McKenzie, the Guardians could use a hand from the rest of their starters to pull some extra weight.

Civale certainly did so on Saturday, finally getting back to feeling like he did before he dealt with a slew of injuries.

“Just trying to enjoy the game again,” Civale said. “It’s fun. Regardless of what happens, it’s just fun to pitch again.