What a relief! Starter Kirby saves the day

October 9th, 2022

TORONTO – ’s season has been marked by on-the-fly adjustments. But none was bigger than the ninth inning of Game 2 in the American League Wild Card Series.

The Mariners’ rookie starter, who hadn’t pitched in relief since 2019 in High-A, notched his first career save in Saturday’s 10-9 win over the Blue Jays at Rogers Centre, which sent Seattle to the ALDS.

In a chaotic game that saw the Mariners come back from an 8-1 deficit, Kirby did what he’s always done. He also might have forged his path into a prominent role moving forward this October.

“I was staying ready all game,” Kirby said. “I never knew when I was going to come in. And I’m glad it was in that type of pressure moment right there. It was unbelievable. Just trying to stay confident, throw strikes and do what I usually do.”

That mindset helped him navigate the intensity of the moment.

Kirby opened the ninth against Teoscar Hernández, a two-time Silver Slugger who had already homered twice. He needed nine pitches and trotted out pretty much every weapon in his repertoire, but the 25-year-old finally got Hernández to ground out softly for the first out.

Matt Chapman walked in the next at-bat, and for a moment, Kirby seemed hesitant about throwing his fastball for strikes.

Then, he dialed it in. Kirby struck out the power-hitting Danny Jansen for out No. 2 and forced a lineout from Raimel Tapia to seal the win and start the celebration.

“We threw him right into the fire and he rose to the occasion,” said Mariners pitching coach Pete Woodworth. “That's a testament to George Kirby and how he's grown up in the game; how he's developed. From this the first time I saw him, he was this ridiculous competitor that never got too high, never got too low.”

By maintaining that demeanor in his first career save, Kirby has given the Mariners more options as to how to utilize him against the Astros. A best-of-five series may allow Seattle to keep its starting rotation a bit tighter and deploy Kirby either as a high-leverage bullpen arm or as a long reliever.

“I’m happy the skip believed in me in that moment,” Kirby said. “I just knew that whatever position I was going to be in in the postseason, just not treat it as too big of a moment. Take it as it is, focus and have fun.”

Although that mentality doesn’t surprise his teammates and coaching staff, it still has them in awe.

“That's why George is really good,” Woodworth said. “He saw it as an opportunity that he enjoyed, and not, ‘Oh ... this is the most important game of the year. We're on the road in the ninth inning and here comes Teoscar Hernández.’ Like he fully took advantage of it.”

This is Kirby’s first full big league season. A first-round Draft pick in 2019, the righty was among those who missed an entire Minor League year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and he saw his innings total skyrocket in 2022.

A 3.39 ERA and 133 strikeouts over 130 regular-season innings may tell the story of a dominant campaign, but it didn’t come without growing pains. Perhaps the biggest example of that came during Kirby’s final start, when he allowed four runs on six hits and three walks, with a significant dip in velocity and spin over just four innings. As the Mariners lost to the Tigers that night, they also failed to secure home-field advantage for the AL Wild Card Series.

“It was just a constant development,” Woodworth said of Kirby’s regular season. “I don't know if anybody on our staff made more adjustments. Usually, you let the young guys figure things out and keep them on their path. George wanted to try things. George wanted to experiment, and he was able to do it quickly.”

When the champagne-soaked Mariners returned to the field roughly an hour after their miraculous comeback win on Saturday, Kirby’s name was among the very first to be yelled out by the team’s modest but mighty fanbase at Rogers Centre.

His efforts weren’t lost on his teammates, either.

“He stepped up huge,” said , the Mariners’ Game 2 starter. “I mean, a situation he’s never been in before and he just went right at them. Super proud of him and proud of what he did today.”