Kirby stymies Rays' bats en route to Seattle victory

July 2nd, 2023

SEATTLE -- seethed as he surged toward the home dugout after the top of the sixth inning on Saturday, straight past his teammates and out of sight into the tunnel.

Seattle’s uber-competitive young starter had just surrendered a two-out, two-run homer that tied the matinee on national television against the American League-leading Rays. And he was as peeved as at any point all season. 

“That frickin' home run pissed me off pretty good,” Kirby said postgame, after the Mariners hung on to a much-needed, 8-3 victory. “I was ready to come back out and keep going as long as I needed to.”

Kirby didn’t just keep going; he punctuated the day by emptying the tank with a 1-2-3 seventh inning, capped by consecutive strikeouts on his four-seam fastball, at 96.2 mph against Josh Lowe and 96.5 mph against Jose Siri. He reached a career-high-tying 101 pitches and carried a no-hitter into the sixth before surrendering a one-out double to Yandy Díaz two at-bats before the homer. 

For a team that needed a stopper in the wake of three straight losses that’s tipped their season to a teetering point, Kirby delivered.

“He's a dog, that's how I'd describe it,” said teammate Jarred Kelenic, who punched an RBI single shortly after Kirby’s homer that gave the Mariners a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

“I love everything about his mentality, the way he goes about his business, the way he conducts himself on the mound,” Kelenic continued. “Like I said, he's a dog.”

Kirby knew the stakes of Saturday’s game, particularly after the Mariners’ bullpen threw 5 2/3 innings and gave up 13 runs on Friday after Bryce Miller was forced to exit with a right middle finger blister and that the Mariners were going up against strikeout artist Tyler Glasnow, who racked up 11 punchouts on Saturday. 

“That is just taking matters into your own hands,” manager Scott Servais said. “Hell of an effort really just from the get-go. Super focused, locked in, really disappointed he gave up the two-run homer. But he went out there and got three big outs after that.”

It’s not just the final results that shined, but also, the avenues that Kirby took to get there. He threw six different pitches on Saturday, toyed with them out of the zone -- even if his strike-throwing speciality made it hard to do so -- and showed a blossoming acumen. With their young starters, particularly Miller and Bryan Woo, the Mariners have deliberately encouraged them to not overthink and focus more on their strengths. 

They’ve done that with Kirby, too, but they believe he’s taking the next step to becoming a more well-rounded pitcher.

“George has the weapons and the tools and execution to pitch to a scouting report,” Servais said. “And when he's on his game, that's what he's doing. He's using his best [stuff] against maybe an area where the hitter may be weaker at handling a certain pitch. It's moving in the right direction.”

When Kirby departed, the game was tied at 2-2. But after Kelenic put Seattle ahead, the Mariners ran away with a three-spot in the eighth, well after Glasnow was gone. Yet even when Tampa Bay’s towering righty was on the mound, despite a whopping 23 whiffs, the Mariners’ bats kept the pressure on -- thanks largely to Kirby.

Kelenic ripped a double to the right-center gap in the second, then Mike Ford drove him in with an opposite-field knock to open the scoring. In the third, J.P. Crawford ripped a 385-foot homer off Glasnow, his seventh of the season to eclipse his 2022 total. Seattle knew its best chances to strike was with its lefties in the lineup. 

“Everybody in the lineup, really, we were just trying to get pitches in the heart of the plate and stay up the middle the other way,” Kelenic said. “I thought we did a really good job today of staying the other way.”

It was a crisp, sound game that the Mariners sorely needed, but even more so, it ended in a victory against one of the Majors’ best teams. They’ve exhibited these types of encouraging performances before -- and they recognize that sustainability will be the next step. 

“That's the question,” Servais said. “I think it starts with a really good starting pitching. We’ll run another really good starter [Luis Castillo] out there tomorrow.”