Kirby outduels Braves' ace in playoff-style showdown

September 11th, 2022

SEATTLE -- In a season in which his teammate is the distinct frontrunner for the AL Rookie of the Year Award, George Kirby might be putting together a sneaky bid himself. 

The 24-year-old on Saturday completely dominated the defending World Series champions over six-plus brilliant innings, putting Seattle on his shoulders en route to a 3-1 victory over Atlanta in front of a nearly sold-out crowd at T-Mobile Park. He surrendered just three hits and walked none, extending his streak of not allowing more than one walk in all 21 of his career starts.

It was the type of environment that fans in this region have craved for years, and Kirby -- a newcomer to these parts -- delivered in a huge way, elevating his candidacy for a potential postseason rotation. 

“It's kind of always in the back of your head,” Kirby said about pitching in October. “But the best thing to do is just take it one game at a time. That's what I think we're doing a really good job of -- not looking to the future and really focused on the game.”

Kirby unloaded his entire five-pitch arsenal against the righty- and power-heavy Braves, but his two-seam fastball stole the show. Despite generating just six total whiffs against one of MLB’s best fastball-hitting teams, when Kirby reached two strikes, he went for the jugular. 

His two-seamer, which he began throwing just two months ago, accounted for three of his six strikeouts -- and they all had a unique finish: front-door action to Robbie Grossman, a freeze for a backwards K to Vaughn Grissom and last-minute movement against Ronald Acuña Jr. to get the superstar swinging over it.

“I’m just getting more confident with it,” Kirby said. “I’m able to move it on both sides now. It’s just been a really good weapon.”

Kirby already wowed Mariners manager Scott Servais with his confidence in Spring Training, but the tangible results -- especially with a new pitch -- have skyrocketed that self conviction. 

“It's like his little toy in his pocket,” Servais said of the two-seamer. “You know what I mean? Or a secret weapon, whatever you want to call it. His ability to [say], ‘If I execute here, I know if I throw this pitch, I got him.’ That's a nice feeling to have.”

Making his outing more impressive was who Kirby opposed -- and ultimately outdueled -- from the opposite dugout: NL Cy Young Award candidate Max Fried, whose only runs surrendered came via solo homers from Sam Haggerty and Eugenio Suárez. The Mariners became the first team to homer twice off the All-Star in a single game over his 27 starts this season.

Kirby, meanwhile, hasn’t been taken deep since June 27 against Baltimore, a span of 11 starts, 58 2/3 innings and 236 batters faced. Only one of the 17 batted balls against him on Saturday was hit harder than 100 mph.

“You just can’t be scared,” Kirby said of facing a Braves squad that homered four times on Friday. “You’ve got to be confident. Just do what you keep doing. I didn’t want to change anything today. I just wanted to attack them.”

Kirby has approached his workload-management situation by simply being as efficient as possible, which has allowed him to pitch deeper into games. Since spending nearly three weeks at Triple-A Tacoma in July -- an assignment to curb his innings -- Kirby is averaging 14.2 pitches per inning, tied for fifth-fewest in MLB. It’s not just his strike-throwing ability, but also the ease of his mechanics that allow him to cruise.

“Some guys are a little bit more violent in their delivery,” Servais said. “You talk about how Robbie does it or maybe how Logan [Gilbert] does it, George stays within himself. He stays on line. It's a shorter arm action. There are a lot of things that line up. The energy he lets go every night in a start is maybe different than some of our other guys.”

Kirby was charged with just one unearned run that manifested via an error by J.P. Crawford on a would-be double-play ball in the sixth inning. Instead of having two outs with no one on, there were no outs with runners on the corners, at which point Servais went to high-leverage reliever Andrés Muñoz, who gave up a run on a groundout. 

It was a marginally disappointing finish for the uber-competitive Kirby, especially since he was at just 85 pitches and nearly cleared seven shutout innings, which would’ve been a new personal best. On six occasions this season, he’s thrown at least five innings with zero earned runs, including Saturday. 

And while it’s probably too late for the righty to surge into the AL ROY conversation, especially given Julio Rodríguez’s impressive candidacy, Kirby is giving Seattle a chance to win every time out.