Kirby proves mettle with clutch 3-pitch strikeout

August 18th, 2022

ANAHEIM -- Forget the big lead he'd been handed. Forget that he was again on cruise control. Forget that the Mariners were well on their way to an 11-7 win over the Angels that secured a three-game sweep.

was still ticked.

Seattle’s uber-competitive rookie had just surrendered a single and stolen base, then allowed a bloop base hit to David Fletcher on a ball way above the strike zone, which led to a run. It was a tough-luck moment against the flukey-hitting Fletcher, but Kirby was nonetheless annoyed.

And what happened next was an illustrative microcosm of who Kirby is, what he brings and what it means.

Into the batter’s box stepped Shohei Ohtani, the reigning AL MVP, with one out and Fletcher still on. Despite the threat against one of MLB’s best power-hitting lefties, the young righty went right after the Angels’ two-way star, firing a 95.8 mph four-seam fastball middle-up. Against the here-it-is-come-and-get-it offering, Ohtani missed, swinging out of his shoes.

Ahead in the count, Kirby opted for offspeed, which Ohtani was waiting for. Yet despite sitting on it, the slugger couldn’t barrel the curveball in on his hands. Then, ahead 0-2, Kirby went for the jugular with his two-seamer, a 95.6 mph heater that, out of the hand to lefties, looks like a ball before backdooring the inner half of the plate, making it the perfect pitch for a backwards K -- which was precisely the result.

“I’m just going to continue to keep pounding the zone and let the guys try and beat me,” Kirby said. “I’m not scared of the zone. I’m just going to keep filling it up.”

It was only one at-bat within another solid outing. But the moment was a sign of a young pitcher crafting a game plan, executing it and showing no fear against arguably the game’s best player.

“Keep in mind, George Kirby couldn’t do that about three weeks ago,” manager Scott Servais said, referencing the new two-seamer that Kirby has added. “Here, he’s doing it to one of the best left-handed hitters in the game. So, being able to be out there, executing that, it’s a real bright future for him.”

For the second straight start, Kirby came one out shy of completing the sixth inning, and his final hitter bested him for the rare walk -- just his 13th of the season in 382 batters. Despite his rookie status, Kirby leads all MLB pitchers with a 3.4% walk rate (min. 90 innings), and his 57.4% in-zone rate entering Wednesday was tied for the MLB lead among qualified pitchers.

So, if the earlier sequence was annoying, one can imagine how he felt after the free pass ended his day.

“Very angry,” Kirby said through a wry smile. “I had a feeling I was probably going to come out there. And ending my outing on that, I hate that.”

Kirby surrendered three runs on six hits while striking out seven and throwing 94 pitches, his highest tally since July 2, one start before he was optioned to Triple-A Tacoma to manage his innings accumulation. That the Mariners have re-stretched him out in his five starts since returning after the All-Star break shows just how important a role they see for him down this stretch.

Every game becomes more important as the schedule winds down and the playoffs loom -- and how they are using Kirby shows that he’s a big part of those October plans.

“He's very competitive,” Servais said. “He's not going to show people up or do any crazy stuff out there, but he's going to keep going after you. He’s not afraid of getting in the strike zone and letting guys go after his stuff, because he's got really good stuff.”

Kirby’s workload management has been well chronicled. He’s thrown 117 1/3 innings this year, nearly double the 67 2/3 he threw last year and more than his previous career high of 90 1/3 during his final year of college, way back in 2018.

The club moved to the bullpen and explicitly said that it won’t piggyback the veteran with Kirby, which was an easy option Wednesday, yet Servais opted to keep Kirby in despite a massive lead. He then turned to , and Matthew Festa to get to the finish line.

The Angels certainly aren’t the caliber of team that the Mariners would see in the postseason, but Ohtani is an enormous outlier. And in one at-bat of a three-hour, 14-minute blowout, Kirby continued to show why he could be a valuable October piece.