DENVER — The starting pitcher that the Mariners desperately need to return to his previous form of seasons past took the mound Tuesday night at Coors Field, squaring off against an opposing starting pitcher the Mariners would gleefully add to their injury-riddled rotation for this season and the next few seasons, if only he were available and wouldn’t cost too much in terms of prospect return.
Given the stadium, the elevation and the sticky 90-plus degree temps, a possible pitching duel between Seattle’s Marco Gonzales, who did pick up his first win since April 15 vs. the Orioles despite only making it through five innings, and Colorado’s German Marquez, who gave up four runs in six innings pitched, wasn’t really expected and didn’t materialize. Neither was particularly sharp or crisp.
But what did happen is the Mariners’ expected catcher of the future, who would love to work with both starters in winning seasons to come, found the hitting stroke that earned his recent promotion to the big leagues. After registering his first big league hit, a bloop single to center in the second inning, Cal Raleigh ignited a Seattle offense held quiet by Marquez for five innings, ripping a game-tying two-run double in the sixth inning, and an eventual 6-4 come-from-behind victory over the Rockies.
It was the Mariners 20th win in their past 29 games as they improved to 51-44 on the season. The seven games over .500 represent a high-water mark in the 2021 season. They remain 2½ games behind the A’s, who defeated the Angels, 6-0, for the second wild card spot. It was Seattle’s 20th comeback victory this season. The Mariners are now 42-13 on the season when scoring four runs or more in a game.
“A nice ballgame to start the series and hopefully we can wrap up a very successful road trip tomorrow,” manager Scott Servais.
Seattle will go for a two-game sweep with a bullpen start. Right-hander Keynan Middleton will get the start as an opener.
Quiet and unassuming in public settings, but with a command presence on the field, Raleigh had gone hitless in his first three big league games, striking out four times in 12 plate appearances and registering just one ball in play with an exit velocity of more than 100 mph.
While it might be a single in the scorebook and likely becomes a line-drive single when he tells his future children, let the record show that Raleigh’s first MLB hit was a blooper, or a bleeder, or a dying quail, or a flare or whatever you want to call the soft pop-up off a 95-mph fastball from Marquez that broke his bat and landed just in front of a sliding Garrett Hampson in center field.
“I wasn’t really going to panic,” Raleigh said of getting that first big league hit. “I guess that’s the worst thing you could do. I’d be lying to you if I told you I wasn’t thinking about it or it wasn’t on my mind. But I knew it was going to come. I had hit some balls hard. Luckily, I got one to drop in.”
Raleigh even cracked a smile from his usually stoic appearance on the field.
“I was joking earlier in the game that we were going to see him smile tonight,” Servais said. “I had a really good feeling he was going to get a hit. I went through an 0 for 22 to start my career up here. And I get it, it’s not easy. But he’s got a really good demeanor about it. He’s got a really good presence. He’s calm. I know he’s grinding inside, but outwardly he’s not going to throw helmets and crack bats and yell and scream. He’s just not wired that way. And I think it’s going to serve him well over the course of his career.”
In his next plate appearance, with the Mariners trailing 2-0 and looking like they might be upping the trade value of Marquez, Raleigh produced the result fans and the front office have been waiting to see from the big catcher. With Kyle Seager on third after a one-out double and Ty France on first following a single, Raleigh lashed at a first-pitch fastball from Marquez. He sent the 96-mph heater into the right-center gap with an exit velocity of 109 mph — the hardest hit ball in the game.
“It was awesome to do that,” he said. “Obviously, Marco just gave up two-spot and we were down late in the game. Any chance you can come up big for your team is always a good thing. I took advantage of the first pitch.”
Marquez came back to retire Jarred Kelenic on a hard-hit groundball. But after running the count full on Dylan Moore after being up 1-2, Marquez hung a slider in the middle of the plate that was promptly pasted into the left-field seats for a two-run homer and a 4-2 Mariners’ lead.
Seattle pushed the lead to 6-2 in the seventh on a two-run double to the gap in left-center from Ty France.
Seattle’s four-run top of the sixth off Marquez put Gonzales in line for the victory. Pitching in front of more than 100 friends and family, who made the trip from nearby Fort Collins, where he was a high school pitching legend, Gonzales pitched five innings, allowing two runs on six hits with three walks and three strikeouts.
“Yesterday was tough, because we had an off day, and I was pitching today,” he said. “So I had to kind of sidestep a bunch of plans, and unfortunately not see a bunch of people that I wanted to want to see that I hadn’t seen in a year and a half at least. It’s just a really special thing to be able to come back here and pitch in front of my family.”
His command wasn’t bad, but it also wasn’t precise with 55 strikes in his 85 pitches and runners on base in every inning, but he was able to execute pitches to end innings without allowing runs. An elevated fastball struck out All-Star shortstop Trevor Story to end the third inning. A changeup on the hands of Elias Diaz produced an inning-ending double play in the fourth. But a leadoff walk to third baseman Joshua Fuentes to start the fifth came and a misplaced first-pitch sinker to Connor Joe, who was called up before the game, led to a two-run homer and a 2-0 Rockies lead.
“I’m definitely building off of the last one,” he said. “I thought I was a little sharper in my command. The cutter execution was the best it’s been all season. And I threw some really good change-ups that I’ve been working on. Overall, I would say that it’s a good step.”
As for Marquez, the veteran right-hander pitched six innings, allowing the four runs on seven hits with two walks and five strikeouts and falling to 8-7 on the season with a 3.50 ERA. The Rockies have said they don’t want to trade their best pitcher, but given the state of their franchise and his relatively affordable contract, which features club control through 2023, many teams find him enticing.
The Mariners are desperate for starting pitching help in the immediate future and over the next two seasons until top prospects like Emerson Hancock and George Kirby come up. But general manager Jerry Dipoto has been adamant that he won’t give up top prospects who were deemed as core pieces of the team’s rebuild.
But with the team’s success that could change. Ending a now infamous and embarrassing playoff drought that extends back to 2001 might motivate ownership to try to win now.
The game got close as it has a tendency to do at Coors Field. Paul Sewald gave up a two-run homer to C.J. Cron in the eighth inning. In the ninth, Kendall Graveman issued a lead-off walk and had to pitch with tying run at the plate three times, striking out Hampson, getting Joe to ground out and punching out Story for his ninth save.