A hat trick seemed like an inevitability for Evan White as he flailed helplessly at a 2-0 breaking ball about 6 inches off the outside of the plate that he seemed certain was going to be a fastball from Lance McCullers Jr.
In hockey, a hat trick – scoring three goals in one game — is an achievement to be cherished and celebrated. In baseball, it’s one of the worst failures for a hitter — a sarcastic description given for striking out three times in a game. Few things are more embarrassing.
And three times to the same pitcher? Even worse.
In his rookie season, White has dealt with his share of that frustration, enduring seven hat tricks and a golden sombrero (four strikeouts in a game) in his rookie season, including one against McCullers and the Astros in his second big-league game.
While the Mariners’ 6-1 victory Monday night featured several regrettable swings from White in his first two at-bats against the Astros right-hander, the swing on 2-0 might have been the worst. He’d sullied the disciplined work to get ahead in the count. A fouled off 2-1 fastball that was actually a strike put him at 2-2.
Given what he’d done to White in the game and the season, McCullers went back to his best pitch – the knuckle curveball – in hopes of yet another ugly swing and miss.
Instead, he hung the pitch over the middle of the plate and White hammered it off Edgar’s Cantina for a three-run homer, high-lighting a four-run seventh inning and turning a pitchers’ duel into a lopsided victory for Seattle and yet another showcase outing for starter Marco Gonzales.
With the victory, the Mariners (24-30) moved to three games behind Houston (27-27) in the American League West standings. But really Seattle is four games back to take over second place in the division and earn a spot in the expanded playoffs because the Astros own the season-series tiebreaker.
Houston’s magic number to clinch second place in the division is three games. So losing really isn’t an option for the Mariners in their next six games.
“Right now, we’re preaching day by day,” Gonzales said in a video conference. “We got a win today. We check that box. We’re gonna come out tomorrow and win a ballgame. Can’t get more complicated than that. That’s how we have to do this thing. We get out of our heads and start thinking about things like that. That’s not the right way to go. So we’re gonna come in tomorrow and win a ballgame.”
White was happy to win the at-bat against McCullers and provide a key hit against a pitcher he’d been hitless against this season.
“We’ve faced him three times this season and I don’t think I’ve put a ball in play off him,” White said in a postgame video conference. “I think I’ve walked and got hit by a pitch and struck out a whole lot of times. So to be able to do that, especially with a two-strike count, is pretty exciting.”
Indeed, coming into that at-bat White had seven plate appearances against McCullers with a walk, a hit by pitch and five strikeouts.
Still, White was adamant that any irritation on his face after the 2-0 swing was only on the surface.
“Honestly, I didn’t feel that frustrated,” he said. “Obviously, you don’t want to do that. But it was just like, ‘OK, you’ve still got a couple of pitches to work with, just stay within yourself, and trust yourself.’ I wish I could have that one back, but it ended up working out in the end.”
In a must-win game for the Mariners to keep their fading postseason hopes alive, their offense was rendered impotent by McCullers for the first five innings, but Gonzales matched him zero for zero, feeding off the intensity of the duel.
“I’m just competing with him,” Gonzales said. “I’m competing with his tempo and we were getting each other back out on the mound quick. I feel like I had some good momentum going into each one. To be honest, he really kind of fueled my momentum. He really set the bar. And when you do that to me, you’re gonna turn on some some competitive energy that’s kind of been harbored a little bit. I found another gear after the fifth and I really just started attacking people.”
Ty France broke the 0-0 tie in the seventh inning with a run-scoring single and White later followed with his seventh homer of the season. Seattle tacked on some additional insurance on Kyle Seager’s two-run single against the Astros bullpen in the eighth to make the outcome even more comfortable.
Gonzales, the unquestioned leader of Seattle’s pitching staff, delivered a gutty performance. He tossed eight shutout innings, allowing seven hits with a rare walk and six strikeouts to improve to 7-2 and lower his ERA to 3.06.
Facing a team that’s given him problems in the past — an 0-5 record and 7.22 ERA in eight appearances — Gonzales seemed determined to not let that trend continue. He worked around base runners in four of the eight innings.
“Marco came in clubhouse today ornery,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “He came with a little chip on his shoulder. Players know who they’ve been successful against, maybe who they’ve had some struggles against. And you know, Marco, he likes the challenge. He likes when people think they got his number, and he is a fighter. We saw that tonight.”
And when he registered his final out of the eighth, striking out Michael Brantley, who had tallied three hits off him, Gonzales screamed and pumped his fist as he headed toward the Mariners dugout.
Using his fast-spinning, late-breaking knuckle curveball, which he was always known for, and a wipeout change-up that he refined while recovering from Tommy John surgery and uses more than ever, McCullers had Mariners’ hitters completely off balance for much of his outing.
Over the first five innings, he held Seattle to just one base runner — a first-inning walk to Kyle Lewis. McCullers held the Mariners hitless for the first five innings.
But with one out in the sixth inning, Tim Lopes made sure his team wouldn’t get no-hit. Lopes smoked a line drive to the gap in deep left-center for his team-high 12th double.
In the seventh, Lewis worked a leadoff walk and Seager’s hard-hit ball to second base was mishandled by Jose Altuve instead of resulting in a double play. With a runner in scoring position, France ambushed a first-pitch fastball, pulling a double down the left-field line to score Lewis. McCullers came back to strike out Jose Marmolejos and Luis Torrens. With two outs and two strikes, he seemed poised to get out of the inning allowing just the one run.
And then baseball happened.