MINNEAPOLIS — When Byron Buxton delivered a gut-punch of a two-run homer in the bottom of the eighth inning, sending an otherwise quieted crowd of 20,867 at Target Field in a momentary frenzy, the Seattle Mariners seemed more unaffected than overwhelmed.
Yes, the blast was prodigious and one-run lead had been turned into a one-run deficit in the amount of time it took for the 436-foot blast to reach the upper deck.
But playing and thriving in that sort of late-inning drama is a familiar experience from a 2021 season with so many close games, yielding success.
“Going into that ninth inning down one, there was no panic in the dugout,” Ty France said. “There’s never any panic.”
In the top of the ninth and facing Twins closer Tyler Duffey, Julio Rodriguez smoked a double into the left-center gap, breaking a hitless streak of seven consecutive plate appearances to start his career. He scored from third base when Adam Frazier sent a two-out line drive into left-center for a game-tying hustle double that included a heady slide to avoid the tag at second base. His hustle was rewarded when France smoked a line drive to right field to score Frazier with his third hit of the game.
Diego Castillo, who often manufactured his own drama last season, made sure the bottom of the ninth was tension free. Using a nasty slider, he worked a 1-2-3 ninth inning to close out the Mariners’ 4-3 come-from-behind win over the Twins.
After going hitless in his first nine plate appearances, losing a base hit to the first-base bag and questionable replay review on Friday and another to fielder’s choice on a line drive to right field, Frazier was happy to have his first hit as a Mariner after a torrid spring.
“There’s been some tough luck,” Frazier said. “I’m just trying to get a good pitch and get the barrel to it. I’m always thinking double no matter if it’s the first or last inning. I’m trying to put pressure on the defense to make them make a play.”
The Mariners have played two games and have two one-run wins.
“Another one-run game, just a heck of a comeback there late,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said following a large exhale. “Obviously, we got some huge hits right when our back was against the wall and down to our final out.”
Young reliever Andres Munoz learned a valuable lesson about pitching in leverage situations: 1. Walking the leadoff batter is never a good thing. 2. Buxton, when healthy, is one of the best players in Major League Baseball and can hit any fastball regardless of how hard it is thrown or where it is located.
Brought in to start the eighth inning and protect a 2-1 lead, Munoz opened with a walk to No. 9 hitter Nick Gordon. It brought to the plate the freakishly talented but oft-injured Buxton. Seeing that Munoz was struggling to locate his triple-digit fastball and knowing he hadn’t thrown a single slider, Buxton went up looking for a first-pitch fastball.
He got one at 101 mph above the strike zone. The pitch would overwhelm the average MLB hitter, but Buxton clobbered it into the upper deck in left field. It had a 113-mph exit velocity.
Catcher Tom Murphy’s reaction behind the plate was one of disbelief.
“I was looking for a pop-up for a half a second before I saw the trajectory of the ball,” Murphy said. “It’s just insane that somebody can do that to a baseball at 101 mph and the first pitch they see from a guy.”
In the dugout, Servais knew it was gone on impact.
“When it left the bat, I don’t know what direction this stadium sits, but I thought that was going to land in Wisconsin,” he said. “That was bomb. But to Munoz’s credit he came back and got the next three guys out.”
Indeed, Munoz got Luis Arraez to pop out and struck out Carlos Correa and Jorge Polanco, who combined to strikeout seven times in eight plate appearances.
Logan Gilbert, struggling to locate his pitches with any sort of command and destined for a three-inning outing with his 85-pitch limit, found something with everything trending toward disaster.
After retiring the first two batters of the second inning, Gilbert allowed back-to-back singles to Ryan Jeffers and Gordon — the bottom two hitters in the batting order. A misplaced fastball grazed the forearm of Buxton to load the bases and bring to the plate the always dangerous Arraez.
Arraez, known for peskiness more than power, surprised Gilbert in the first inning, launching a 2-0 fastball into the right-field seats for a solo homer. Pitching coach Pete Woodworth ventured to the mound to check on Gilbert and provide a pause against the growing din in Target Field.
Gilbert didn’t back down against Arraez, who is almost impossible to strike out. On a 2-2 count, he threw a changeup that was fouled off and a nasty late-break slider that generated a weak pop out to end the inning.
With disaster averted, Gilbert reeled his start back into respectability. At 52 pitches after two innings, he needed 33 more pitches to retire the next 10 batters. He finished with five innings pitched, one run allowed on three hits with a walk and seven strikeouts.
“I felt like I was flying open a little bit and from there I was just working gloves side,” he said. “I actually sped up my delivery a little bit and I think that helped clean everything up.”
Gilbert also started using his curveball and changeup more after being too heavy in his usage of his fastball and slider.
“I should have went to them earlier for some reason,” Gilbert said. “I didn’t probably just based on the scouting report we had on them, but those pitches feel as good as anything else right now. So I’ll try to keep working those in earlier.”
Anthony Misiewicz and Sergio Romo followed with 1-2-3 innings, continuing Gilbert’s streak of Twins hitters retired in order, pushing it to 16 before Munoz started the eighth.
The Mariners’ first two runs came on a France RBI double off the wall in left-center and Tom Murphy’s prodigious blast off the facade of the upper deck in right-center.”
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