Everything about Sunday screamed for the Mariners to find success in this stretch of struggles.
The afternoon sunshine — yes, the sun was out in Seattle — provided some warmth to the chilly temperatures and biting wind. A Mother’s Day crowd of 32,501 filled T-Mobile Park, bringing the sort of good vibes that moms can provide.
And, of course, the Major League Baseball debut of George Joseph Kirby brought that excited anticipation of potential that top prospects tend to inject into teams and fan bases.
Perhaps it was an unfair ask of the 24-year-old right-hander to be the pitcher to be a losing-streak stopper in his first big-league start. But with his parents, two sisters and a boisterous group of his former high-school and college baseball teammates bringing a little Westchester County energy to Seattle, Kirby was everything the Mariners could have asked for and more.
But for 8 1/3 innings the Mariners seemed destined to be shut out for the fifth time this season while Kirby’s brilliant outing would be wasted due to a lack of run support.
Instead, Abraham Toro tied the game with one out in the bottom of the ninth with a solo homer to right field off reliever Andrew Kittredge.
And in the bottom of the 10th, Ty France gave the Mariners a 2-1 walk-off victory, ripping a line drive over the head of left fielder Randy Arozarena to score Jarred Kelenic with the winning run.
The win snapped a six-game losing streak for the Mariners while avoiding a sweep by the Rays.
“It always starts with the guy on the hill,” manager Scott Servais said. “What a shot in the arm George Kirby gave us today. Quite a Mother’s Day present for his mom and all the folks that were here rooting him on. It was exactly what we needed.”
Kirby was brilliant, tossing six shutout innings, allowing four singles with no walks and seven strikeouts. He is the first pitcher in franchise history to throw six shutout innings in his MLB debut.
With a lively fastball that hit 98 mph, a revamped slider, an improved changeup and useful curveball, Kirby went at hitters without fear. Despite a teenager’s face featuring eyes like Bambi, the Mariners’ first-round pick in 2019 attacked hitters with a fearless disdain.
“My nerves were flying,” he said, adding, “But I just stuck to what I’m used to. I’m just trying to fill up the zone. It didn’t happen the beginning but I came back and did my thing.”
Known for pinpoint control and a ridiculous strikeout-to-walk ratio in college (16.8), what made Kirby’s walk-free outing even more impressive was that he fell behind to multiple hitters, including three 3-0 counts. But he wouldn’t give in.
“I hate walks,” he said flatly.
He will always challenge the hitter in his own way.
“A lot of times I was using off-speed on those 3-0, 3-1 counts,” he said. “This is the big leagues. If I throw a heater there, they’re probably gonna hit it. So that’s why I’ve been just trying to work on having my usage be a toss up. I’m just challenging myself to be in the zone with those pitches and I did a pretty good job today coming back in counts with them.”
Kirby struck out the first batter of the game, much to the delight of his cheering section about 30 rows behind the plate. After allowing a single to Wander Franco, Kirby struck out the next two batters. He allowed just one runner to reach second base.
“The stuff was better than what we’d seen at any point in spring training,” Servais said. “The life on his fastball, he had about 14 to 15 swings and misses today and didn’t walk anybody. That’s been an issue for us … committing to just dominating the strike zone and we got back to it today.”
Unfortunately, the Mariners provided him Felix Hernandez-level run support during those six innings, which is of course no run support. Former Mariners prospect Ryan Yarbrough pitched five shutout innings and the Rays bullpen kept Seattle’s slumping hitters off balance.
After picking off Arozarena for the final out of the sixth inning, Kirby walked off the field to a standing ovation and a 0-0 score.
Manuel Margot, who has tormented the Mariners this season, gave the Rays a 1-0 lead in the eighth inning.
Margot, who had homered in the first two games of the series, jumped on a 1-1 slider from Erik Swanson, sending a solo homer over the wall in left field. It was the first run allowed by Swanson in 12 appearances this season.
After Paul Sewald pitched a scoreless top of the 10th, the Mariners executed in the bottom of the inning. Dylan Moore bunted Kelenic, the automatic runner on second to start the inning, over to third base. The Rays walked Adam Frazier to bring France to the plate.
“I’ll be honest, I thought they were going to load the bases up,” France said. “I wasn’t expecting them to walk Fraze to start, but after that, I thought they were going to load the bases. It’s a good thing they didn’t.”
France, the Mariners’ best overall hitter, sat on a 1-1 curveball for his second walkoff hit as a Mariner.
“As soon as I hit it, I knew we won the game,” France said. “To be that guy that ends the game, it’s a pretty cool feeling. It’s something you can do over and over again. And it feels just like the first time.”