The talent is evident. The stuff is special. The command is more consistent than many established veterans. The competitiveness and intensity rivals any on the team. And with each outing, he seems to get just a little better and a little more effective, understanding who he is and what he can do on the mound.
If only the Mariners didn’t have to monitor and limit George Kirby’s usage.
But they knew this would likely be an issue this season, and they will have to overcome urges and pressure to push the rookie right-hander beyond a reasonable innings total, understanding the immediate can’t outweigh the overall.
On a warm and sun-drenched afternoon made pleasant by a slight breeze, Kirby delivered a dominant effort despite a limited pitch count and his teammates provided just enough run support, thanks to a two-run homer from Ty France, to grab a 2-1 victory over the Angels in Game 1 of Saturday’s split doubleheader.
“George Kirby was outstanding,” manager Scott Servais said. “He was very efficient once he got going in the game with good stuff today and we really needed it.”
Using a new sinking two-seam fastball that he picked up a few weeks ago after watching Robbie Ray and his riding four-seam fastball, Kirby pitched six innings, allowing just one run on six hits with no walks and eight strikeouts in just 80 pitches.
“It’s good to have both of those (fastballs),” he said. “It’s good to give the hitters a different look. That new movement profile just works a lot and it just gives me a different look. It’s more challenging to try and hit against two fastballs versus one.”
Kirby improved to 3-3 while lowering his ERA to 3.40 in 15 starts. In 79 1/3 innings pitched this season, he’s struck out 81 batters with just 11 walks.
“He’s a very good competitor, no question about that,” Servais said. “I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is George’s ability, he’s just scratching the surface of it and how he can move the ball. He has an innate ability to be able to maneuver the ball and when you have that kind of stuff with that type of feel, it usually leads to a great career.”
The Mariners are focusing on Kirby’s career by limiting his usage this season. After only pitching in a handful of intrasquad scrimmages due to the pandemic in 2020 and only throwing a total of 67 2/3 innings in 2021 with shoulder fatigue causing him to miss a month, Kirby has now thrown 79 1/3 innings for the Mariners this season and 26 2/3 innings in the minor leagues. Seattle gave him an extended break around the All-Star break.
“It’s not easy, but at the end of the day, they’re looking out for my health,” he said. “I totally understand that. But it is tough to come out when you’ve got a couple more pitches to work with or you’re getting into a nice groove. But I totally understand. It’ll be worth it in the long run.”
With the addition of Luis Castillo at the trade deadline, Seattle now has six starting pitchers, but they are unlikely to use a six-man rotation. They are debating different scenarios to keep Kirby pitching and have him available late in the season.
“Well on August 12, I think is when it first comes into play so we’ve got a few days to decide what we’re going to do with that and how we’re going to make that decision,” Servais said. “You know how baseball works, you don’t make those decisions until you have to.”
But they won’t give in to the pressure and push Kirby past their set limits, which haven’t been shared.
“Discipline is the shortcut and we understand that,” Servais said. “In games like today, where he probably had another 10, maybe 12 pitches, we could have run him back out there. But you take the six innings and you move on down the road, understanding what we have ahead of us and how important he is to us. And he’s not always happy with that. He’s a young guy, he loves to compete. But we need to watch the workload. He looks great right now and we want to keep him right there.”
Kirby’s one run allowed came in the second when Jo Adell ripped a double to right field and later scored on Mickey Moniak’s single to right.
The Mariners answered in the third inning.
Facing right-hander Jaime Barria, France launched a two-run homer into the Mariners bullpen for a 2-1 lead.
Kirby and the Mariners bullpen made it stand up with Matt Festa, Andres Munoz and Erik Swanson holding the Angels scoreless over the final three innings.
Munoz had the biggest moment of the bullpen, entering with two outs in the seventh and a runner on first to face Shohei Ohtani. Munoz fired three consecutive sliders, getting swings and misses on all of them to end the inning.