It was a home game, but it didn’t feel like it once he stepped on the mound with easily 80 percent of the crowd of 34,706 wanting him to fail and cheering for the hitters he was facing.
The uniform he was forced to wear looked like something out of a Class D slow pitch softball league in North Dakota with the name “Top Sheff” on the back.
And, well, he was about one hitter away from not getting out of an interminable, pitch-filled first inning of his first major-league start.
Normal or simple wasn’t going to happen for Justus Sheffield on Friday night at T-Mobile Park. But in the idea of development, adjusting to the difficulties of pitching at baseball’s highest level, it was an instructive outing for a pitcher who is going to be asked to make 30 of these outings in the 2020 season as part of the opening-day rotation.
After needing 37 pitches to get three outs while allowing two runs in the first inning, Sheffield was never going to figure in the decision. But he showed enough moxie to recover, keep his team in the game and allowed the Mariners to rally for an eventual 7-4 win in a game that took almost four hours to complete.
The Mariners have won seven of their past 10 games to improve to 55-74.
“It was not an easy night for Sheff in his first major-league start,” manager Scott Servais said. “Ton of pitches in the first and after that first inning I thought we might be in trouble to get him through five. But he did a really good job to give us a chance. Four innings his first big-league start, I think he learned some things. You have to be patient with these guys. There is going to be a learning process.”
Seattle broke a 4-4 tie in the bottom of the sixth by basically letting the Blue Jays bullpen not throw strikes.
Ignited by Dee Gordon’s leadoff double, Seattle loaded the bases with one out off one-time Mariner pitcher Sam Gaviglio, bringing to the plate the team’s hottest hitter in Kyle Seager, who already had a pair of doubles and an RBI earlier in the game. Despite falling behind 1-2 in the first three pitches of the at-bat, Seager worked a walk to score the go-ahead run. Toronto manager Charlie Montoyo brought in lefty Tim Mayza to face left-handed hitting Omar Narvaez. In his second pitch of his appearance, Mayza bounced a fastball in the dirt that got by catcher Reese McGuire for a run-scoring wild pitch.
Later with two outs and the bases still loaded and Seattle leading 6-4, Arroyo went to right-hander Neil Ramirez to face the right-handed hitting Tim Lopes. On his second pitch, Ramirez uncorked a wild pitch that allowed another run to score.
Seattle scored three runs in an inning where it had just one hit.
If it felt like the first inning would never end watching Sheffield labor through pitch after pitch, imagine how it felt for him.
“It was long,” he said. “I don’t even know how many pitches it was.”
He allowed back-to-back singles from Bo Bichette and Derek Fisher to start the game. He came back to strike out Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Randal Grichuk and seemed poised to escape unscathed.
But J.P. Crawford’s diving attempt to glove Justin Smoak’s ground ball to the left side of second couldn’t quite be completed. It went for an RBI infield single for the not-so-fast Smoak. It’s a play Crawford has made before and he seemed irritated that he didn’t finish it.
Teoscar Hernandez followed with a double into the left-field corner that scored Fisher and made it 2-0.
As Sheffield’s pitch count grew from 15 to 30 in three batters, Servais had no choice but to have right-hander Zac Grotz start warming up in the bullpen. They weren’t going to let Sheffield throw an entire game’s worth of pitches in the first inning.
After walking Cavan Biggio, Sheffield finally ended the marathon by striking out Brandon Drury on his 37th pitch of the inning. It was going to be his final batter of the inning regardless of the outcome.
Sheffield jogged off the mound toward the Mariners dugout knowing he’d kept the inning from turning into a disaster. A first inning with an avalanche of pitches meant there was little chance of him figuring into the decision. So he tried to salvage what he could.
“Definitely not what I wanted, but I just wanted to settle in and keep the game as close as possible and give us a chance to win,” he said.
He gave the Mariners three more innings, allowing another run, but getting to 85 pitches. His best inning was his last, needing just 10 pitches and facing four batters.
In a start that wanted to go sideways from the first inning, Sheffield gave Seattle four innings, allowing three runs on seven hits with three walks and three strikeouts. Given his first-inning struggles and the constant traffic on the bases throughout the game, it could have gone much worse. And it allowed his teammates to rally and take a lead.
“I felt good all night, honestly,” he said. “I felt like I threw some pretty good pitches that were pretty close. I felt like I mixed in and out pretty good and stayed with the game plan. I left a few pitches over the plate and mistakes get hit there. There’s a learning curve, but I’m ready to get back out there.”
His next start will come against the team that traded him to the Mariners and the pitcher he was traded for — James Paxton. Sheffield will start Wednesday afternoon to wrap up the homestand.
“Oh yeah, I know,” he said with a smile when asked if he knew who he was facing in his next start.
The Mariners tied the game at 2-2 in the second on Narvaez’s solo homer and Gordon’s RBI triple. They tied it again at 3 in the third on Seager’s RBI double to right.
Seattle grabbed a 4-3 lead on Crawford’s laser of a solo homer over the wall in right-center.
The combination of Seattle’s middle relief and Mallex Smith’s miscue in right field set up an unearned run in the sixth on Guerrero’s infield single that tied the game at 4.