The obvious concern of taking a three-day hiatus during an already truncated season would be losing that all-important rhythm that players find in the everyday nature of a Major League Baseball season.
But that brief break didn’t seem to affect the Mariners. It seemed to have them recharged for the final three weeks of the season.
Left-hander Yusei Kikuchi delivered a solid performance and J.P. Crawford smoked a three-run homer in the eighth inning to turn a close game into what should have been an easy victory over the Texas Rangers at T-Mobile Park. However, veteran right-hander Yoshihisa Hirano gave up a pair of runs and allowed the tying run to come to the plate in the ninth before closing out the Mariners’ 6-3 victory.
It was the Mariners’ third consecutive win but first win since Monday. They’ve won eight of their last 11 games to improve to 16-22. They are third in the American League West, 2 1/2 games ahead of the Rangers (13-24), who they’ve beaten in their last four meetings.
“We really have been playing our best baseball here of late,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said in a postgame video call.
After Oakland pitcher Daniel Mengden tested positive for COVID-19 in Houston on Friday night, the three-game series vs. the Oakland A’s that was supposed to open this homestand Tuesday was postponed. It left the Mariners with some free time. Servais gave his team the day off Monday, allowing the players to recharge after an emotional road trip that featured a game postponed in protest and the anxiety of the MLB trade deadline.
Kikuchi, who was supposed to start Wednesday and hadn’t pitched since Aug. 27, looked first-start-of-the-season strong in terms of velocity and pitch movement.
He worked six innings, allowing just one run on two hits with no walks and seven strikeouts. In 89 pitches, he threw 52 strikes. On the surface it looked like a smooth outing with no issues. But of the 19 batters he’s faced, he only tallied seven first-pitch strikes. In those 12 1-0 counts, he came back to even the count just six times at 1-1. He fell behind 3-0 twice, had eight 2-1 counts and six 3-1 counts.
“When he had to execute on 3-1 or 3-2, he did tonight,” Servais said. “He knew it right away when I told him he was done tonight. He said, ‘Not so good on 0-0.’ I told him, ‘You got it, but we’ll take the results.’ He is gifted and he has good stuff, so he was able to get through it.”
It was the antithesis of the Mariners’ “dominate the zone” philosophy for pitchers.
“The focus part of that early in counts needs to get better,” Servais said. “But give him credit, he executed late in counts and got some big outs.”
With a fastball that consistently touched 97 mph and solid command of his breaking pitches, Kikuchi retired the first 10 batters he faced. Isiah Kiner-Falefa broke up the string with a ground ball single through the left side that just got past the glove of a diving J.P. Crawford. But Kiner-Falefa was quickly erased when Kikuchi got Nick Solak to ground into an inning-ending double play.
The Mariners gave him a limited amount of run support.
In his first at-bat for the Mariners after being acquired from the Padres, designated hitter Ty France singled up the middle off starter Kyle Cody, scoring Kyle Seager from second for a 1-0 lead in the second inning.
The Mariners pushed the lead to 3-0 in the fourth inning. Facing lefty John King, who was making his MLB debut, the Mariners loaded the bases when Seager was hit by a pitch, France walked and Jose Marmolejos singled to right. Evan White came to the plate and smoked a double off the left-field wall to score a pair of runners.
White finished the night with two hits and two walks and two RBI. His 19 RBI are third most among American League rookies.
“The biggest thing for me is just slowing the game down,” White said in a postgame video call. “As I’m walking up to the plate, I’m just talking to myself — stay within yourself, stay to the middle and make something happen.”
After struggling for an extended stretch early in the season, White is starting to come out of it. In his last seven games, he’s got eight hits in 23 at-bats with three doubles, a homer and 10 RBI.
“His swing decisions are the big thing for me,” Servais said. “He’s got power. He has a good swing and now he’s swinging at the right pitches. He’s been very aggressive. You can see the confidence growing from at-bat to at-bat.”
The one run allowed came in the fifth inning when the Mariners were leading 3-0. Kikuchi gave up just his second homer this season, throwing a 90-mph cutter that found the barrel of Jose Trevino’s bat and turned into a deep solo homer into left field.
Kikuchi retired the next five batters to end his outing.
“I was able to get outs with my cutter,” Kikuchi said on a video call through interpreter Kevin Ando. “I have a lot of confidence in my cutter. And at times I can kind of tell what the hitter is thinking.”
In a positive sign for his and the team’s future, right-hander Kendall Graveman made his first appearances in his new role as a reliever. After going on the injured list on Aug. 3 with neck spasms and revealing that he’s been dealing with a benign bone tumor in his neck that can’t be fixed with surgery, Graveman and the Mariners’ medical and coaching staff decided to try pitching him out of the bullpen in shorter stints since the discomfort becomes an issue the longer he would pitch.
Replacing Kikuchi to start the seventh and having plenty of time to warm up, Graveman worked a smooth 1-2-3 seventh. Obviously excited to be out pitching, his nasty sinker sat from 95-97 and he uncorked a fastball at 99 mph. After getting two ground ball outs, he won a seven-pitch battle with the Rangers’ left-handed slugger Joey Gallo. On a 3-2 count, Graveman threw a nasty 97-mph sinker that appeared to be headed for Gallo’s hip but dropped into the strike zone. Gallo was frozen for a called strike three.
“I thought Kendall Graveman was electric,” Servais said. “That was awesome stuff that he fired out there tonight.”
With the Mariners leading 3-1 in the eighth, Crawford stayed on a slider from lefty Taylor Hearn, pulling it into the right field seats for his second homer of the season for a 6-1 lead.