Given how many times the two teams would play after that surreal and emotional Tuesday afternoon at T-Mobile Park on July 26, it had to happen at some point this season.
At some point, the two principals of that trade between American League West rivals that initially left Mariner players angry and reeling would face each other because that’s how baseball works.
It finally came Tuesday at T-Mobile Park in the most delicious of circumstances, almost too sweet to believe in what would be the Mariners’ 4-0 victory.
With neither team able to push a run across for the first seven innings, right-hander Kendall Graveman walked to the mound to start the bottom of the eighth to face his former teammates, including a few that lashed out against the organization that day for trading their closer to the Houston Astros.
J.P. Crawford, who couldn’t help but laugh when asked about what Graveman did to opposing hitters, worked a walk. After Mitch Haniger struck out on a called third strike, Kyle Seager — one of Graveman’s closest friends — dumped a single into right field. And when a 99-mph fastball leaked inside and hit Ty France on his right forearm, setting a Mariners franchise record with 20 hit-by-pitches in a season, the bases were loaded and the affable Abraham Toro, the key piece coming back to the Mariners in that trade, came walking to the plate.
“It’s crazy how in this game things work out and things line up,” manager Scott Servais said. “When the inning started, I looked at my lineup card and said, ‘These guys are gonna hook-up.’ I thought it would be two out with two on, but it was one out with the bases loaded.”
It was 35 days ago when Toro wandered into the Mariners clubhouse with his Astros equipment bags, walking across the hallway to join his new team. Many of his teammates hadn’t even been informed about it.
“When the inning started, I remember telling the guys, ‘Hey, I’m going to get a big at-bat,'” Toro said.
He had never faced Graveman before and fell behind immediately, looking overwhelmed. But he fouled off two fastballs and a slider. On the eighth pitch of the at-bat, Graveman left a 97-mph fastball over the plate. Toro had it timed and launched it over the wall in deep right-center for a grand slam.
“I just took two really big swings, and I was under the baseball,” Toro said. “After I had two strikes, I was trying to be short to the ball, trying to get a sac fly, and then I ended up hitting it pretty good. And it paid off.”
Graveman’s reaction was a little different.
“Obviously it’s not the way you want it to go,” he said. “The walk and the hit by pitch is really what led to that inning. It’s definitely frustrating. I don’t like losing, it’s something I don’t enjoy and obviously give up runs is something I don’t enjoy.”
With the win, Seattle improved to 71-62 and moved up to 3.5 games behind the Red Sox (75-59), who lost to the Rays again. The A’s (73-59) moved within a game of Boston with a win over Detroit.
Toro’s blast and the shutout relief work from Paul Sewald and Sean Doolittle made sure the brilliant bounceback outing from Yusei Kikuchi was not wasted.
Using his fastball more than he has in a start, Kikuchi delivered his best outing since well before the All-Star break against one of the top hitting teams in baseball, pitching seven scoreless innings, allowing four hits with two walks and four strikeouts.
Of his 95 pitches thrown, Kikuchi threw a fastball 62 times, followed by 16 change-ups, nine cutters and eight sliders. But his fastball, which had seemed lethargic and spotty in command, was neither of those on a night that felt more like fall than late summer. It touched 97 mph multiple times and averaged 95 mph.
“When he doesn’t have the good fastball, he does get passive and he doesn’t quite know where to go,” Servais said. “There’s been times he leans on the cutter — and it’s been a big pitch for him — but tonight, it was all about the heater. He got after it.”
He threw it early in counts and challenged right-handed hitters on the inside corner — a sign of confidence in the pitch.
“I knew it from the first pitch of the game,” he said through an interpreter. “The fastball is a huge pitch for me. And I feel like this is the true, the real version of myself when I have the fastball command and stuff.”
It was a reminder of the pitcher that he was in the first 15 starts of the season, where he posted a 6-3 record with a 3.18 ERA with 93 strikeouts and 33 walks in 93 1/3 innings pitched, holding opponents to a .195/.265/.353 slash line.
The Mariners hadn’t seen that pitcher since Kikuchi, who was battling an illness at the time, labored through his dismal start before the All-Star break, missed the All-Star game because he still was not feeling right and has struggled in the second half of the season.
Over that time, he made nine starts, posting a 1-4 record with a 6.75 ERA. He pitched just 44 total innings in those outings, with seven starts of five innings or fewer. Opposing hitters put up a .304/.382/.576 slash line with 58 hits, including 11 homers.
There were whispers that Major League Baseball’s crackdown on the use of foreign substances to get better grip on the baseball had affected Kikuchi’s command and confidence. Statcast numbers showed that the spin rates on all of his pitches were down anywhere from 100 to 400 RPMs in the starts after MLB began enforcing the rate in mid-June.
Those RPMs were back up to early season levels Tuesday night. Kikuchi credited extensive work with pitching coach Pete Woodworth, conversations with fellow starters and even some time with Hisashi Iwakuma.