For all those obsessed with exploding heaters thrown in the high 90s and faster, for the radar-gun junkies who think only velocity can lead to success, Zack Greinke offered another reminder that command and execution can still get outs, put up scoreless innings and register wins, even if your fastball can’t break 90 mph.
And the Mariners, who were well aware of the situation, were still delivered a harsh reminder that their offense has been too heavily predicated on the production of the top three spots in the batting order — Mitch Haniger, Ty France and Kyle Seager — and that it isn’t possibly sustainable over the course of a 162-game season.
For the first time in recent memory that trio was stifled at the plate, going a combined 1 for 12, which meant the Mariners offense needed the bottom of the order to produce. Like so much of this young season, it didn’t. And it meant Seattle would be held scoreless in a 1-0 loss to the Astros on Saturday night at T-Mobile Park.
“That was the old-fashioned one-nothing pitchers’ duel,” manager Scott Servais said. “Great pitching tonight.”
Greinke pitched with the creativity of an artist, the precision of a surgeon and the demeanor of a poker player with all the chips on the table. His fastball topped out at 91 mph and it was always moving. He tossed eight shutout innings, allowing just four hits with no walks and six strikeouts.
“Obviously, Greinke was on top of his game,” Servais said. “We’ve seen him do that before. When he’s living on the edges like that, and the back and forth with the slow curveball, he’s tough to get on. He just didn’t make a whole lot of mistakes.”
Greinke snapped the Astros’ six-game losing streak and ended the Mariners’ three-game winning streak.
Of his 91 pitches, 62 were strikes. And he pitched the entire game without throwing one slider. After his last outing where he didn’t make it out of the fourth inning, Greinke told Houston reporters postgame that he was done with the slider, believing the pitch was ineffective.
He was true to his word. He threw 35 four-seam fastballs with a range of 87 to 91 mph, 24 slow curveballs that ranged from 75 to 67 mph, 17 sinkers ranging from 91 mph to 88 mph and 14 changeups that topped out at 89 mph and went as slow as 81 mph.
“His feel to pitches is as good as you’re gonna see in today’s game,” Servais said. “And his understanding of reading the bat, what I’m talking about there is he’s looking at how hitters are reacting to his stuff. Certainly he goes into the game with a game plan, taking all the information he can gather, and then when the game starts he really uses his experiences, his moxie, his guile or whatever you want to call it to make adjustments throughout the game. It’s tremendous feel. He’s been around this game a long long time. When he’s executing like that it’s really tough to hit.”
Mariners starter Chris Flexen wasn’t overpowering, something he probably rarely will be, but he was able to work through a fair amount of traffic, due to a myriad of hits allowed, and limit damage. He gave the Mariners six-plus innings of work, allowing one run on 10 hits with no walks and three strikeouts. It helps he was able to generate to two double-play balls and a total of eight ground ball outs against three fly ball outs.
“I thought Chris Flexen threw the ball really well,” Servais said. “I know he gave up a few hits and just the one run, but it’s the best back and forth of using his pitches, the best mix of his stuff I think we’ve seen so far from him this season.”
After Flexen underwent Tommy John surgery, he spent time watching videos of Greinke’s simple and clean mechanics, marveling at his ability to command all of his pitches to each side of the plate. Like Greinke, Flexen won’t break the radar guns. But he can get the fastball up to 94 mph.
“It was pretty awesome to be part of,” Flexen said. “I’m actually a huge fan of Greinke growing up and going through the minors. So it was pretty awesome to go toe to toe with him.”
Greinke and the Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks are two of the few remaining right-handed pitchers who are still showing that pitching with command, feel and execution can find success. Somewhere a bespectacled Greg Maddux nods in agreement.
“He showed it tonight,” Flexen said. “He’s done a lot in his career. I know early on and in the middle of his career he threw a lot harder, but his execution and command is phenomenal. There’s definitely a place for those guys.”
Flexen’s lone run allowed came in the fourth inning when Michael Brantley led off with a single and scored with two outs when former Kentwood High and Gonzaga standout Taylor Jones singled up the middle.
Flexen gave up a single to start the seventh and was lifted for right-hander Casey Sadler, who finished the inning without allowing the runner to score.
Seattle’s best chance to score came in the fifth when Jose Marmolejos and Evan White singled to start the inning. With one out J.P. Crawford hit a line drive with a 103 mph exit velocity back at the mound. Greinke, a former shortstop, appeared to catch the ball on instinct and fear. That caused the runners to freeze and retreat to their bases. But the awkward way Greinke tried to catch it, didn’t allow him to keep the ball in his glove for the out. It bounced out and he scrambled to pick it up. As he hurriedly looked around for where to throw, he saw he could throw to third base for a force out to easily get Marmolejos, who was basically still at second. Third baseman Abraham Toro threw the ball to second base where shortstop Carlos Correa stepped on second base well before White could reach. Score it a 1-5-6 double play.
There was some debate that Greinke might have dropped the ball on purpose.
“If he did that, he’s some kind of superhuman,” Servais said. “That ball was smoked. He is a good fielder. But you saw his reaction after it dropped. He looked at all the different bases.”
Will Vest gave the Mariners a scoreless eighth. Keynan Middleton followed with what was perhaps his best relief appearance to date, posting a quick 1-2-3 ninth inning while showing a lively fastball and solid off-speed location.