Top prospect Justus Sheffield discusses his Seattle Mariners debut
Seattle Mariners outfielder Mitch Haniger was just looking for a pitch he could put a solid swing on as Friday night’s extra-innings showdown against Texas cleared the four-hour mark.
“You’re just trying to win the game,” Haniger said. “Trying to battle with two strikes, put the ball in play, and hopefully good things happen.”
What did happen was good enough to hand the Mariners a 5-4 walk-off win at T-Mobile Park. Haniger, after working a 2-2 count with one out and the bases loaded in the 11th inning, sent a sharp grounder at Rangers third baseman Logan Forsythe.
Forsythe fielded it, but pumped twice before throwing to Rougned Odor at second, attempting to initiate a quick double play to end Seattle’s threat. Odor bobbled the throw, and everyone, including Dee Gordon who barreled into second to try to break up the play, was safe.
Omar Narvaez scampered in from third, and the Seattle dugout cleared as the Mariners (18-11) notched their first walk-off win of the season. The club is now 3-0 in extra-inning games.
“We didn’t do a ton swinging the bat,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “But, put a little rally together there, grinded through some at-bats. ... Everybody chipped in on this one.”
Texas reliever Kyle Dowdy allowed a one-out single to Omar Narvaez, then walked Ryon Healy and Gordon to load the bases in the 11th. Haniger then grounded into the decisive fielder’s choice.
The somewhat strange ending provided needed relief to a stretched Mariners pitching staff, which cycled through eight pitchers to notch out the win. By the end, right-hander Chasen Bradford was the only remaining unused reliever in the bullpen.
Top prospect Justus Sheffield’s debut with the Mariners lasted fewer innings than planned, causing the Mariners to reach into their bullpen early.
The 22-year-old rookie left-hander labored through three innings, and struggled to command the fastball he heavily relied on against the 14 batters he faced, but ultimately left with a 3-2 lead following the fourth inning.
Sheffield, whose control often faltered in four appearances with Triple-A Tacoma before his Friday morning call-up, never quite settled in to give Seattle the more lengthy outing Servais had hoped for.
“He’s got pitches. He’s got weapons. He’s got stuff,” Servais said. “There’s no question about that. He’s got to refine it a little bit and get in a groove like what we saw early in spring training.”
Sheffield entered in the second inning as scheduled, but it took him nearly 20 minutes to register his first three outs. He threw 31 pitches in the second, allowed a leadoff single to Hunter Pence, and walked a pair of batters before retiring the side by striking out Danny Santana.
He said his teammates told him to take deep breaths to try to balance out a quick delivery that resulted from being so pumped up for the outing.
“I feel like at some points during the game I was able to slow down and make my pitches,” Sheffield said. “It gets a lot easier when you get ahead and attack the guys. Once I was able to settle down a little bit I felt a little more comfortable.”
The third inning was somewhat smoother. Sheffield used 17 pitches to retire the Rangers in order, including striking out Odor to retire the side.
But, his pitch count climbed rapidly in the fourth. He walked two batters, and served up a two-run homer to Nomar Mazara that cut an early Mariners lead to 3-2.
Sheffield worked through six batters that final inning, and struck out Santana for the second time to wrap up his 75-pitch outing. He allowed two earned runs on two hits while walking four and striking out three. He threw first-pitch strikes to only six batters, and eight of the batters he faced worked three-ball counts.
“It’s just part of it, man,” Gordon said. “Twenty-two years old. You tell me at 22 to calm down, and I’d calm down as much as I could, too. I think he did a good job.”
He threw his fastball 48 times, and leaned on his slider 23. The latter proved his punch-out pitch. Each of the three inning-ending strikeouts he recorded came on 85 mph sliders. His fastball reached as high as 95 mph, but mostly hovered in the 91-94 mph range.
“I was just happy to get out there,” Sheffield said. “Jitters early on, I will say. It’s been a while since I pitched in a big league stadium. ... I just really wanted to keep the game close and pitch as deep in the game as possible.”
Japanese rookie left-hander Yusei Kikuchi acted as an opener, pitching one inning in his planned abbreviated start before Sheffield took over in the second. Kikuchi threw just nine pitches in a 1-2-3 inning, and struck out both Odor and Elvis Andrus.
His short start is part of a season-long experiment the Mariners have drawn up to help him adjust to the regular five-day rotation most MLB clubs practice. In Japan, where Kikuchi spent the past eight seasons, starters only pitch once per week.
“I think I had really good balance, and this is definitely going to carry over to my next start, but as a competitor, as a pitcher, I did want to throw that next inning,” Kikuchi said through interpreter Justin Novak.
Because of the opener setup with Kikuchi, and Sheffield’s short outing, the Mariners had to burn six more relievers — Connor Sadzeck, Zac Rosscup, Cory Gearrin, Brandon Brennan, Anthony Swarzak and Roenis Elias — to close the extra-innings game.
Sadzeck, Rosscup and Gearrin each held the Rangers scoreless in their stints, but Texas tagged Brennan with a run in the eighth on a double to left center by Mazara to make it 4-3. The Rangers then put runners on the corners with one out, but Brennan handled a grounder from Logan Forsythe, and initiated a 1-4-3 double play to end the inning without further damage.
Swarzak gave up the tying run with one out in the ninth. Former Mariner Shin-Soo Choo pinch hit, and sent a solo shot to right to make it 4-4. Swarzak then walked two batters before first baseman Edwin Encarnacion pulled in a screaming line drive to end the inning.
Elias (2-0, 2.16 ERA) retired the side in order in the 10th and 11th to earn the win.
Encarnacion provided enough offensive punch in the third to keep the Mariners in front most of the way, launching a 434-foot, three-run homer into the left field bleachers in the third, giving Sheffield the early 3-0 cushion.
It was the seventh home run of the season for Encarnacion, and 58th for the Mariners, who continue to lead the majors in that category.
Encarnacion added his fourth RBI of the game in the fifth, singling in Mitch Haniger to push the lead to 4-2. Texas didn’t counter until Mazara’s RBI double in the eighth.
Mariners right-hander Mike Leake (2-2, 4.30) is scheduled to meet Texas left-hander Mike Minor (2-2, 3.21) in the third game of a four-game series at 6:10 p.m. Saturday.
The game will be telecast on Root Sports Northwest, and broadcast on 710-ESPN radio.