SEATTLE – The ball, or whatever tattered pieces were left of it, traveled off the barrel of Mike Zunino’s bat 454 feet, give or take, settling in the second-to-last row in section 183, not far from the bright Safeco Field sign beyond left field.
“That thing still hasn’t landed, I don’t think,” Marco Gonzales said.
It was Zunino’s 12th home run of the season, and it was something to behold.
The same could be said of this breakthrough season for the Mariners, and of Gonzales’ performance in a 4-1 victory over the Kansas City Royals on Friday night to open a nine-game homestand.
Gonzales was one strike away from his first career shutout. He settled for a 96-pitch complete game and the best outing of his young career.
“It’s just great to be able to contribute to a team like this,” said the 26-year-old left-hander out of Gonzaga, who allowed six hits with no walks and seven strikeouts in his first career complete game.
“I mean, you look at these guys and the way they’ve been playing and the fun that we’ve been having, I can’t wait for my fifth day to come. So to be able to go out there and contribute in a positive way and have these guys rally behind you is pretty incredible.”
The Mariners (52-31) won their fifth straight game, climbing within 2.5 games of the Houston Astros in the A.L. West, and they did so before 25,558 fans who rose to their feet as Gonzales made his slow walk back to the dugout after retiring the Royals on seven pitches in the eighth inning.
The crowd rose to its feet again as Gonzales (8-5) bounced out of the dugout and ran to the mound to start the ninth inning.
Gonzales allowed a leadoff double to start the ninth, then missed out his first shutout when Mike Moustakas hit a two-out, two-strike single up the middle to score Adalberto Mondesi from second.
On the next pitch, as the crowd chanted his first name, Gonzales got Salvador Perez to ground into a 6-4 force out to end it.
“Heck of an outing by Marco Gonzales tonight. He continues to throw really well,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “…I thought he mixed his pitches really well. He had his changeup going early in the ballgame. Kansas City has some younger guys who are very aggressive, and he used that to his advantage.”
Over the previous few days, as the Mariners were in the midst of their four-game sweep at Baltimore, teammates teased Gonzales that he was on vacation as he was one of the only players who didn’t play.
“Watching our guys sweep and roll through that (series), I was like, ‘I need to do something.’ So I showed up today and I definitely had some attitude,” Gonzales said.
Gonzales is 3-0 with a 2.07 ERA over his last six starts at Safeco Field, and he’s 8-5 with a 3.77 ERA overall this season.
Gonzales was able to consistently get ahead of Royals hitters Friday; he didn’t throw more than 13 pitches in a single inning and didn’t have a single three-ball count.
“From the first inning, I just had the mentality that this is my game and I’m going to go as deep as I can,” he said.
Zunino, the Mariners’ catcher, credited Gonzales’ improved curveball to part of his success this season.
“I think he’s really learned (about) himself this year, and when you can do that … you’re obviously going to see a season like he’s putting together,” Zunino said.
What you won’t see often at Safeco is a home run like the one Zunino hit in the fifth inning off Royals starter Ian Kennedy.
The ball left Zunino’s bat at 116 mph and was estimated as traveling 454 feet, and that might have been a bit conservative.
“I don’t think Mike can hit a ball much farther than that. Off the bat, I thought it might’ve had a chance to leave (the stadium),” Servais said. “Even Edgar (Martinez) hasn’t seen too many go that far.”
Mitch Haniger’s two-run home run off Kennedy in the fourth gave the M’s a 2-0 lead. It was his 17th homer, and his 61 runs batted in rank second in the majors.
Jean Segura added an RBI single in the seventh for the Mariners. Gonzales lauded Segura’s defense behind him, and the escalating excitement in and around the team’s clubhouse.
“I’m just looking forward to see what this team can do, because I think we’ve started to unveil a lot of pieces and we play really well together,” he said. “We play with each other and for each other and going out there is fun, and it makes coming to the field a lot easier.”
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