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 to the Mariners in that trade, came walking to the plate.
It was 35 days ago when he wandered into the Mariners clubhouse with his Astros equipment bags, having walked across the hallway to join his new team.
He had never faced Graveman before and fell behind immediately, looking overwhelmed. But he fouled off two fastballs and a slider, refusing to give in. 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.
With the win, Seattle improved to 71-62 and moved up to 3.5 games behind the Red Sox, who lost to the Rays again.
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 ever 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 the 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.
He threw it early in counts and challenged right-handed hitters on the inside corner — a sign of confidence in the pitch.
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.
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