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Sports >  Seattle Mariners

Mariners turn to rookie George Kirby to face Astros in Game 3 with season on the brink

Oct. 14, 2022 Updated Fri., Oct. 14, 2022 at 8:15 p.m.

Seattle Mariners pitcher George Kirby is one of four starters learning a new pitch this Spring.  (Getty Images)
Seattle Mariners pitcher George Kirby is one of four starters learning a new pitch this Spring. (Getty Images)
By Adam Jude Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Their season on the brink, the Mariners will hand the ball over to a 24-year-old rookie to make his first postseason start in the first playoff baseball game in Seattle in 21 years.

Deep breath, folks. George Kirby has this.

In a rookie season that has surpassed any reasonable expectations – and all workload projections – Kirby credits his breakthrough to breathing techniques he’s developed with Adam Bernero, the team’s mental conditioning coach.

He’ll no doubt need them at some point Saturday afternoon against a vaunted Houston Astros lineup for Game 3 of the American League Division Series. It’s a win-or-stay-home game for the Mariners, who trail 2-0 in the best-of-five series.

First pitch is scheduled for 1:07 p.m. before a sold-out crowd at T-Mobile Park.

“I’m super excited, especially going up against the Astros. I’m ready to compete,” Kirby said. “I dreamed about this as a kid watching games. Honestly, I never thought it would come true, but I’m glad I’m here.”

Kirby made one start against the Astros this season, at Houston on July 31. He allowed two runs on four hits with seven strikeouts and one walk in four innings. The Astros won 3-2.

Kirby’s first postseason start comes a week after he made his postseason debut – as the closer – in the Mariners’ series-clinching victory at Toronto. He was the unexpected choice to protect a one-run lead in the ninth inning, and it worked.

In doing so, he became the first rookie in MLB history to record a postseason save in his first professional relief appearance.

“I don’t think the moment gets too big for George, no matter where you throw him at,” manager Scott Servais said. “We saw a little bit of that in Toronto, how he handled that situation. George is George. He knows what he’s about and who he is on the mound.”

A lanky, 6-foot-4 right-hander, Kirby typically has one aim on the mound: throw strikes. He is the poster boy for the organization’s Control the Zone strategy, and he wore at T-shirt with that slogan during a news conference Thursday in Houston. He loathes walking batters, and he set a major league record by throwing 24 consecutive strikes to begin an August game against the Washington Nationals.

For Kirby, controlling his breathing has become a vital part of his ability to control his pitches.

Bernero has been instrumental in helping him understand that.

“He’s been huge for me,” Kirby said. “Breathwork’s been great and that really allows me just to control myself on the mound and not make the moments too big and just be able to be even-keeled and stay chilled out.

“I mean, your breath kind of controls everything in your body. Makes me be more aware, it makes me think better on the mound. It controls my body, how I’m moving. It’s just super important to be aware of that and have that under control.”

Kirby, clearly, has earned the organization’s trust, and he’s a key figure in their pitching plans for 2023 and beyond.

Servais recalled a moment from spring training this year that speaks to Kirby’s competitiveness and confidence.

In Kirby’s first spring training start, facing a major league lineup for the first time, he didn’t get the call on a couple of borderline pitches he thought should have been strikes. After eventually getting the final out of the inning, Kirby barked and glared at the home-plate umpire while walking back to the dugout. Bold, this rookie.

“I’m like, ‘Hmm, this guy’s pretty comfortable,’ ” Servais remembered. “He knows he belongs.”

There were questions, persistent questions, about Kirby’s workload in the second half of the season. Between his first two pro seasons, he barely threw 90 innings in the minors.

He’s closing in on 160 innings this season between 31 combined starts in the minors (six) and majors (25).

Just before the All-Star break, the Mariners had sent Kirby back down to Triple-A Tacoma for more than two weeks in an effort to limit his workload.

Late in the summer, as the team chased a playoff berth, he simply became too valuable to not pitch every fifth day.

“It’s definitely a lot more than I’ve ever thrown before,” Kirby said. “I felt it in certain starts, but I’ve been able to find that last bit of energy when I needed it. My body’s been feeling great, so ready to keep going.”

And, the Mariners hope, keep their season going, too.

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