The month of September brought something new to George Kirby — struggle.
He allowed his emotions to get the best of him after a start in Tampa, saying regrettable things that were atypical of everything he’d shown in his brief big-league career.
He had his toughness and commitment questioned by former big-leaguers because of those comments.
He struggled to do what has always come so natural to him since he was a kid growing up in Rye, New York — make a baseball go where he wanted.
And as he was trying to put up a sixth scoreless inning Tuesday night, he was stunned when a foul ball off the bat of Kyle Tucker that landed in the stands was returned back to him by a teenage fan, who caught it and then fired it back toward the mound, hitting Kirby.
But on a night when losing wasn’t an option for his team and he needed to be something better than he’s been in the month of September, Furious George returned to his strike-throwing ways and wouldn’t let any of that stop him from leading the Mariners to 6-2 victory over the Astros.
Kirby tossed six scoreless innings, looking dominant for most of it, and setting the tone in a win that snapped a four-game losing streak and kept the Mariners’ postseason hopes alive.
With the win, the Mariners (85-72) moved back to within a half-game of Houston (86-72) in the race for the third American League wild-card spot and two games behind the Blue Jays (87-70), who lost to the Yankees.
“Gut-check win for our ballclub,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “Really happy for our guys. Obviously, we’ve been scuffling here the last four days and you start to wonder if we can we get it going again.”
Kirby got it going for the Mariners, like a top starting pitcher is supposed to do in these situations.
“Heck of a job by George,” Servais said. “I know his last four or five starts had been a little rocky, but I thought today he was locked in right from the get-go.”
This isn’t the first time Kirby has walked onto the mound of T-Mobile Park in a must-win game.
Just over a year ago, as a rookie making his first postseason start in Game 3 of the American League Division Series, he delivered a brilliant outing, pitching seven scoreless innings against the Astros in what ultimately be a 1-0 loss in 18 innings.
“I love it,” he said of the responsibility. “Big games, I always want the ball. I love pitching against the Astros. It always fires you up a little bit more.”
But early in the top of the first, Kirby seemed to be trending toward another frustrating outing when Jose Altuve and Alex Bregman each produced singles after falling behind in the count. Kirby got the always-dangerous Yordan Alvarez to ground out to second base.
With runners on second and third and one out, catcher Cal Raleigh went to the mound to make sure that Kirby wouldn’t make a mistake with the left-handed hitting Tucker at the plate. He fired three balls just out of the zone to see if Tucker would chase. When he didn’t, the Mariners intentionally walked him to load the bases for Jose Abreu with one out.
A 96-mph sinker produced a ground ball to third base that Eugenio Suarez fielded and fired to home for a force-out. Kirby then got Yainer Diaz to ground into a force-out at second to end the inning.
It took 26 pitches, but Kirby walked off the mound having kept the Astros without a run.
“Does that count as a walk?” Kirby asked when talking about the visit with Raleigh.
“OK, I can live with that,” he said.
It was the first intentional walk of his professional career. The last time Kirby intentionally walked a batter of any sort was on March 1, 2017, when he was a freshman pitcher at Elon University. Playing against East Carolina, Kirby intentionally walked a hitter named Spencer Brickhouse.
“I remember him,” he said.
As for the incident in the sixth with the fan, it left Servais stunned.
“Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a ball flying at him out of the stands and I was just like, ‘How does that happen?’” he said. “I’ve never seen that before and certainly in our home park. It’s something you wouldn’t expect. I kind of got the story after the game. It was an Astros foul ball and that a young teenager took it and thought it was the right thing to do, to throw it back on the field. The fact that he threw it at our starting pitcher in maybe the most critical game of the year … interesting.”
After looking shocked and perplexed as to what happened, Kirby forced a smile on the mound.
“It surprised the hell out of me,” Kirby said. “I thought it was the umpire because I had my hands up and asked for the ball. I thought he threw it. I mean, it was an impressive throw. I’ll give him that.”
Meanwhile, Kirby’s teammates rewarded his effort by providing above-average run support, taking advantage of three Houston errors and scoring five runs in the first five innings.
Houston starter Christian Javier retired the first six hitters in order. But back-to-back singles from Mike Ford and Ty France got the Mariners going in the third.
After Tucker made a brilliant leaping grab on Josh Rojas’ line drive to right field, Altuve inexplicably tried to throw out Ford, who had tagged up on the play, at third base. Ford is slow, but not that slow.
Altuve’s throw sailed over the head of Alex Bregman and into the camera well, allowing Ford to trot home and France to advance to third. Julio Rodriguez drove in the second run of the inning with a fly ball to deep left field to allow France to tag up and score.
The Mariners knocked Javier out of the game and roughed up an old friend in the fifth inning.
Rojas doubled to left field and Javier pitched around Rodriguez with a base open, walking him on five off-speed pitches.
Houston brought in Rafael Montero, the other pitcher in the infamous Kendall Graveman trade, to try to get the final out. He left the game four batters later without recording an out.
Cal Raleigh dumped an RBI single to right that scored Rojas. Tucker’s throw to third rolled into the Astros dugout, allowing Rodriguez to trot home and Raleigh to advance to third. Hernandez followed with an RBI single to left to make it 5-0.
With Kirby at 84 pitches, Servais went to his rested leverage relievers. Justin Topa struggled, loading the bases with no outs. Servais brought in Matt Brash, who cleaned up the mess, allowing just one run on a sacrifice fly.
Using a new sinking fastball, Brash worked a scoreless eighth and the Mariners added a run on a France homer.
Andres Munoz struggled a little in the ninth, giving up a run.