SEATTLE — Making history is fun and everything, but Mariners starting pitcher George Kirby would have much preferred a victory Wednesday.
Kirby, the 24-year-old rookie, opened the game by throwing 24 consecutive strikes against the Nationals, a notable accomplishment even though Kirby is a supreme strike-thrower with a strong allergic reaction to walks.
The problem Wednesday was that Kirby’s impeccable control and another strong outing wasn’t enough as the Nationals edged the Mariners, 3-1, before a crowd of 21,035 on a sun-kissed afternoon at T-Mobile Park.
Kirby’s ERA for the season is 3.32. (Lindsey Wasson / USA Today)
The loss to the lowly Nationals (42-83) continued a vexing trend of late for the Mariners (67-57): Look like world-beaters one day, and then fight like hell to scratch across a run or two to back their stalwart pitching.
This is a team still in the thick of the American League wild-card chase, but dropping two of three on the road to the Rangers recently, doing the same against the A’s last weekend and splitting a series with the Nationals doesn’t inspire hope that ending a 21-year postseason drought is imminent.
Seattle is 12-9 this month, which isn’t great, nor is it awful. Are they playing inherently worse than they did during their 14-game winning streak earlier this summer? Probably not. But they are 8-7 against sub-.500 teams this month.
“It’s not going to be easy,” said Seattle manager Scott Servais. “We need to be more consistent up and down the lineup. We’ve got to create more traffic (base runners). I wish we could go on 14-game winning streaks all the time.”
The Mariners, shut out for seven innings, actually tied the game in the eighth inning when rookie Julio Rodríguez connected for a two-out home run into the home bullpen in left-center field. The home run was the 20th of Rodríguez’s career, and it put him in some elite company.
Rodríguez became the sixth player in franchise history — and the first since Mike Cameron did so in 2002 — to have 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases in a single season. He did it in 107 games. The only MLB player in the modern era to reach that milestone faster was Fernando Tatis Jr. of the Padres (97 games).
“It’s a heck of an achievement,” Servais said. “And it came in a big moment. He got a pitch he could handle and didn’t miss it. He’s had a heck of a year … and he’s not done yet.”
Rodríguez joins Cameron (2001-02), Alex Rodríguez (three times, 1997-99), Ken Griffey Jr. (two times, 1998-99), Ruppert Jones (1979) and Phil Bradley (1985) as the only Mariners to reach the 20/20 club.
“I was really happy, Kirby was throwing a really good game, and to be able to deliver right there for him was huge for me,” Rodríguez said. “I’m happy about it (20/20) … not a lot of people do it.”
Rodríguez wasn’t the only rookie who had a big moment Wednesday.
Kirby got a hard-luck no-decision in this one, as he allowed the one run with no walks and nine strikeouts in an efficient 85-pitch effort (69 of which were strikes) over seven innings. His ERA in his 18th career start, all coming this season, is 3.32. With four off-days next month, the hope is the Mariners will be able to lean on him during the most critical stretch of the season.
“I thought that was his best outing,” Servais said. “His stuff is that good. That’s the epitome of controlling the zone. I think he’s the best rookie pitcher in the league. You could tell from the get-go, he was on his game.”
If Kirby is getting tired, if his workload is beginning to get the better of him, well, he’s certainly not showing it. On Wednesday, he tied his career-high in strikeouts and innings. He got 11 swinging strikes and minimized damage in the event the Nationals did connect with his pitches.
“I keep taking each start as a learning lesson and try to do something new in the next one,” Kirby said. “It’s all really exciting. My mechanics were nice and fluid today. If you throw strikes, good things happen.”
(Top photo of Rodríguez celebrating his 20th home run: Stephen Brashear / Associated Press)
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