This game was a needed relief for the Mariners, a head-to-head win allowing the team to hoist themselves up a game in the AL West standings. It was also one of those games with so many great moments that I’m tempted to make the recap a string of 15 embedded videos. Instead, please head over to your favorite social media platform and watch the highlights again. I’ll wait.
…sufficiently energized by watching four dingers in short succession? Good. We’ll get back to the offense in a moment, but let’s take two brief digressions in the directions of Chris Flexen and musculoskeletal injury recovery.
Flexen earned his first win since April 22nd tonight, going seven innings and giving up just one run on seven hits while striking out six. In typical Flex fashion, he worked several very quick innings and prevented runners from scoring when the Astros did reach base (mostly through ground balls up the middle). His pitches were consistent in velocity and location through all seven innings, and his reliability was finally rewarded with ever-elusive Run Support. Though Flexen’s last several starts are a prime example of the meaninglessness of pitcher wins, it’s satisfying to see him get this one.
Now, before we can examine injury recovery, we need to talk ligaments. A ligament is a cord-like tissue connecting two bones at a joint (a tendon, on the other hand, connects muscle to bone). Ligaments stabilize joints by ensuring that they don’t move beyond a certain range of motion, and they help all the parts of the join report to each other in a properly organized way. This prevents, for example, bones from rubbing against one another, or muscles from getting over-stretched. Ligaments provide a lot of the tension in the tensegrity (tension-compression) system that holds the pieces of the musculoskeletal system together and allows them to bear weight.
When a person tears a ligament (like, let’s say, an ACL), repair is more complicated than the two pieces of ligament just re-connecting to each other. Newly grown tissue doesn’t have the same strength and structure that the pre-injured tissue had, so it takes a long time for new ligament tissue to provide the particular tension required to prevent bones from rubbing (generating a bone spur) or tendons from receiving greater load or torque than they’re able to tolerate (voila tendinitis). A damaged ligament, even when mostly healed, means a destabilized joint, which makes all the tissues around the joint more vulnerable to injury. And even when the tissues are fully regrown and providing tension, the microscopic structures of the tissues aren’t organized in the same way they were before; apparently these regrown tissues often have what’s referred to as “disorganized collagen,” which is not as good at being ligament as regularly-organized collagen is (this has to do with the direction of the fibers).
I am, of course, talking about Kyle Lewis, whose life since 2016 has been rife with torn ligaments, bone spurs, joint injury, and presumably disorganized collagen. If you haven’t read Kate’s beautiful 2020 piece on Kyle Lewis, do yourself a favor and read it. Lewis’ triumphant day today is what got me thinking about what has made recovery so hard for him to achieve since his 2016 ACL tear.
I’m also, though, talking about the Mariners as a whole and the difficulty of repair. Going into the off-day yesterday, we could all sense the need for this team and its fans to find some repair. Repair for streaky and oft-whimpering bats, for injury-prone players, for frustration, for the mismatch between expectations and experience. Though it’s possible that preventive action might have avoided this fate (more money spent in the offseason?), that possibility is far from certain, and now that we’re here there’s no one solution that fixes it all. The damage is done, and it reveals other vulnerabilities in the system.
And yet – yet! Sometimes a degree of repair arrives when you’re not expecting it. A win on FOUR home runs against an ageless ace. A return to the big leagues just weeks after ominously vague statements about setbacks led fans to declare you finished. A knee that’s not good enough to play in the outfield (and probably never will be), but IS good enough to support a 440-foot home run. A lineup that’s probably not good enough to get to the World Series, but IS good enough to beat the Astros at home on a Friday night in jubilant fashion.
And that takes us to the offense.
From the first inning, Justin Verlander wasn’t locating his fastball well, leaving it up at the top of the zone for Mariners hitters to take advantage of. After Ty France singled up the middle in the first inning, Julio Rodriguez was the first Mariner to punish Verlander to the tune of “it is… OUTTA HERE!”:
It took only three more batters before someone did it again, and this time it was Kyle Lewis himself. This was Lewis’ first home run of the season, and you can see the skip of a man who’s been waiting a long time to do this again:
At the close of the first inning, then, the Mariners led the Astros 4-0. The Mariners and I both know that four runs isn’t nearly a safe lead against Houston, but somehow the outcome felt decided from that moment on. If Verlander wasn’t invincible today, we could keep doing this (and keep doing this we did). And if JRod and KLew were going to open the game with home runs, then this game might be that alternate universe we thought we’d be living in (and readers, it was).
The second inning included this stellar defensive collaboration between JP Crawford and Eugenio Suarez on a play in which Houston scored their only run of the game. After a quick top of the third, Ty France led off the bottom of the third with yet another home run, and in the fourth Taylor Trammell executed a beautiful bunt base hit to beat the shift. In the next several innings, the Astros would get a runner or two on and Chris Flexen would calmly send them back to the dugout. The Mariners added on in the 6th with a solo home run by Trammell that caused some drama when both teams’ broadcasters called it an out, thinking that Astro’s center fielder Siri had caught it. Though much fun was made of both broadcast teams, it was a hard one to track:
As a fan, a game like this is like a good cycle of RICE (Rest, Ice, Compress, and Elevate) for an injury. Well, maybe Rest was the off-day yesterday, but the game today was Ice, Compress, Elevate: the win soothes the inflammation stirred up by the tough losses, and carrying a solid lead from start to finish provides the emotional space for love of the game to re-grow. And the happiness? That’s the medicine.