ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – As Logan Gilbert handed the ball to manager Scott Servais and sauntered off the mound with two outs in the sixth inning, a small eruption of cheers could be heard from the lower bowl of the mostly empty Tropicana Field.
A large contingent of Gilbert’s family and friends from the Orlando area and other parts of Florida were there to see the lanky right-hander make his fourth start of the season.
The initial round of applause grew louder and more widespread as the large contingent of Mariners fans – perhaps at least half in the announced crowd of 9,257 – stood and congratulated Gilbert on yet another solid outing that led the Mariners to an 8-4 victory over the Rays.
“I had a lot of people here and just to know that was them and they showed up to support me, it means a lot,” Gilbert said.
Seattle has now won four consecutive games and seven of its last eight to improve to 11-6.
“It’s great to be back and a good chance to watch Logan Gilbert do what he does,” said manager Scott Servais, who flew out first thing Tuesday morning to manage the game in Tampa after clearing COVID-19 protocols.
Servais had missed the last five games after testing positive on Wednesday along with several other people in the organization. Seattle went 4-1 over that span under the direction of Kristopher Negron.
“My wife asked me, ‘Are you more nervous sitting at home or at the ballpark?’ ” Servais said. “I think the energy in the ballpark. It raises all the anxiety in you. When you’re sitting at home, you’re pulling for the guys and pulling for the team, but it’s not easy. It’s not easy sitting at home, but thank God we’re playing the way we are. It makes it a little bit easier when you’re winning.”
Gilbert is a big reason for that winning. The team is 4-0 in his starts and he’s improved to 3-0 on the season. So intense and focused on his start day, Gilbert only saw that Servais had returned a few minutes before he started his pregame routine.
“I don’t think I talked to him until he took me out of the game,” he said.
Gilbert didn’t look pleased about not finishing the sixth inning, but he was at 104 pitches and Servais wasn’t going to allow his young starter to push his pitch count up this early in the season. One out isn’t nearly as important as having Gilbert pitch every fifth day because, right now, he’s one of the best starting pitchers in MLB.
“On game day, he is as competitive as anybody we have when he takes the mound,” Servais said. “Our guys feel it when they’re playing behind him. You feel it in the dugout. You stay out of his way. It’s his ballgame.”
After Matt Koch eventually closed out the sixth inning without allowing an inherited base runner to score, it left Gilbert with a final line of 5 2/3 scoreless innings, two hits allowed, three walks and seven strikeouts. In four starts this season, Gilbert has allowed one run in 22 1/3 innings pitched for a 0.40 ERA, which is the lowest in MLB for starting pitchers. Admittedly, he hasn’t felt like everything has been working in any of those four starts.
“That’s just the emphasis on competing,” Gilbert said. “You’re not always gonna have the best stuff and I feel good with where I’m at. But at the same time, I know that I haven’t put it all together yet.”
With intermittent fastball command, he mixed in just enough sliders and handful of curveballs and change-ups for out pitches in key situations. He only allowed two runners to reach scoring position.
“That’s huge, especially at this level, just slow things down, minimize (damage),” he said. “That’s how some of my innings got kind of big last year. So I’m just trying to put a stop to any momentum they have by making the big pitch. Easier said than done, but it’s been going pretty well so far.”
The Mariners, and, well, the Rays’ defense, provided more than sufficient run support for Gilbert in his start and needed insurance for Seattle’s bullpen.
A pair of errors in the Rays in a chaotic fourth inning led to seven unearned runs off Rays reliever Josh Fleming, turning a scoreless tie into a lopsided margin.
With one-out and runners on first and second, Abraham Toro hit a ground ball to shortstop Wander Franco for what should’ve been at least a force out, but probably a double play. Instead, Franco flubbed a 15-foot flip to second baseman Brandon Lowe, who tried grab the ball with his bare hand and keep his foot on the base. Eugenio Suarez, who was slid into second on the play, was ruled safe on the field and the call was upheld on replay review.
With the bases loaded, Tom Murphy hit an “excuse-me” dribbler to the right side of the pitcher’s mound on a check swing. Rays first baseman Ji-Man Choi fielded the ball and made a throw on the run for the force-out. The ball bounced off the dirt and past Mike Zunino, allowing Winker to slide in safely and Suarez to alertly score as well.
It was the start of an onslaught.
Julio Rodriguez followed with a missile of a line drive (109 mph exit velocity) into the right-center gap that scored Toro to make it 3-0.
A flustered Fleming hit Dylan Moore to load the bases and then watched as Adam Frazier’s hard bouncing ground ball to first base just over the glove of a leaping Choi for bases-clearing double and a 6-0 lead.
France punctuated the inning with a hard single through the left side to score Frazier and make it 7-0. It was his team-high 20th RBI on the season. Two innings later, France pushed his RBI total to 21 with a sac fly.
“We talk a lot about controlling the strike zone and taking the walks, but you know, reducing the strikeouts has been really big,” Servais said. “We didn’t hit a lot of balls hard tonight, but we are putting the ball in play. Good things happen when you put pressure on them.”
That 8-0 lead was cut in half when the Mariners tried to push Koch into the seventh inning and save some bullpen arms. The right-hander gave up two-run homers to rookie catcher Rene Pinto and Franco, who tried to atone for his costly mistake. Koch managed to get out of the seventh without allowing any more damage.
Erik Swanson pitched a scoreless eighth, but had enough traffic early in the frame that Servais had hard-throwing right-hander Andres Munoz start warming up.
With Munoz already up and warm, Servais had him pitch the ninth. It didn’t lack for drama. Pinto led off with a single and Munoz issued a two-out walk to Yandy Diaz. But he came back to strike out Choi to end the game.