SHANNON DRAYER

Mariners’ George Kirby bringing confidence, ease into 2nd season

Mar 19, 2023, 10:03 AM | Updated: 10:11 am

Mariners George Kirby...

George Kirby of the Seattle Mariners reacts after striking out Jose Altuve of the Houston Astros during the American League Division Series at T-Mobile Park on October 15, 2022. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Rookie seasons for pitchers do not get much better than the season George Kirby had for the Mariners last year.

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Years ago, there were two Rookie of the Year Awards in each league – one for the best position player, the other went to a pitcher. Had that been the situation in 2022, it is hard to imagine Kirby not picking up AL honors.

From his six-inning, four-hit, no-walk, eight-strikeout debut on May 8 against the Rays, to stellar postseason outings where he picked up his first big league save against the Blue Jays and followed it up with seven scoreless innings against the Astros, Kirby exceeded rookie expectations while providing surprises along the way.

Always the command artist, Kirby proved to be a bit of a magician, as well. When pitching coach Pete Woodworth was asked what the craziest thing he saw Kirby do in his rookie campaign was, he was quick with his answer.

“Take the two-seam (fastball) right into the game against the Blue Jays,” Woodworth replied.

Mariners adding pitches is now officially a thing with players bringing new cutters, sliders and splitters into camp. Robbie Ray invented a two-seamer on the fly last season, an in-game Hail Mary to try and turn around a bad run that was getting worse with an early 4-0 deficit to the Astros on June 6. Kirby adding the pitch was different, however. Ray throwing the pitch was the inspiration, but there was no desperation from the rookie. It was more of a challenge to see if it was something he could do. He wasn’t waiting around until the offseason to find out.

“I just remember Robbie starting to throw it, and I think that’s kind of what spurred it on,” catcher Cal Raleigh said. “(Kirby) was starting to throw some (four-seam fastballs) in the game that were starting to tail a little bit, and I noticed that they were kind of coming back to the plate. I think we talked about it and I think he tried it out just randomly. And obviously, here we are today.”

Artist adds to his palette

The “randomly” was an early July bullpen session in San Diego. Woodworth liked what he saw with the pitch and told Raleigh and Kirby they might think about throwing a few in his next start, which was against the Blue Jays.

The game began with George Springer hitting a leadoff double. Woodworth was not expecting what came next. With Springer on third with one out and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at the plate just four pitches into the game, Kirby threw his first two-seamer in a game.

“For George to pull it out in the top of the first with Springer in scoring position? Against (B0) Bichette, Vladdy, Teo (Teoscar Hernández)?” Woodworth said with a laugh. “After he just threw it in the bullpen for the first time, and we just had the conversation in our starting pitcher meeting, ‘OK, this is a good lineup to introduce it to. Let’s pick our spots. Let’s not get beat with it. Let’s try like five or six of them’ – 7:06 and he’s throwing eight two-seamers in the first inning and breaking bats and getting out of it.”

Kirby himself was a little surprised to hear Raleigh call for the pitch with a runner on second and nobody out.

“Kind of, yeah,” Kirby admitted. “It was something I was working on in catch and bullpens, but (Raleigh) was like, ‘Yeah, get it in there.’ First time I just trusted it, threw it to that spot and was like, ‘Man, I want to keep doing that.'”

With Springer on second, Kirby was able to induce groundouts from All-Stars Bichette, Guerrero, and Alejandro Kirk thanks in large part to the two-seamer, which he threw 17 times that game according to Statcast.

“I remember him blowing up Vlad Jr. with it and it was like, ‘Wow, if he’s blowing up Vlad Jr. with that pitch,’ and we saw how much it moved on TV, it was like, ‘We have got a real weapon here,'” remembered Raleigh. “At first we were all real careful trying to pick our spots, but at the end of the day you only really find out if you can do it in the game and he did and was really good at it.”

Four months later, the Blue Jays would be on the wrong side of another Kirby first.

Mariners’ secret weapon

Having clawed their way back from an 8-1 deficit in Game 2 of the AL Wild Card Series at Rogers Centre, the Mariners were three outs away from advancing to the ALDS. Paul Sewald had pitched. Andrés Muñoz had pitched. Matt Brash, Diego Castillo, Matt Festa, Penn Murfee all had pitched.

Kirby, who had been told he could be used out of the bullpen in the series, was called upon to get the save.

“I just didn’t really know what the situation (would be) til the game came that day, but I was geared up for whatever was thrown at me,” he said.

The adrenaline running out of the bullpen was different. As a starter, there’s the slow walk from the ‘pen or the time on the bench as your team takes their first inning at-bats.

“Running out, I don’t get that moment as a starter. It’s different but I’m pretty good at zoning out fans or focusing up on Cal. I think I did a good job that night,” Kirby said with a laugh.

Part of what helped was focusing on his breathing. If Logan Gilbert has his bag of tricks – a gym bag full of unique training devices used in a very regimented routine – Kirby’s performance aid is a bit more portable. He is a huge believer in the power of controlling the breath, something he was introduced to at a Mariners high performance camp.

“Being on the mound and being able to focus on nose breathing and conserving a lot of energy is something I have been focused with with Adam Bernero, our mental skills guy,” he explained. “It just really comes into play in those big moments. When you are trying to get a little more out of your fastball, you do a couple of quick breaths. Being able to go out there and go as long as possible and give your team a chance to win, it’s huge to be able to keep your breath under control. It helps you be aware of more control of your body. It’s definitely something I’ve really enjoyed and I’ve seen a lot of good benefits from it.”

A unique approach

Part of keeping the breath under control is staying as calm as possible. In order to achieve this, Kirby does something a little bit different. He doesn’t watch the Mariners while they take their at-bats. Instead, he spends the half-inning seated in the tunnel behind the dugouts.

“It’s kind of just a way for me to get back, control my breath and kind of be nice and calm going into the next inning,” he said. “I just focus on my breath, sit down and gear up for the next inning. I don’t want to be breathing too much during that inning or worrying about what’s going on in the ballgame, the extra anxiety or stressors going on. I really just try to focus on my game, calm down and be ready for the next inning.”

There is a definite ease about Kirby, who seems to be unfazed by anything, which is somewhat remarkable for a player with less than a year in the big leagues. While he strives for that calmness in game, Raleigh gave a little chuckle when asked if Kirby was really that zen on the mound.

“No,” Raleigh said. “He kind of seems calm, but he is very, super intense. He doesn’t like it when things don’t go his way. He doesn’t like kind of being told he’s out of the game or maybe seeing other guys warm up. He wants the ball. I love that. As a catcher, you want guys who want the ball in their hands. You don’t want the guy who is OK with getting taken out and the guy who doesn’t want to help the team out. George definitely, he gets a little upset sometimes when he has to get out of the game or he wants to keep going. You guys don’t see (that). We see it in the dugout, backroom.”

And where does he fall on the Logan Gilbert “Walter” scale?

“He’s kind of got his own little kind of … you see both George and Logan seem calm but like I said, when they get in the game, there’s nothing calm about him,” said Raleigh. “I mean, they keep their composure and the good body language for sure. Which is a good thing. But they’ve got something in their neck, too.”

Plenty confident

Kirby’s intensity and competitiveness goes hand in hand with confidence that was seen in his interviews as early as last spring training following his first Cactus League games. Kirby, with all of six starts above A-ball under his belt, unabashedly said that if he had his stuff, he wasn’t worried about getting anyone out.

It was a matter-of-fact statement. Then and now, it is hard to disagree with.

His development has been quick and fun to watch for all. It clearly has been fun for him.

This winter, Kirby worked on a new pitch – a splitter – that isn’t quite having the results some of the other new pitches in Mariners camp are having. With five other established pitches, it’s not one he needs. but one he will continue to work on. He knows he has a unique ability to craft pitches, so why not? It’s something he enjoys. When asked if he has been holding anything back, he laughed and said he throws a knuckleball. This was news to Raleigh.

“I’ll call it.” he said. “He has one? I believe it. I’m sure he can locate it. I’m sure it’s great.”

Could be a fun encore for what was a terrific first act.

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