MINNEAPOLIS — The floodgates opened rapidly on Marco Gonzales and the Mariners on Sunday, and before they could catch their breath, the matinee in Minnesota was already out of reach.
Gonzales surrendered a leadoff homer to the red-hot Byron Buxton in the first inning before finding himself in a bases-loaded matchup set up by an oh-so-close miss on a jump-catch attempt by J.P. Crawford and a critical two-out error by Adam Frazier on a ground ball while shifted in shallow right field.
That set up new Twins catcher Gary Sánchez, who, in a 2-2 count and hungry for a big start, unloaded a 446-foot grand slam that landed in the third deck and sent Seattle on its way to a 10-4 loss at Target Field, its first of the 2022 season.
“Not the start I expected, obviously,” Gonzales said. “It’s disappointing, but I’m just looking to bounce back and move forward.”
Buxton also homered against Gonzales in the second inning, which marked three straight plate appearances that Minnesota’s superstar went deep, beginning with his eighth inning blast on Saturday. The three deep flies surrendered by Gonzales were among six given up by the Mariners all together, a mark they’d reached only 12 times in franchise history entering play and not once since 2019, which also included a loss to that year’s “Bomba Squad” Twins at T-Mobile Park.
“The home run ball got us today,” manager Scott Servais said. “They’re a good team. They’ve got a heck of a lineup and certainly got all kinds of power, and if you give them extra outs in an inning, it [hurts] us.”
All of what unfolded early was particularly uncharacteristic for Gonzales, who was coming off one of the strongest second halves in the American League last season, when he went 9-1 with a 2.70 ERA, while holding opposing hitters to a .202/.258/.381 slash line in 14 starts, of which the Mariners won 10. His big rebound after a tough first half played a huge part in Seattle’s late surge up the standings.
Yet due to a ballooned pitch count early — 31 in the first inning and 27 in the second for 61 total — Gonzales lasted just two innings, his second shortest start since arriving in Seattle in 2017. Only five times in Gonzales’ 122 career outings has he given up at least three homers, and up until Sunday he never allowed a grand slam over his first seven seasons.
The most glaring issue for Gonzales seemed to be pitching from behind. He threw a ball on the first pitch to 10 of the 14 batters he faced, which forced him to throw his high-80s sinker and cutter near the plate and in favorable hitters’ counts. That, coupled with a lack of command on his curveball, served as a recipe for Minnesota’s success.
“He needs to pitch ahead in the count probably as much as anybody,” Servais said. “All our guys do, and just controlling counts, getting ahead in the 0-0, 1-1 counts, and we didn’t do that today.”
That said, Gonzales did reach two strikes in each of the three sequences that resulted in homers. Buxton’s homers were perhaps more of a display of his elite bat speed on pitches up and in — especially the first.
“I’ve had some trouble the past few times I’ve faced him actually,” Gonzales said. “He’s a good player, and I can’t seem to figure it out right now.”
Sánchez’s slam, however, came on a low-hanging changeup that the slugger timed up perfectly.
“It just kind of came back over the middle of the plate [and] was probably the right height,” Gonzales explained. “But, yeah, over the middle of the plate and he put a good swing on it.”
The homer would’ve been avoided if Frazier had made the would-be inning-ending play. The 2021 All-Star had just five errors at second base last season split between the Pirates and Padres.
“We didn’t make a play there in the first inning, and then they get the big hit after that,” Servais said. “It happens, and then you’ve got the big spread in the game. But [for] our guys, I thought our at-bats were pretty good. We battled back in it and we just couldn’t hold them down. The solo home runs after that, they just kept tacking on.”