Ariel Miranda drew cheers on those eight occasions he strutted toward the dugout after retiring the side Sunday, but the loudest applause was when the Mariners starter went the other direction.
Staked to 7-1 lead over Tampa Bay in the top of the ninth, Miranda got the three quick fly outs he needed for the first complete game of his big-league career.
Because of bullpen specialization and a general reluctance to extend pitch counts beyond three digits, the complete game in baseball has become as extinct as high socks with stirrups. A year after finishing with two of them, the 2017 Mariners had none until Sunday.
In the sixth or seventh inning, around the time Scott Servais typically ponders his relief-pitching options, the manager learned from Nelson Cruz that Miranda wanted to go the distance.
“I’m all in on that,” said Servais, whose thumbs-up to the proposal ranks among the easiest decisions he’s been forced to make.
On a cool afternoon, facing a Tampa Bay lineup that had trouble adjusting to Miranda’s running fastball, he gave up four hits: an infield single in the fifth, a blooper down the right-field in the seventh, a lost-in-the-sun fly ball that was scored a triple in the eighth, and, finally, a legitimate, no-doubt line drive single, also in the eighth, that cost the lefty a shutout.
Miranda didn’t care about the shutout. What mattered was the Mariners putting together a three-game sweep behind a pitcher whose progress has been a revelation. Miranda is 6-2 overall, but in his past eight starts, he’s 5-0 with 44 strikeouts.
“He’s a really good competitor,” Servais said of the 28-year old who defected from Cuba in 2014. “You look at him and kind of his whole story, what it takes to get out of Cuba and over to here.
“He was in spring training this year and didn’t have that great a spring. He wasn’t going to make our team until the injuries. But he stepped up. It’s like he’s got so much at stake, and he’s not letting it go.”
The saga of relocating his family from Cuba to Florida has given Miranda — a married father of twin sons — a perspective rare for pro athletes his age.
When Miranda was told that his fear-nothing attitude has earned him Servais’ admiration, he nodded.
“I learned that from my dad,” he said through an interpreter. “He told me, ‘don’t be afraid of anything in life. The only thing to be afraid of is death.’ ”
Despite Miranda’s impressive work for the Mariners a year ago, after they acquired him in a midseason trade with the Orioles for starter Wade Miley, he appeared to be the odd man out of the rotation nine weeks ago.
“It was not a good spring training,” he said. “I had a lot of counts in my favor, but the results weren’t there. It just didn’t work out.”
Then the rotation fell apart.
Every starter but Yovani Gallardo has spent time on the disabled list. Miranda hadn’t pitched well enough to deserve a rotation spot, but he got one through attrition and made the most of the audition.
“It’s a tribute to him and his makeup and personality,” Servais said. “You feel it out there. When his back is against the wall, he puts a little more on the gas and makes pitches. I’m happy for him.”
Miranda relies on a fastball that combines mid-90s velocity with a deception that flummoxes right-handed hitters. His off-speed, secondary arsenal is developing — it’s not dominant, but good enough to get by.
“He’s still got things he’ll continue to improve upon,” Servais said, “but his competitiveness and his aptitude, his ability to learn, he keeps getting better. And we’re the beneficiary.”