Héctor Neris Got Mad, And The Mariners Couldn’t Get Even
4:26 PM EDT on September 28, 2023
The American League Wild Card race has already given fans both this hellish infographic and some extremely compelling evidence that if MLB wants drama, all it really has to do is book a slew of divisional games at the end of the season. If the divisional or wild card race is close enough, those games matter twice as much; if you're especially lucky, enough resentment will have built between the teams over the course of the season to bubble over into on-field drama.
And yet, even with all that tension in mind, Astros reliever Héctor Neris starting a bench-clearing shouting match during the final game of the Astros-Mariners series felt like it came from absolutely nowhere.
You can point to some possibilities: Three Astros got plunked over the course of the series, for one thing, but none got hit in this game, and it wasn't like Julio Rodríguez had much opportunity to do the plunking himself. Earlier in his turn at bat, Rodríguez got some extra time to fix his elbow guard, but that is common enough that it shouldn't catalyze such a powerful pitcher freakout. Or maybe it was just Neris, who has a long history of being hot-headed on the mound, getting hyped after throwing three-straight splitters to strike out Rodríguez, who unfortunately struggled all game to beat the unclutch allegations.
Either way, Rodríguez turned around from peaceably walking to the dugout to see the mound charging—or, anyway, slowly walking towards—him, and as he started shouting back, the benches cleared accordingly. Unlike the bench-clearing brawls where the bullpen arrives after the fighting is already over, the proper fighting never really got started here. It was more of a goofy-looking spat, a classic stand-around in which both sides did some shouting and then eventually lost interest and got back to work.
Even by the standards that apply to baseball's testy little set-to's, there's shockingly little meaning to found in the incident. Eugenio Suárez stated after the game that Neris crossed a line, but Rodríguez seemed more confused by Neris's trash talk than anything else—the two have historically been friendly and were teammates during the World Baseball Classic. If you really wanted to reach, you could say that at the time, the Mariners were down 4-3 and went on to lose the game 8-3—maybe Neris's outburst was actually hype-building for the Astros. Mostly, it's impressive how random the incident feels even within the scope of a tight playoff picture. Thanks to some classic Justin Verlander pitching and this win, the Astros have managed to open up a 1.5-game lead on the Mariners for the final wild card spot.
This means that, with four games left to play, the Mariners find themselves on the outside looking in. Prior to this series, even though the Astros got swept by the Kansas City Royals (the Royals!), the Mariners were too busy getting swept by the Rangers to properly capitalize. On Wednesday, they were bailed out by the New York Yankees, newly relegated to playing spoiler, who used a two-hit complete-game shutout from Gerrit Cole to beat the Toronto Blue Jays. Unfortunately for the Mariners, the Yankees famously only have one Gerrit Cole, though maybe one would be enough—as it currently stands, the Mariners are two games back of the Toronto Blue Jays and four games behind the Rangers.
We're entering an especially arithmetic-heavy portion of the MLB playoff race, with four teams to keep track of in the AL alone, not to mention their corresponding tiebreakers. And, if you would believe it, in adhering to just book divisional rival policy, the Mariners' final four games will all be played against the Rangers, while the Blue Jays will have to face the Tampa Bay Rays after wrapping up their series against the Yankees. The Mariners currently hold the tiebreaker over the Astros, but not over the Rangers. Even if the Mariners were to sweep the Rangers in turn, they'd still have to look for losses elsewhere, and unfortunately for them, the Astros and Blue Jays can't take games off each other. Neither celebration nor suffering is guaranteed.
At this point, it's terribly familiar to encounter the Mariners to be in such a position; whether it will be either tragic or funny if they miss out depends upon how committed you are to the ongoing bit of Mariners Suffering. Surely at some point it must turn around—mathematically speaking, the Mariners still have a half-decent shot of making it in, even if the probabilities aren't currently in their favor, and that's without the positional adjustment of it being the tragedy-prone Mariners. You know: "Series, series everywhere, / Nor any game to win" or however else that poem goes.