For Andres Munoz, timing is everything as he settles into Mariners’ de facto closer role

The crowd roared, and Andres Munoz hopped and skipped off the mound and greeted catcher Cal Raleigh on the infield grass.

Munoz needed just 14 pitches to strike out the side in the ninth inning and close out a 3-2 victory over the Royals on Sunday afternoon, moving the Mariners (74-56) into sole possession of first place in the American League West.

In doing so, Munoz quieted some escalating concerns — among a vocal segment of the fanbase, anyway — about his new role as the Mariners’ de facto closer.

The 24-year-old right-hander had blown a save opportunity in an extra-innings loss at the White Sox on Wednesday, and loaded the bases in the ninth before closing out a shaky 7-5 victory over the Royals in the series opener on Friday.

“I don’t feel like I lost confidence; that’s just part of the game,” said Munoz, who picked up his 10th save in 13 tries this season. “We just try to get the job done and get out of there as quick as possible. Today was a good opportunity to show what I got.”

Munoz does feel like he’s settling down in this new pitching environment.

Yes, he says, he is finding his rhythm as the Mariners’ No. 1 option out of the bullpen in high-leverage situations.

But more specifically, and more timely, are the adjustments he’s been making with the pitch clock, something he acknowledged has caused him trouble at times this season.

“I am starting to feel more comfortable with (the clock),” he said.

During his breakthrough 2022 season, Munoz had one of the game’s fastest fastballs, topping out at 103 mph, but among Mariners relievers he had the slowest between-pitches routine (even slower, yes, than Diego Castillo).

MLB’s introduction of the pitch clock wouldn’t warrant Munoz all that time this season.

Problem was, as he recovered from offseason foot surgery, he didn’t have a normal buildup in spring training to find a suitable new tempo.

Then he went on the injured list with a shoulder strain in early April and was sidelined for nearly two months.

He’s been searching to find a comfortable routine ever since.

On occasion, he has felt like he was working too fast — he can’t help but notice the pitch clock out of the corner of his eye between every pitch — and that probably also contributed to his mechanics being sped up and out of sync at times too.

Getting called for a balk — in part, because he was trying to work too quickly — with a runner on second in the ninth inning of a tie game against Baltimore at home on Aug. 13 probably didn’t help his timing either.

What he has realized is he usually has more time to work with.

“Even if I have the clock (ticking down), sometimes I have the time to take a breath and calm down a little bit,” he said. “You know you don’t have to change your delivery because of the clock, but sometimes you feel like you have to do it quicker.”

Slowing down his tempo is starting to help his pitches pick up speed.

His four-seam fastball topped out at 99.7 mph on Sunday, up from his 98.0 average this season.

Better yet for him and the Mariners, his slider velocity jumped to 90 mph on Sunday, a sign that he might be regaining his 2022 peak with that pitch.

A year ago, Munoz’s slider was one of the most unhittable pitches in all of baseball. In September 2022, his slider had an average velocity of 90.8 mph, and opponents hit just .126 against that pitch last season, with a .176 slugging percentage and a 46.2% strikeout rate.

This season, his average slider has been 87.4 mph, and opponents are hitting .200 against it, with a .200 slugging percentage and a 19% strikeout rate. Still great, but not out-of-this-world elite.

“It’s not that I feel bad with my slider,” he said. “I still have 100 percent confidence in throwing it, but, you know, sometimes you try to speed up a little bit and that is when … your arm lags (behind) or things like that. But I keep working on it every day and I know there’s going to be one point when my slider is back 100 percent.”

On Sunday, Munoz dotted a 90-mph slider on the outside corner to get Michael Massey looking at strike three to end the game.

If Munoz is able to maintain his slider with that kind of velocity, and that kind of command, he could be much closer to regaining his 2022 form.

No Fly (Can)Zone

In the sixth inning Sunday, Dominic Canzone made a diving snag running toward the right-field line to catch a slicing line drive off the bat of the Royals’ Maikel Garcia.

The crowd of 38,829 at T-Mobile Park gave him a standing ovation and — perhaps best of all — he he got a No Fly Zone signal from Julio Rodriguez in center field.

“Unbelievable,” Rodriguez said. “As soon as I saw the ball going his way, I was just in my head (thinking), ‘Come on, let’s go, baby.’ When I saw him diving and making that unbelievable catch, it was great. No Fly Zone back there.”

Canzone, acquired along with Josh Rojas the July 31 trade for Paul Sewald, was 1 for 3 with a double Sunday. Over his last 15 games, Canzone is hitting .280 with an .813 OPS.

“With this crowd, this whole weekend has just been different,” Canzone said. “The intensity is just different, and it’s been awesome to be out there.”

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