We've written about this a lot over the past couple of weeks, but just stop and reflect on the Mariners' position right now. They're neck and neck with Detroit for the second wild card. They're 1.5 games back from tying Oakland for the first wild card. After today, the Mariners don't get another off day until the regular season concludes on September 28. It's understandable if you don't want to get your hopes up with 17 games left to go, but... get your hopes up. This is only going to get better.
Today's trip down memory lane not only brings us to a big milestone -- Ichiro's ninth consecutive season of 200+ hits -- but also to another year when the Mariners were postseason contenders.
September 8, 1999: Tom Lampkin salvages a blown save in a walk-off against the Blue Jays.
Jamie Moyer was in line for his 14th win of the season when Jose Mesa stepped in.
Moyer had tossed six shutout innings before allowing a first-pitch home run to the Blue Jays' Carlos Delgado in the seventh. The Mariners returned to rally in the bottom of the eighth inning. Junior planted a home run -- his 44th of the year -- in the stands of the newly-minted Safeco Field, scoring pinch-runner Charles Gipson.
It should have been enough for the win. There was no reason to doubt Mesa, who was carrying a six-game streak without giving up a run. He induced two fly balls for the first outs of the ninth inning, then gave up a base hit to right fielder Shawn Green. With Green poised on first base, Carlos Delgado returned to the plate, 1-for-3 on the night after his seventh-inning homer. The way catcher Tom Lampkin described it to the Seattle Times, the fastball that Mesa grooved over the edge of the plate was a pitch he favored. Delgado favored it, too, pulling the ball to left field for his second home run of the night.
In the bottom of the ninth, Lampkin found the moment for retribution. Jay Buhner drew a four-pitch walk from Toronto closer Billy Koch, then was promptly replaced by pinch-runner Shane Monahan as the catcher stepped up. Koch served up a 100 m.p.h. fastball. Lampkin, who had failed to drive in any runs in two previous opportunities that night, parked the ball in the right field bleachers. It was a rare, if underwhelming moment for the Mariners, who had seen just 40 walk-off home runs since their inception in 1977.
September 10, 1997: Dan Wilson hits his first career inside-the-park home run.
Two years prior to Lampkin's walk-off, around the time that the Mariners hit their last walk-off home run, Jamie Moyer was putting together another shutout. It was the winningest year of his career thus far, and couldn't have come at a better time as the Mariners made their second run toward the playoffs.
Standing in their way were the third-place Tigers, over 20 games back from contending for the AL East, and their starter, 24-year-old southpaw Justin Thompson. Thompson was a force to be reckoned with in his first full season in the major leagues, and would finish the year with a 15-11 record and 4.7 fWAR.
Against the Mariners, however, he made his shortest start of the year. Following a three-inning duel between the two starters, Edgar Martinez put Seattle on the board with an RBI base hit to score Griffey. In the fifth, the M's piled on two more runs with back-to-back productive outs from Rich Amaral and Roberto Kelly -- including a hair-raising suicide squeeze bunt.
The nails in Thompson's coffin came in the sixth inning. Edgar drew a leadoff walk, setting the table for Alex Rodriguez's 23rd home run of the season. Thompson recovered to retire Jay Buhner, then faced Dan Wilson. Wilson was chasing his career-high mark of 18 homers, set in 1996 during his first and only All-Star season. He was also working through a dry spell, and hadn't seen a home run in two weeks' worth of games.
Dan took the second pitch he saw and skied it to left field, where it veered away from the outfielders, allowing the 28-year-old catcher to circle the bases for his first inside-the-parker. It was the first inside-the-park home run by a Mariner since left fielder Marc Newfield hit one in Chicago back in 1995. No Mariner had ventured an inside-the-park home run in the Kingdome since Henry Cotto's homer in 1991.
When the dust had settled, the Mariners were standing atop a 10-run lead and their 81st win of the year. When asked about his home run after the game, Wilson told the press it was probably the last one he'd ever hit. Forty-one games later on May 3, 1998, he proved himself wrong -- with an inside-the-park grand slam.
September 13, 2009: Ichiro ties MLB record with his ninth consecutive season of 200+ hits.
Ichiro Suzuki was the second-fastest player in history to collect 2,000 MLB hits. Only Al Simmons had him beat, reaching 2,000 hits in 1,390 games back in the 1930s. Suzuki needed 1,402 games to match Simmons' record, picking up a double against one of Simmons' old teams, the Athletics.
A week later, Ichiro found another MLB record that needed breaking. Even with 2,000 hits under his belt, he was still shy of hitting 200 on the year. Doing so would break the record set by Willie Keeler, who set down eight consecutive seasons of 200+ hits from 1894 to 1901.
The Mariners were in the thick of a doubleheader against the Rangers that day. They dropped the first game against Texas right-hander Tommy Hunter, who breezed through nine innings on six hits, an earned run, and three strikeouts. Ichiro hit an RBI double in the third inning, leaving him one hit shy of history.
For the second game of the night, manager Don Wakamatsu sent out the only player who could shut down the Rangers' hopes of sweeping their third doubleheader of the month: Felix Hernandez. Felix struggled to make it through the first three innings with tightness in his back, but managed to shut out the Rangers for seven full innings, capping his 15th win with five strikeouts and five runs of support.
At the plate, the Mariners finally found their footing against the Rangers' Derek Norris. In the first inning, first baseman Jose Lopez chopped a double down the right field line, scoring Franklin Gutierrez for the first run of the night. On his heels in the second inning came Ichiro, who was 0-for-1 with a fly ball. Jack Wilson stood on third base. Ichiro chopped a grounder to shortstop Elvis Andrus, then hustled down the line to beat the throw, scoring Wilson and earning his own, uncontested spot in the record books.
The game paused as the Mariners dugout started clapping. Ichiro tipped his cap to the crowd. One fan waved a sign in bright neon colors: Ichiro, you are everyone's hero.
"It's always good to see history," Ken Griffey, Jr. commented after the game. He carted his teammate off the field and into the clubhouse, where the Mariners waited to douse the right fielder with celebratory beers.