The Hype Train was derailed. A perfect storm of mishaps allowed ever evasive wins to fall from the Mariners’ bobbling hands. Nine total runs in the first five games, a go-ahead two-run shot from the reigning AL MVP the next day, followed by a lost 9-3 lead. The next series saw the Astros score 11 total runs in the sixth inning or later, resulting in two blown leads. Meanwhile, leadoff hitting Jean Segura—one of the young season’s lone bright spots—parted for the disabled list. What was effervescent hope was replaced with disenchanting disappointment.
A much needed off-day set the stage for an early-April outing that held the importance of a late September playoff push. Felix day paired with a Ken Griffey Jr. Replica Statue giveaway lured 40,000 impatient fans into Safeco Field to watch a matchup with the reigning American League West champions. A loss could have been a public execution of a struggling franchise. Slipping to 2-9 in front of a packed house rarely elicits positivity. More than any April baseball game I’ve ever witnessed, Friday night had a do-or-die sentiment.
Felix Hernandez stepped out of a time machine and onto the mound, delivering seven and a third innings of dominant, confident baseball. On a day when a statue eternalized the Kid, the King reigned supreme. Nelson Cruz broke free from his slump, driving a liner over the centerfield fence; however, the Mariners still found themselves at a crossroad, tied at one run apiece in the bottom of the seventh. Two singles, from a grounder and a bunt, started the frame off favorably. Then, one thunderous swing of the bat changed the course of the season:
AL Rookie of the Year sensation Mitch Haniger was inches away from a three-run shot. Fortunately, an RBI single was all the he needed. Mark Rzepczynski bridged the gap from starter to closer, and Edwin Diaz set the ninth inning ablaze. A 2-1 win revitalized fleeting faith in our Mariners.
James Paxton, the heir to Felix’s throne, carried his squad to victory the following evening. Eight scoreless innings, in which he allowed only three baserunners and sat nine Rangers down on strikes, gave Seattle’s struggling bats ample opportunities to win consecutive games for the first time this year. A sixth inning single from April- averse Kyle Seager broke a scoreless tie. Taylor Motter added insurance with a three-run blast later in the inning. Three frames later and six strikeouts later, the Mariners sealed their first series win of 2017.
Sunday’s narrative, however, took a different shape. Hisashi Iwakuma lasted only three innings, allowing six runs on seven hits. The Mariners trailed by five in the third inning, while Cole Hamels was toeing the rubber for Texas. That is not a recipe for success. The Mariners had scored more than five runs just twice to that point. They had made habit of walking away empty handed when opportunity knocked. This team entered Sunday with the fourth lowest wOBA in baseball. You couldn’t argue the possibility of a comeback with any evidence.
But Sunday was the offense’s chance to shine. A third inning #HANIDINGER cut the deficit to two.
A few innings later, Danny Valencia doubled home Kyle Seager, bringing the Mariners within a run. Then, to Isabelle Minasian’s delight, Guillermo Heredia tied the game with one swing of the bat.
In the meantime, the bullpen held down the fort, holding the Rangers scoreless for five consecutive frames. This is the same bullpen that had the second highest ERA in baseball prior to Sunday’s showdown. How could you trust a group that blew a 9-3 lead, or a team that lost after pulling ahead 5-0? When needed the most, the relievers were dependable and effective. They also got some help along the way:
Dan Altavilla toyed with the Rangers, giving them a false sense of hope after throwing 10 consecutive balls before fooling Elvis Andrus with a nasty slider to escape a bases loaded jam.
Edwin Diaz entered a 6-6 tie in the top of the ninth, but surrendered the lead three pitches later when Nomar Mazara drove a fastball into the right field bleachers. A feel-good comeback story took a twist towards an unhappy ending.
Nonetheless, an infield single and stolen base from Jarrod Dyson, followed by a Leonys Martin bunt single, renewed hope, because that’s what speed do. Then Sam Dyson intentionally walked Mike Freeman, loading the baseball for Haniger. The 27-year-old outfielder, who’s played in less than 50 major league games, showed the discipline of a seasoned veteran, drawing a game-tying walk. The bases remained loaded for the heart of the lineup, and all the Mariners needed was one run. An infield single off the bat of Cruz did the trick. We didn’t get to hear a “Boomstick Baby” call, but I sure hope you yelled “Brooms Out, Baby!” as Seattle finalized a season sweep. Just what the doctor ordered.
You couldn’t script a better resurgence from the Mariners. The first two games showcased two stellar pitching performances. Alternatively, the bullpen kept Seattle alive in the third, and a barrage of 12 hits and eight runs elevated the team to victory. That sentence contradicts the first 10 games of the season.
The only consistency in the first miserable week or so of baseball was the starting pitching. Everything else was unreliable. The offense failed to score a single run in Felix’s first start, in which the Astros were limited to just three. The ‘pen had a league-worst -2.12 WPA through 12 games. Both groups were novstranger to let down. But Sunday was different.
As a team that has missed the playoffs by a game or two twice in the last three seasons, those are the types of games you need to win. Each time the Mariners avoid a “if they would have won that, they would be in the playoffs” type game, it’s a step towards “because they won that game, they’re in for the first time since 2001.” A robbed home run, escaping a bases-loaded jam, and a ninth inning rally that started and ended with an infield single were the difference. It’s crazy what is possible with a little luck.
Have the Mariners righted their ship? It may be too early to tell. Regardless, they looked closer to the right track this weekend than in the first 10 games. Each facet of this team had a moment or two against Texas. Seattle will try to build on that momentum in a three-game series against the Marlins before paying the Athletics a visit in Oakland.
The Hype Train is back in commission. All aboard…