On June 7, 2016, the Mariners were 32-26, coming off a May that saw them end the month nine games over .500 as one of the hottest teams in baseball. At that point, we had already had seen these things occur:
- Robinson Canó jacking a three-run bomb off Cody Allen in the 10th to give the Mariners a 10-7 win at Cleveland, where they would take two of three games against the eventual World Series contenders (April 21st);
- Leonys Martin’s wall crash catch (April 29th) to clinch a 1-0 victory over the Royals;
- A two-home run game for Dae-Ho Lee that pushed the Mariners ahead of the A’s for a 9-8 win and birthed the Swelmet (May 4th);
- Chris Iannetta’s extra-innings walkoff homer (May 11th);
- Leonys Martín’s walkoff two-run home run with two outs to give the Mariners a 6-5 win over the Athletics (May 24th);
- The Comeback (June 2nd)
There were more things, of course, and some of them were bad things, like the Twins series and the double TOOTBLAN, but you take the good, you take the bad, you take ‘em all and there you have the facts of (a baseball fan’s) life. What does stand out to me is the density of amazing baseball experiences packed into these first two months. Probably everyone has their own favorite game, either listed above or one I didn’t mention; Iannetta’s walkoff stands out to me, because it just didn’t feel likely at all, but rather as if the collective will of every hot and tired fan in the stands lifted that ball over the fence. Objectively, the most exciting game up here is The Comeback, just from sheer statistical improbability. But I would wager most people remember Leonys’s walkoff just as crisply, and maybe more so, as it was limited to a single moment of brilliance. (It might also have been Peter’s excellent recap, which you can revisit here.)
In a month filled with good baseball, what made the Leonys home run so captivating? First, Leonys was a player we liked rooting for from the beginning. He endeared himself to both his teammates and the fanbase quickly with his sunny personality and squeaky voice. But he was also a somewhat unlikely source for this walk-off, a light-hitting outfielder more known for his glove than his bat. A Canó walkoff is a beautiful rainbow, but a Martín walkoff is a fire rainbow. The fact that he delivered this win against a division rival against whom the Mariners had struggled at home only sweetened the victory. And then there was Leonys himself:
More so than many others of the amazing games the Mariners would play last year, that one felt like a signature win, the team upholding a promise to us, honoring the fan-team contract: you will give us your time and your eyeballs, and in return we will give you fun baseball. This was fun baseball, and a promise there would be more fun baseball ahead, like how Fitzgerald describes Daisy’s voice in the Great Gatsby: There was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered "Listen," a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.
So far this year, the team has not done an excellent job honoring the fan-team contract. There has been no “listen,” no whispered promise of bright things ahead. We’ve been treated to solid, workmanlike (Bergmanlike?) wins, some offensive fireworks, and a whole lot of mediocre baseball. At times, it’s been terrible, but not even in an interestingly terrible way, where we could have fun Jesus Sucre position player pitching, and yes I’m still mad about breaking the scoreless inning streak on a wild pitch, which is such a 2017 Mariners way to get a run.
But last night felt different. The Mariners are starting to win games they’re supposed to win, and are doing so by glutting themselves on runs to keep pace with their shaky starting pitching. And last night, Mike Zunino delivered a signature win, the kind Leonys gave us last year. Look, I’m not the only person who thought so:
Mariners win 6-5 on a walk-off 2-run homer? Hmmm...what does that remind me of...https://t.co/Ufmx1V7WOm— Grant Bronsdon (@gbronsdon) June 8, 2017
What’s that? You now need to be reminded of Zunino’s?
It’s not just the score, or the fact that there were two outs, or the way they won that make these two occurrences so similar. Both Martin and Zunino are fan favorites for their winning personalities, who play strong defense but have had their offensive struggles. I remember checking my phone, getting set to record an episode of the podcast, and seeing that the Mariners were down one still, in the bottom of the ninth, with two outs and Zunino up. A tiny thought tugged: could he? What if he did? That won’t happen...but what if he did?
I have the luxury of doubt. Mike Zunino, standing in the box with a 2-1 count, does not have that luxury. He must believe, wholeheartedly, that he is going to do something productive for his team. He can give no quarter to doubt, and ultimately, he left no doubt.
Me, in bed: "I really need to get to sleep."— José (@whoisjoserivera) June 8, 2017
Also me: pic.twitter.com/jzTkGxhLb4
This team hasn’t played as well as their 2016 counterparts, but ultimately they’re only two games worse than where they were last year. If this crop of Mariners can avoid the June swoon that affected last year’s team—a month that, by WPA, essentially knocked us out of the playoff race—there will be many more bright things ahead. And if we’re looking back for a signature win, Mike Zunino might have delivered the definitive one last night.