For six straight days, the Mariners have woken up just one game behind the Houston Astros for first place in the AL West. Each day, the Mariners have matched the Astros win-for-win and loss-for-loss. None of their four wins has gotten them over that hump, but neither of their two losses were punished by Houston. It’s been tantalizing, seeing the pinnacle within reach and yet seemingly unattainable.
I don’t know if any of the Mariners generally let themselves scoreboard watch during the game. I hope not. I don’t think it would lend itself to playing very good baseball. If they do, though, they might have looked up at the big scoreboard in left field in the middle of the second inning and seen that the Angels were beating the Rangers already. They also might have noticed that the Astros were beating the Red Sox. If they did notice it, it might have been demoralizing, knowing that they would have to win this game just to end up where they started.
Whether or not he knew what was happening, Marco Gonzales pitched like someone whose entire universe was confined to the 62 feet between the mound and the plate. It didn’t start as smoothly as it could have. Both Daniel Robertson and C.J. Cron worked full counts to begin the game, and suddenly Marco found himself sitting on 19 pitches with just two outs to show for them. But he maintained his composure, and caught Matt Duffy off-balance to end the inning.
I don’t know if Marco made an adjustment after that, or if the Rays just started to get impatient, but he became far more efficient after that first inning. He got through the next two innings with 13 pitches each, and the fourth with just 11. He did slip up a little bit in the sixth inning, allowing a long double that was nearly called a home run upon review, but quelled any other ideas the Rays might have had with this strikeout of Johnny Field.
Tonight, Marco was as good as he’s been all year. The best part is, his peripherals actually suggest that he’s been unlucky. Hitters were running an above-average .340 BABIP against him going into tonight. His FIP and xFIP are both running below his ERA. Maybe Jerry knew what he was doing when he traded for Marco. Maybe the pre-season hype is real. It’s certainly looking realer and realer with every start.
On the flip side, the offense did what’s it’s done all year: just enough. After spending a well-publicized hour or so taking opposite-field hitting practice last night after midnight, Dee Gordon responded in his first at bat tonight by taking a Chris Archer pitch to the opposite field for a single. He didn’t end up scoring, but it was really nice to see Dee bounce back after a rough 0-for-6 night last night.
The Mariners would actually break through in the third inning. After working a walk in the first inning, Jean Segura worked a second walk in the second. Jean doesn’t walk a lot, and it’s really nice to see him pick up two in one game. A far-less-rare Mitch Haniger walk followed, and Kyle Seager brought everyone home with this opposite-field double.
Ryon Healy hit a mammoth home run in the sixth inning to make it 3-1, and it really felt like that was all they needed. A one-run lead is never that secure, but with Álex Colomé, a revitalized Juan Nicasio, and Edwin Díaz at the back of the pen, a two-run lead can feel insurmountable. As it would turn out, they didn’t need Nicasio, but Díaz didn’t have any trouble shutting the door for his league-leading 20th save.
It was said before the season that the Seattle Mariners would probably have to get very lucky to have a shot at a one-game Wild Card, let alone an insurmountable division leader. Everything would have to bend right. Some things have gone right, to be sure. The one-run games have generally fallen the right way. But there’s no way anyone in their right mind could say that everything has gone right, or that the Mariners have been lucky the entire time.
These aren’t the Seattle Mariners that everyone projected. The ones that would have to rely on Robinson Canó, Kyle Seager, and Nelson Cruz to score eight runs just to keep ahead of a volatile rotation. The ones with an aging core that was toast after this year, so this had better have been the year.
No, these Seattle Mariners are being carried by 27-year-old Mitch Haniger, 26-year-old Ryon Healy, and 26-year-old Marco Gonzales. These Mariners have seen Kyle Seager struggle, but start to work the ball toward the opposite field with some success. These Mariners have Dee Gordon terrorizing the basepaths and Jean Segura grinning his ass off every time anyone even scores a run. These Mariners are, by win percentage, in first place in the American League West.
To anyone who doubted them: