9/30/21 - 11:30pm
Somehow, someway, here we are with only three games left in the season, cheering on what can only be referred to as a statistical anomaly. A team driven on ‘fun differential’, negating naysayers and analysts determined to show their algorithms and mathematical models can determine each team’s fate. The Seattle Mariners have decided to secure their own fate, in their own piecemealed, unpredictable, and inexplicable fashion.
Most Mariners fans are accustomed to the highs and lows that come with the long stretch from April through September. It is an enduring love-hate relationship built on a pattern of disappointing season after disappointing season. Six months of emotional investment, every time believing things will change. At times insufferable, it’s surprising support carries on and the crowds keep coming back despite what feels like constant betrayal. The nearest major league team is 671 miles away, so perhaps there is little choice but to remain loyal strictly out of geographical necessity. Though maybe this time it’ll be different (haven’t we all heard that one too many times before?). But really, no more "maybe next year." Why not "this year"?
At the start of the season, those following the Ms knew it was supposed to be another building year. A time for young players to develop, make their big league debuts, and hopefully prove themselves to be worthy of the show. But with a few offseason acquisitions and some eye-catching spring training appearances, the possibility of contention was not entirely out of question.
A somber April quickly dashed those dreams. Paxton, returning from an injury-laden 2020 season, didn’t make it past a paltry 1.1 innings of work before needing season-ending surgery. Kyle Lewis, a young star whose 2020 season had fans wanting more, has been out since June with a torn meniscus. An additional defensive hole appeared when Evan White joined the surgery club, prior to which offensively his bat seemed simply MIA. Justin Dunn, a new promising addition to the rotation began being relegated to rehab assignments in June. That’s not even close to an all-inclusive list of complications incurred this season.
Yet somehow the Mariners recovered after each setback. To fill the void at first, Ty France, whose home is usually third base, transitioned to the opposite corner and has only made 1 error in 791 plays. Just shy of hitting .300, he’s tenth in the American League in batting average. The patched up starting rotation made it through the first half of the season with Kukuchi’s all-star pitching, Marco (who was rocky from the get go) steadily improved start by start after a stint on the injured list, and the most consistent starter no one expected, Chris Flexen. Flexen, an offseason addition who was playing in the Korean leagues during 2020 and was discovered by the Mariners by happenstance, has been the most reliable starter with a 3.67 ERA.
Even with every other starter posting ERAs over 4.0, the Mariners have been able to hold teams back with a mix and match bullpen. Rolling through the season without a designated closer or relief roles, each reliever has come through in critical situations. Notably Paul Sewald, whose call up to the big leagues was overshadowed by the younger and more heavily promoted Logan Gilbert and Jarred Kelenic. Likely few realized he was joining the 25 man-roster along with Gilbert and Kelenic. Now he has one of the best strikeout rates in the bigs. Casey Sadler, who spent the majority of the season on the injured list, has since recovered and rejoined the club. He has now broken the team record for most appearances without letting off a run at 26 - and he’s still going. Even after the Mariners were dealt an emotional blow after bullpen leader Kendall Graveman was traded to division rival Houston Astros during a series against that very same team, the bullpen was able to keep going. As for the two rookies that came up with Sewald in May? Gilbert has done as well as anyone could have asked for his first major league season, and his September is on par with a young Felix Hernandez. Kelenic, after struggling mightily and dropping back down to triple A, has since proved to be a much more productive member of the batting order. Meanwhile veterans on the team are seeing career best seasons, like Kyle Seager and Mitch Haniger who collectively have contributed the greatest run production. Not to mention JP Crawford’s gold glove at short, making outs no other player could and helping keep pitch counts down. And at the plate he’s been running pitchers ragged by going deep in counts while "JP-JP-JP" chants from the crowd echo behind him.
Admittedly, even as the Mariners found a way to keep pace over the course of the season, some fans (myself included) were hesitant to invest more energy in this team that always seems to rip your heart out. In particular after the Angels cut the Mariners at the knees with a 14-1 loss last weekend, hope was diminishing. Losing so badly to a sub .500 team causes some to wonder whether they really deserve to make the playoffs to begin with. It brought back memories of series lost to other bottom-division teams like the Royals and Diamondbacks. But they’ve continued to climb back even after getting knocked down the wild card pole. With an important series against a team they’d done so well against all season up next, the hopefuls out there remained hopeful. The three game series against the Athletics proved to be crucial in the Ms fight to stay alive in the wild card chase.
After taking the first two games of the series, the Mariners went for the throat against the Oakland ball club. Gilbert kept the As at a lone run over 5 2/3rds, and with forty comeback wins already in the books they seemed poised for another. It’s as if they purposefully let the Athletics get just one run so they could come back in the bottom of the inning. Perhaps that pressure was enough to light a fire and get the bats going. The Mariners immediately jumped back on top with a two-run double by Kelenic, who at the plate has been rocking September like Earth Wind and Fire. An unfortunate solo shot from A’s DH Seth Brown in the top of the 7th created tension in every fans’ veins as the score evened to 2-2. With only three innings left, the Mariners would have to take advantage of any runners in scoring position. Well, if they didn’t do exactly that. If home runs are dimes, let’s not forget sac flies are still hot as hell - Ty France drove a deep shot to the warning track in left to score Dylan Moore, whose aggressive base running had him waiting to tag from third to score the leading run. A swift top of the 8th from Sewald brought up the bottom half of the order. Toro tacked on some insurance with a homer to right, making the score 4-2. The Athletics, down to their final three outs (and possibly the final three of any significance for their team dangling by a thread to a wild card shot) faced Steckenrider in the ninth. But they were no match for the 6’ 4" right-hander. The score unchanged, the As packed up to head home after a devastating sweep by the Mariners put the final nail in their coffin. Staying steady at a half game out of the second place wild card spot, the Mariners called on all fans to fill seats this weekend in what is arguable the most important series the Mariners have been a part of in far too long.
So here they sit, trailed by the big bats of the Blue Jays and looking to gain ground on everyone’s favorite east coast enemies in the Yankees and Red Sox. Currently the Mariners run differential is -48. Compared to say, the division leading Astros who have +200, they certainly aren’t a statisticians first choice to make it very far even if they did squirrel their way into the playoffs. The last team who made the playoffs with a negative run differential was fourteen years ago with the ’07 Diamondbacks. If the Mariners pull it off, they could play the Yankees in the wild card game, a fateful shot at redemption delayed by two decades. The Yankees beat down the 116-win Mariners in the 2001 ALCS, but twenty years later it’s an entirely new match up, one likely to take place in Yankee Stadium. Arguably one of baseball’s most antagonizing environments, no other field boasts as much of a home team advantage. Short fences favor many of their players of massive proportion, and their tormenting fans seem hellbent on eating young players alive. Though time may have passed one thing surely remains the same. The Yankees are still the quintessential, bully-of-an-opponent - a role they seem to relish. The Mariners might find themselves in trouble especially if the Yanks secure home-field advantage for the wild card game.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves however. The Mariners still have work to do against the Angels, and as the uptick in ticket sales indicates they’ll have quite the crowd cheering them on this weekend. An idle Thursday passed as the Mariners took today off, with luck on their side as the Red Sox and Blue Jays both tacked another loss to their records. Along with the rains and winds of October the Angels arrive in Seattle for the final three game push. Today is perhaps the calm before the storm. Believe, Refuse to Lose, whatever you want to call it, this team doesn’t quit. They haven’t listened to anyone telling them to give up already. And they surely aren’t going to start now. From your couch watching the tv, from the car listening to the radio, or from the forest green seats at the stadium, don your Mariners gear and cheer on this team who has come closer to making the playoffs than any other over the last twenty years.
So, does that answer your question?