On some level, I think we all knew this would happen eventually. Six years ago, the Blue Jays made the postseason for the first time in 22 years. Not many people outside of Toronto realized that it had been 22 years, but the fans were viscerally aware of the fact. The team even more so.
Just five out of fifteen people on ESPN projected that the 2015 Blue Jays would make the playoffs. You might notice that all fifteen projected the 2015 Mariners to make the playoffs. It’s funny how predictions work. Humans are so, so smart. Some things just aren’t predictable.
That the Blue Jays surpassed their expectations was, as is the case with most teams that surpass expectations, predicated on several players having career seasons. Josh Donaldson had an 8.7-win season. Edwin Encarnación and José Bautista each hit 40 dingers. Nobody thought their pitching would be good enough. It wasn’t good, but it was good enough.
I remember seeing the headline on ESPN when the Blue Jays clinched a postseason berth six short years ago. JAYS END DROUGHT. It was probably on the front page for all of 12 hours, if that. Huh, I thought. I didn’t dare complete the thought, as if thinking it would make it less likely to come true. But I knew that the logical completion was that the Mariners couldn’t be far behind.
The 2021 Mariners had longer odds than the 2015 Blue Jays. Nobody predicted that they make the playoffs. For the Mariners to make the playoffs, their hitting didn’t have to carry their pitching. Their pitching didn’t have to carry their hitting. The thought of either one carrying anything seemed little more than a pipe dream.
The best projected hitter by FanGraphs was Ty France. The best projected pitcher was Marco Gonzales, who was supposed to be about as good as 2001 Aaron Sele. Fine, sure. Certainly not an ace. For the team to compete, the Mariners didn’t need a couple of players to have career years. The Mariners needed almost everyone to have a career year.
The news broke right before Opening Day. Kyle Lewis Starts the Season on IL. “In my mind, I want to give him probably a couple of weeks just to make sure it is 100 percent,” said Scott Servais. It made sense. The Mariners were playing for the future. Why risk it for an extra win or two in early April of a down year?
Why, indeed, when the first thing the team did was lay down to the lackluster San Francisco Giants? Kevin Gausman made the Mariners look absolutely silly on that Opening Day that now seems of a different era. The sparsely populated crowd, appropriate more for a late-September snoozer against the A’s, watched Kyle Seager hit a solo home run while the rest of the team did exactly nothing against Gausman.
Marco Gonzales, meanwhile, looked lost. Servais grimaced as he walked out to the mound, giving his right arm the world’s tiniest tap, as if hoping those watching wouldn’t pick up on the fact that he was calling upon Will Vest to keep the Mariners in a 6-1 game still in the 3rd inning. Most people had probably already stopped watching. Who could blame them? What was there to see that we hadn’t seen a hundred times?
By the eighth inning, I confess I was much more enticed by my phone than I was by watching José Marmolejos going through the motions of a late-inning at bat in a blowout loss. I probably should have been paying more attention, because I might have seen it then.
I might have seen Evan White, Dylan Moore, and Marco Gonzales all leaning against the guardrail together, alert and eagerly watching Marmolejos foul pitches off. After every swing that did little more than prolong an already-decided game, the three clapped, encouraging Marmo to keep fighting a lost fight. A faceless Giants depth reliever finally got Marmo with a triple-A quality slider, but the bench squad didn’t awkwardly look down and spit, as bench squads usually do when someone strikes out. Marmo trotted down the steps of the dugout, and his back was met by a dribbling of fists, each player communicating wordless encouragement.
If I had seen that, maybe I wouldn’t have been as dumbstruck by the rest of April. Game three would have made more sense, after Ty France hit a three-run dinger in the eighth inning that the whole team seemed to know was coming. As Servais tried to suppress his thin-lipped smile from turning into a grin, eight or nine Mariners met France just outside of the dugout. They couldn’t wait the extra three seconds to express their jubilation directly to the source of it, each face grinning as it mobbed the man who has turned out to be the center of so many summer mobs.
One dinger followed another. Unburdened by the ghosts of Mariners past, France homered in five straight April games, sparking two local media phenomena. One, of course, was the predictable stream of ill-conceived headline puns. It was a dark day at the Seattle Times when they ran I SEE LONDON, I SEE FRANCE on the front page. The other phenomena, was the equally predictable stream of stories asking the same question: could this be the year?
Of course not, we thought. We’d seen it all before. Nobody had forgotten the 13-2 start in 2019. Nobody seemed liable to forget unless the team managed to prolong their success for at least another couple of months. For years, this was the curse of the Mariners. Each ounce of success was held up to the light, measured by its paucity. A 19-8 April? Fivethirtyeight still had the team at just a 21% chance of making the playoffs. Any team can win 19 games.
What the odds didn’t account for, of course, were the latecomers.
Kyle Lewis came off of the IL looking like he’d never left. His first game back saw him jump almost clean into the Pen after a baseball. I audibly cringed, sucking each part of my body in, as if there were some chance I might make contact with Kyle from my living room and cause him further injury. He toppled off the fence and onto the warning track dirt. After a fraction of a second, he bounced up, throwing his glove-arm into the air triumphantly. The crowd roared, then paused. Nothing was inside the glove. After a moment of confusion, the umpires realized Lewis’ joke, and signaled a home run. Lewis grinned and shrugged. It had all of the makings of a classic Mariner moment: a likeable guy making the best of his failure. That is, until he posted a .400 batting average over his next ten games.
Throughout all of the fun the big-league hitters were having in April, no official games were being played down in Peoria, Arizona. Instead, most of the Mariner prospects were participating in “Minor League Spring Training”. What little intel we received was in the form of 100-word blurbs, cryptic tweets, and shaky videos. It, too, probably should have been telling enough in retrospect.
“I don’t know what more Jarred Kelenic can do,” read one tweet that captioned a video of Kelenic swinging very hard and making an audible crack. The video was of too low a quality to see where the ball went, though the amateur camera operator helpfully zoomed in on the left field fence, and then zoomed back out on Kelenic trotting around first.
“Kelenic. Obliterated.” read another missive, this time without accompanying video.
Finally, in May, after the Mariners’ ethically questionable service time considerations had been satisfied, Kelenic got the call that we all knew was coming. It was so obvious a roster move that we at Lookout Landing had written the news blurb days in advance, our fingers twitching with anticipation as our mouse cursors hovered over the “Publish” button.
Kelenic’s first game saw him bat seventh. He worked a 3-2 count, fouled another two pitches off, and struck out on the eighth pitch he saw. The Premera Super-Mo camera zoomed in on his swing before cutting a way a bit too late to hide Kelenic’s lips mouthing an obvious “FUCK” as he walked back to the dugout in anger. He didn’t wait as long in his second at bat, taking the first pitch he saw up the middle at 110 MPH for a clean single.
His second game saw him bat fifth. By June, he was hitting second. Now, he’s all but a shoo-in for Rookie of the Year.
It’s fitting that lost in the giddiness of the early months was the quiet competence of the pitching staff. Marco Gonzales has always been quiet, of course. This year, he seemed to get a little bit self-conscious about it. I think back to his March quote about the team wanting to make a statement. All I could think at the time was how it seemed a little forced. Marco has always been described with dull adjectives reserved for mid-rotation stalwarts: solid, reliable. Never electric, nor phenomenal. Even his back-to-back shutouts in June were described as such. I guess it’s easy to fall back on those descriptors when a guy sits around 89 MPH most of the time. For Marco, it was clearly the source of a chip on his shoulder. That he managed to outperform the rest of a stellar rotation is proof enough.
Paxton, Kikuchi, and Sheffield were all what we thought they could be. I know that Paxton could leave after whatever happens next, but it’s hard to imagine him wanting to after the way he screamed, pumped his fist, and pointed at Maple Grove after striking out José Altuve two weeks ago. Is there any way he would have done that in New York?
I think that every time Kikuchi smiled on camera, I smiled back at the screen. Justus kept his strikeouts high, and his walks low. Even Chris Flexen was solid at the back of the rotation, prompting the team to shorten the rotation to just five guys by the time summer hit.
When injury struck, as it always does, it didn’t feel apocalyptic. Logan Gilbert was just good enough to fill in while Justus rehabbed his arm down in Tacoma. I’m glad that the team didn’t force him to put too many innings on his arm, but the arm sure looked good while it was here.
It was finally August when the playoffs odds ticked above 50%. I think that everyone in Seattle had bought in long before that, evidenced by the ubiquitous blue and teal every other person seemed to be wearing on the street downtown. The breaking of the 50% threshold coincided with the team announcing that games could finally be held at full capacity.
The first game after that was a sell out.
46,000 people buzzed as Marco warmed up, firing changeups into Luis Torrens’ waiting glove. Mitch Haniger and Kyle Lewis played long toss for a few seconds before they gave up pretending not to look up at the crowd in awe, grinning as they took in the first gathering of this size in Seattle in well over a year. I still remember looking down at them from the 300-level concourse, as grateful as I’ve ever been to be chewing on the mealy, brown apple that comes with garlic fries.
Mitch couldn’t have done anything besides hit a dinger to lead off the bottom of the first. The crowd rose, delirious. I screamed and hugged the nearest person I didn’t know, marveling at how I survived so long without being able to be around strangers.
When the Mariners travelled to Oakland in mid-September, their playoff odds now hovering around 90%, their division odds around 80%, I found myself hoping for them to lose a game or two. I knew it was greedy. I should be happy with the Mariners making the playoffs, period. But I wanted the clincher to be against the Angels. The Mariners dropped a game to the A’s, and the Astros lost two to the Angels. When the dust cleared, the M’s just needed to beat the Angels twice to clinch the division.
They went 1-1 over the first two games. The last game saw Justus Sheffield face off against Shohei Ohtani. In a sense, it was the Mariners of the present against the would-be Mariners. If the Mariners had landed Ohtani three years ago, maybe they don’t trade Paxton for Sheffield. Maybe Ohtani leads them to glory. But Ohtani chose the Angels, who finished last in the AL West this year. The Mariners did trade for Justus. And over two hours, Justus out-dueled the 27-year-old Ohtani, pumping strike after strike into the zone, daring each hitter to make contact. For the most part, they couldn’t.
After the seventh inning, the cameras panned into the Mariners dugout with the team leading 2-1. On an island away from the rest of the team stood Justus and Scott Servais. We all knew what Justus was animatedly pleading for from Servais. We wanted it too. Justus was sitting at just 90 pitches, but Mike Trout was due up. The broadcast cut to commercial, and I pulled out my phone and opened the game feed.
Was Justus getting pulled? For two straight minutes, I was possessed, pulling the screen down to repeatedly refresh the feed. No notification came. Finally, after what seemed to be an eternity, the game came back on. The camera was focused on the mound. Atop it, stood Justus Sheffield. I felt elation even as my body tensed.
Was this too greedy? Was it not enough to have the team make the playoffs? Did it have to be against the Angels? Did it have to feature Justus Sheffield retiring Mike Trout? There was still so much time left for our dreams to turn to ash.
Justus hurled a fastball inside, exactly the type of pitch Trout would normally turn on. He gave a great hack, and was a split-second too slow. Justus’ second pitch was a slider below the zone, which Trout took for a ball. The third, another fastball. Trout turned on it. He wasn’t too slow this time. Before we knew what had happened, the ball was lined up the middle.
It may have been before we knew what had happened, but I think Kyle Lewis realized it before Trout had even made contact with the ball. He was already running backwards when the outfield camera showed him, his glove already in the air. With his glove arm stuck straight up, he jumped. The catch was as violent as Trout’s swing, any semblance of grace forgotten as the sheer force of the ball propelled Kyle’s glove back and carried the rest of his body with it.
Kyle skidded for several feet before coming to rest just short of the warning track. The camera panned back to Justus, who led out a hoarse shout of jubilation. There were still five outs to go, but everyone knew. That was the play that clinched the season.
So here I sit, still trying to process it all when there are still three meaningless games to go. I never thought I would be saying that games were “meaningless” and mean it in a good way.
I always knew this would happen, but I never knew how it would feel. Whether it would be so surreal as to feel numb, the games flashing before my eyes as if in a highlight real. Or whether there would be a sense of giddiness, the kind that has permeated Seattle throughout September. The kind that has prompted total strangers to point at one another and grin wordlessly when they see each other wearing Mariners gear. Or whether there would be a sense of what now? After all, the playoff draught has been the narrative for as long as I can remember being a Mariners fan.
I’m sitting here, alternating between disbelief and ecstasy. It feels like this might be all I’ll ever need. One year ago, I was all alone and couldn’t fathom caring about the Mariners. I’ve spent this month finally surrounded by people, finally caught up in the fever dream of a playoff run.
I don’t care if this is all I’ll ever need. It’s all I need right now.