Having sat with and processed yesterday’s game for almost a full day, the initial feelings of vertigo have subsided, and I am able to look at things differently. If that’s not where you are at yet, that’s completely understandable—everyone processes pain in different ways, but I might suggest that this article, right now, is not for you. Tuck it away for later and go for a walk or something. (Also as always a general reminder, not that anyone who is actually reading here would ever do this, but do not tag the players on social media, or snitch-tag them in other people’s posts, and especially especially do not go after family members or wives. There are no rules about how to fan except that one.)
I have been writing about the Mariners in a regular capacity as site manager since 2017, which you will recall as the first year of what would be the Astros’ dynasty. It was also the year they won (cheated their way to) a World Series title, and I remember sitting at a bar with John and Grant rooting on the Astros against the Dodgers, thinking that if they could make it, maybe, just maybe, one day the Mariners might, too.
I had no idea then what would come—the cheating scandal, deliberately acquiring a pitcher on a “domestic violence discount”, the revelation of what a toxic environment the club allowed for women. I also had no idea that the Mariners would spend the next half-decade taking body blows from a perpetual playoffs juggernaut, that Minute Maid Park would transform into a house of horrors, or that Astros Twitter would gleefully take up the mantle of bullying Mariners fans online as their team bullied the Mariners on the field. Recapping Astros games is such a particular kind of dread I have to make sure the recaps are split evenly among staff members so no one gets burnt out on bad baseball. I have spent an unhealthy amount of time thinking about how much I rue the day Bud Selig decided to move the Astros to the AL West to balance the two divisions. (Obviously I would use the time machine to take out Hitler, but if there was an opportunity for a second stop...?)
This season, it looked like the Mariners might be able to claw their way back against the Astros after playing .500 ball against them over the first half. It inspired me to write something about how good an Astros-Mariners rivalry could be for baseball, which the team rewarded me for by getting swept at home, and then winning just one of the final four games at Minute Maid. Don’t worry, I paid for my sins by having to recap the loss right after I wrote that article.
It was actually in the middle of recapping another brutal loss in the next series against Houston—the 11-1 drubbing where Robbie Ray imploded—that news came down about the Mariners acquiring Luis Castillo in what would be the splashiest move of the trade deadline. For once, it was the Mariners who sucked up all the air in MLB Tonight (although admittedly, a lot of the tenor of the conversation was “lol wyd Yankees” which, to be fair: what were you doing, Yankees?). A month after that, the Mariners announced a historic extension for rookie superstar Julio Rodríguez. A month after that, they announced they’d extended Luis Castillo, as well.
Season record against the Astros aside, and whatever happens going forward, these Mariners are not the Mariners we saw trudge in and out of Minute Maid Park dejectedly year after year, losses in hand. Yesterday they came out and punched the shoo-in 2022 Cy Young winner and eventual Hall of Famer Justin Verlander directly in his smirk, enacting a plan that John detailed here and having success with it. Logan Gilbert, who will still be a Mariner while Justin Verlander is sipping Coronas on a beach somewhere, not only induced almost twice as many whiffs as Verlander, he also held the Astros to one legitimate run and two runs that scored when a ball bounced off the ridiculous dimensions of Baby’s First Ballpark, a two-run single by Álvarez with an expected batting average of .140—a routine flyout at just about any other park in the league.
And to answer the common response “well the Mariners can take advantage of the park dimensions too,” they did: Eugenio Suárez did what we’ve been begging right-handed Mariners players to do for years and popped a low-probability homer of his own into the Crawford Boxes at a petite (for Eugenio) 99.2 MPH, with an xBA of just .480, which almost makes up for Kyle Tucker robbing Julio of what would have at least been a double. Against Verlander and Houston’s bullpen, every Mariner except Carlos Santana recorded at least a hit; Ty France had three. Álvarez, of course, has the two hardest-hit balls of the game, but the next five all belong to Mariners, and three of the four the youngest Mariners at that: Julio, Raleigh, Haniger, and Kelenic, whose singles in the second and the eighth measured 105.7 and 104.5 MPH, respectively.
Baseball is a cruel game in that the flip side of having something you’ve never seen before happen is that often it will find new and startling ways to break your heart. I had mentally prepared myself to lose yesterday’s game, given the team’s track record against Verlander; I had no idea that the baseball gods, also, are bringing their post-season best, and by best I mean most spiteful and torturous. The baseball gods are real jerks sometimes.
It’s difficult as someone who has watched the Mariners come up short against the Astros for the past half-decade to see hope, but it’s important to remember that, even though these players took ownership of the drought, they are largely not the same players who tried and failed against the Astros in the past. In 2017, when the Astros won the World Series, Mitch Haniger was in his first year in a Mariners uniform. Julio Rodríguez hadn’t yet made his professional debut. In 2018, when the Mariners actually had a winning record against the Astros but fell apart down the stretch and missed the playoffs as the Astros won the division, the Mariners upset the applecart in the third round of the MLB Draft by taking a catcher out of Florida State with so-so college numbers earlier than expected. In 2019 the Mariners rebuilt, banking on these young players to succeed, and in 2022 they are in the ALDS.
The hard truth of the matter is the Astros are still the better team, on paper. They won more games in the regular season, and the reason they are getting to host this series in their stupid iconoclastic ballpark is because they won the division. In order to succeed, now or in the future, the Mariners have to face the Astros and come away victorious, either in the regular season or the post-season.
But the Mariners have finally built a core that is able to match up better with these Astros, a sustainable one that doesn’t rely on aging stars and a patched-together rotation. They have a superstar of their own, now. And they have a team that likes each other, that has the full-throated support of a reinvigorated fanbase, and one that is easy to root for across baseball, from fans of all stripes. They will still play bad games against the Astros, an objectively good team on the field, if not in any other sense. They will still look uninspired, sloppy, outclassed at times. That’s what growth looks like, and it is hard.
But the Mariners finally have the pieces to grow with, and have rewarded fans’ patience with a post-season berth, a thrilling two-game sweep, and a hard-fought close loss to a hated rival. They are finally part of the post-season conversation, a conversation that happens every fall, that for years has happened on the other side of heavy wooden doors, only semi-intelligible to Mariners fans. October has come in like a velvet fist but every day there’s a reminder of the iron core of winter lurking beneath those corduroy piles of leaves, and still, we baseball. My local Target has already eschewed Halloween, replacing plastic pumpkins with painted wooden signs extolling the virtues of snowfall and sleigh rides—and still, we baseball. Every day the darkness comes a little sooner, and still, we baseball. We baseball on.