When I spoke on the mixed bag that the 2023 Seattle Mariners have rooted around inside recently on the Meet at the Mitt podcast, I compared them to the 2016 club, both with fondness and frustration. A flawed team, burdened with expectations beyond their capability barring truly extraordinary circumstances, seemingly upturned like an ill-treated goldfish only to jolt back to life with a flip of their fins again and again. The 2016 team’s Achilles heel was their pitching staff, which has not been this club’s issue, but their fate lived and died by three true stars at the dish: Robinson Canó, Nelson Cruz, and Kyle Seager.
In that star-crossed campaign’s dying breath, I sat in Portland wearing dress clothes on a bed that had once been mine, stealing innings of Game 161 as I snuck away from a party like Adam Sandler’s twist on The Longest Yard’s Paul Crewe. All season I saw those three stars find a way to manufacture hope, seizing the means of run production in their own hands and away from their inconsistent teammates, the embers of Junino run cold just as the uranium of Teoscar Hernández’s August reactor appears to have cooled this year. Platoons abound once more, as Dae-Ho Lee and Adam Lind and Ben Gamel and Guillermo Heredía have faded to Dylan Moore and Jarred Kelenic, Sam Haggerty and Mike Ford, José Caballero and Josh Rojas. Tonight, against a genuinely excellent outing by Texas Rangers lefty Jordan Montgomery, the M’s seemed just as destined for heartbreak as their mirrored compatriots.
The stars are present now, a triad of position players for this generation, not quite yet as vibrant as the 2016 crew but young, unpredictable, fallible, and for much of this year, unable to quite meet the moment. Cal Raleigh, a defensive stalwart who held Texas without a stolen base and will simply not get a day of rest until he’s buried six feet deep and/or the Mariners are eliminated, cracked a double that did not see him cashed in, but the more vital moment of contact came in the bottom of the 9th. Facing Aroldis Chapman, with Texas’ clinching of a playoff spot just three outs away, Raleigh punched a line drive into center to start a rally that felt for all the world like the first all season.
Julio Rodríguez, fresh off a game that could comfortably be termed the worst of his career, in performance and spiritual heft combined, clocked a solo shot just beyond Adolis García to give Logan Gilbert’s gem the dignity of avoiding a 2-0 shutout on the backs of two solo shots on a night Texas mustered just four baserunners. Julio felt what we all did postgame:
“I did think for a second, because it was kind of like a close call, but when I saw the ball fall I was like, [relieved “oof” sound]. I needed that one.”
Rodríguez nearly put himself in position to tie the game later on, with a lashed liner that Texas CF Leody Taveras managed to track down deep in the gap in the late stages of the game. As that ball hit the back of his glove, the sound in my ears was a somber echo. If the smack of a ball against the mitt in a catch with a supportive parent is spring’s melody, the thud of the last, best hope into an opponent’s outstretched palm is fall’s sinister dirge.
Not a player remains from that 2016 club, and indeed only three players on the active roster tonight were even teammates with a player who appeared on that club. One was Dominic Leone, blessedly unused, but the other two would take center stage. Dylan Moore, whose knack for big moments may be studied by scientists one day, was the final man to touch home plate tonight, poking a single against possible MVP candidate Corey Seager, whose range, well, it’s a good thing he’s hitting how he is. The splitter Moore poked through to push Raleigh to second had a .167 average against it prior to tonight, with just three hits in 71 uses, and similar numbers stretching back to last year including a 53% whiff rate.
Did not matter. Contact.
Runners in scoring position. Complete loss of command for Chapman. Wild pitch. Walk to Ty France. Bases loaded. No outs.
Pop out. Pop out.
We are left at the precipice. A club that has had the talent and more of the 90-win clubs of 2021 and 2022 but not one speck of the pixie dust they managed to sprinkle throughout their past couple seasons. The last hope strides to the plate.
“Everybody here thinks of him as the captain”— Circling Seattle Sports (@CirclingSports) September 29, 2023
-Logan Gilbert on J.P. Crawford #SeaUsRise
The Captain. Every ship needs one, and this one has one. This captain was not content, not resting on his laurels, he took ownership of his mistakes and sought solutions. Character is hard to evaluate and even harder to parse its connection to performance at times, but character is what drove J.P. Crawford, in the midst of a contract extension that has him comfortably enmeshed in Seattle’s fabric, to overhaul his abilities, to become the player who once reached as high as a top-5 prospect in baseball, consensus top-10, with expectations of “an all-star shortstop who can play above-average defense and hit for power.” Scott Servais knows who he has at the top of the lineup, who he had at the plate with two outs, bases loaded, down one, season on the line.
“As guys evolve in their careers they understand how the clubhouse is laid out. You know, he now is growing into a veteran. ... This has turned into his team. We’ve often talked about how our team flows through J.P. - not just the music - but our team. And credit to him. I am so proud of that guy and how he goes about his work every day. He shows up every day. He listens to all the Perry Hill BS (said with a smile). He has fun with it. He’s out there doing the ground ball routine every day. He never takes a day off.”
98, upper-middle, not a great pitch but no cookie from a hurried Jonathan Hernández, the ball hung so long in the air off J.P.’s bat I feared might find the same wicked trajectory as Julio’s so recently. A win was what they needed. Victory for the logistical and the spiritual in equal measure. 40,000+ willed it down, and they made their captain’s name echo, down onto the field, through the concourse, out to the field, all through the path to the light rail, the buses, along Occidental and the streets and parking lots.
J.P. on hearing the crowd chant his name:— Lookout Landing (@LookoutLanding) September 29, 2023
"There's no better feeling. Some of these moments you will never forget. It's a very vivid memory of mine already in my head. Just hearing that. There's no better feeling in the world."
"LET'S FUCKING GO" and then he signs the camera.— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) September 29, 2023