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Challenge of the Week: Scott Servais does it with emphasis

It wasn’t me he was foolin’ ‘cause he knew what he was doin

Honorary Coach Scott Servais #9 of the Seattle Mariners looks on during the T-Mobile Home Run Derby at T-Mobile Park  Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images

Back in the mid-80s, you would have been surprised to learn that a white teen from rural Wisconsin, like, say, Scott Servais, was listening to hip hop. But that all started to change in 1986 when Run-DMC covered Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way,” leading to a collaboration with the original artists in one of the most iconic music videos of all time.

The most ambitious crossover event of 1986 was both a foundational moment in sending hip hop into the mainstream and launched a second act for Aerosmith, who’d been dormant for years.

Scott Servais in his third act at this point, having been a player, a front-office executive, and now an on-field manager. And he’s farther into that third act than you might think: he’s currently the fourth-longest tenured manager in MLB.

He’s diligently tended the club’s vibes year after year, which isn’t an easy task for a 26-man group from six different countries. But he’s risen to the challenge again and again. This marks the third season in a row that he’s led a mid-season turnaround. In 2021, he took a group that was projected for 74 wins and which opened the season 21-26 and led them to 90 wins. Last year, he led a 29-39 team to a 14-game winning streak, another 90 wins, and the franchise’s first postseason berth in two decades. This year, he’s helmed a team that was 50-50 through its first 100 games and brought them to 17 games over .500. These aren’t the kinds of things that happen to a club without a steady hand at the top. To be sure, it’s certainly possible to succeed despite, or even because of, group discord—just ask Fleetwood Mac. But the degree of difficulty is much higher.

Servais has balanced that off-field leadership with good game management, too. He’s had a knack for putting players in spots where they can succeed. His bullpen management has been discussed at length both here and elsewhere. But don’t lose sight of his smart uses of pinch-hitting. The team is platoon-heavy by design, but he knows when to push which buttons. In 2021, the Mariners led the American League in wRC+ from pinch hitters. Last year, they did it again. They’ve slipped some this year, but are still third, like they were in 2020. Even in 2019, when the team only won 68 games, they were still eighth in the AL in pinch-hitting success. Since Scott took over as manager, the Mariners are the only team in baseball with a wRC+ over 100 from pinch hitters.

His success rate on challenged calls is more mixed, although usually that’s a decision made by the replay room. But when Scott takes charge, he gets it right, like not hesitating at all in this week’s (re)Play of the Week. Servais isn’t known for being an expressive guy, but he wasn’t going to let anyone think he had any doubts about Tuesday’s play at the plate: He called for this challenge with all the moxie and mettle of Aerosmith crashing through that wall.

That might have been the decisive play of the game, which sent the team onto a long road trip in high spirits. Keeping spirits high is perhaps the most important part of the modern manager’s job, and it’s also the hardest to see from the outside. Mostly, the proof has been in the pudding for Scott Servais, leading three years of midseason turnarounds. The reporting on Scott has long been that he lets the players do a lot of the leading, like giving Eugenio Suárez a prime spot at team meetings. But he’s still in charge, something we saw when we got a glimpse into his clubhouse management after the game with that challenged call.

Just like Aerosmith and Run-DMC, Scott understands the value of collaboration: Julio had the idea and bought the outfits, and Scott (with his daughter’s help) tracked down Rev. Run.

Honorable Mentions

Logan with the paint

Kodai Senga took the headlines, especially after the Mets ended up winning, but Logan Gilbert put in a fine performance on Friday. He was one strike away from a line of 7 IP, 1 R, 5 H, 10 K, 0 BB. He didn’t quite get there, but you knew it was going to be a great outing when he ended the first inning with this 97-mph dot against (future Mariner?) Pete Alonso.

J.P. Crawford coming through early and late

Our captain has been leading by example all year. His 135 wRC+ is the fourth best hitting season from a Mariners shortstop. He’s sandwiched in the middle of A-Rod’s five seasons, and is miles clear of number seven on the list (Jean Segura’s 111 from 2017). He’s been powered up all year, but seemed to take it to another level this week, beginning Monday’s game with a leadoff home run and bookending it with the game-winning ninth-inning bomb on Saturday.