Playoff drought ended, Mariners on 'cusp of something pretty special' in Seattle

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Seattle Mariners clinch
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The drought has ended, and Seattle has a playoff baseball team again. 

Wait, that’s not quite right.

The drought has ended! Seattle has a playoff baseball team again!

Yep, that’s better. For the first time since 2001, the Mariners will play in the postseason. The clinching moment was fittingly dramatic, coming when pinch-hitter Cal Raleigh smashed a ninth-inning pitch over the right-field wall at T-Mobile Park, giving the M’s a walk-off win over the A’s on Saturday night and securing an AL wild-card spot.

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Listen to longtime Mariners TV play-by-play man Dave Sims call the moment and you’ll understand the need for exclamation points. 

It’s been a long time coming, folks.

It wasn’t that the Mariners were awful every year after 2001. It wasn’t a complete cavalcade of misery. The 2002 and 2003 teams both won 93 games but missed the postseason thanks to, I guess, bad timing. In 2004, both the Angels and Twins reached the playoffs with only 92 wins. Last year, Seattle won 90 games but missed the postseason. In 2007, 2009, 2014, 2016 and 2018, the Mariners won at least 85 games. 

Maybe that’s what made the drought so painful, though. To be so close and yet so far during an era of baseball where it’s “easier” than ever to make the postseason, it just hardly seems fair. In that same stretch, the Astros made the postseason with 86, 89 and 92 wins. The Rangers made it with 88, 90 and 93 wins. The A’s made it with 88 and 93. You get the point.

Two decades of good baseball at bad times and bad baseball at good times. 

“That’s a long time,” rookie reliever Matt Brash told The Sporting News last weekend in Kansas City. “I’m glad this team, we’re in the position that we’re in.” 

He paused. 

“This is the right team to do it.”

He’s not alone in that sentiment.

“It’s actually very emotional,” reliever Andres Munoz said. “From the very beginning of the season, we all talked about it, that this was our goal, and now it’s coming. It’s something that we’ve been wanting, that we’ve made a lot of sacrifices for.”

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But just getting into October isn’t enough. Bringing October baseball back to Seattle is just about as important for the players as actually playing postseason games. 

“Obviously, the city of Seattle deserves playoff baseball,” Ty France said. “They’ve been through a lot of tough years. It’s been 21 years since they’ve seen playoff baseball. They’ve grinded through a lot of bad teams and bad years, so they deserve it more than we do.”

Toronto has clinched the top wild-card spot — the No. 4 overall seed — and home-field advantage in the Wild Card Series. That’s almost certainly where the Mariners will travel, as the likely No. 5 seed, with Tampa Bay falling apart down the stretch. Part of the expanded playoff format in 2022 and beyond included eliminating the one-game wild-card contest (good riddance) and replacing it with a best-of-three, all in the city of the higher seed, as a reward for either winning the division (the No. 3 seed) or being the wild card team with the best record (No. 4 seed). The Rays will likely face Cleveland, the AL Central champs.

They’re not particularly concerned about the path, just confident in their ability to move forward as a talented, well-balanced and tight-knit group. 

“We’ve been thinking about that since March when we got to camp,” closer Paul Sewald said. “Every team has stretches where they don’t play well, but when we play at our best, we are as good as anybody in the league, I really believe that. The Braves just came to town and we took two of three. Those are the defending champs and a team that’s easily in the playoffs in the National League.”

Make it through the Toronto series, and the Mariners would play Games 1-2 of the ALDS in No. 1 seed Houston, against the division-rival Astros, before finally hosting a game in Seattle. What would that be like, I asked Sims.

“Have you ever been to Times Square in New York on New Year’s Eve?” he said. “I’ve been once and it was a cold night and it was insane. I’m going to multiply that by 100 and that’s what it’s going to be like in Seattle.”

The Mariners got another bit of great news on Monday. Rookie sensation Julio Rodriguez returned from the Injured List; he’s been dealing with a lower-back injury and has played only three games since mid-September. It’s impossible to overstate his impact on the team this year.

We’ll start with the numbers: In 129 games, Rodriguez — he’s just 21, keep in mind — the rookie has a 5.7 bWAR, 144 OPS+, 27 homers, 25 stolen bases, 73 RBIs and 81 runs scored. He plays center field and bats leadoff for the club. Here’s the entire list of players who have at least 25 homers, 25 stolen bases, a 140 OPS+ and 5.0 bWAR in 2022 …

1. Julio Rodriguez, Mariners

Yep, that’s it. Just Julio. Anyone who didn’t know him was introduced to him at the Home Run Derby during the All-Star festivities. He didn’t win the Derby but he did hit far more homers than anyone else (81, second place was 53) and he did eliminate two-time defending champion Pete Alonso. And he did it all with that J-Rod presence that has won over Seattle. 

“He’s exceptional beyond words, man. He really is,” Sims said. “He is gifted in so many ways. Talent, obviously, but personality. He knows who he is. Gregarious beyond belief. There’s showbiz performers who aren’t that gregarious and gracious with their time. He’s an exceptional kid. He’s going to be in Seattle until 2037, so he’s not going anywhere. He’s going to become an absolute civic treasure.”

Oh, and you can try as much as you want to get his teammates to talk about the player he is — believe me, I tried in K.C. — but every of of those players will shift the conversation.

From Mitch Haniger, who’s been in Seattle since 2016: “Total package on and off the field. Really lucky to have him. He’s a superstar in every sense of the word. Prepares the right way. I don’t look at him as a 21 year old player, because of game IQ but also because of work ethic.

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“Sometimes you see young guys come up and struggle with getting prepared and putting in the work every day. The season’s even longer than the minor league season. He’s been very prepared. Ultimate respect for that guy for how he goes about his business.”

Some shift the conversation on J-Rod sooner than later.

“First and foremost, he’s just an incredible person, an incredible kid,” Sewald said. “All he wants to do is be a great teammate and a great friend, and it’s just a bonus that he’s an absolute superstar baseball player.” 

It doesn’t take much to connect this season back to 2001, the last playoff team in Seattle. That team had a rookie sensation capture the attention of the sport, too. That was the debut season in North America for Ichiro Suzuki, who was already a globally known star in Japan and chose Seattle as his home for Major League Baseball. 

With Ichiro smacking hits all around the ballpark, the M’s got off to a hot start — 20-5 in April — and never really slowed down. Their “worst” record for any month was 18-9, which they hit in both June and July. The All-Star Game was in Seattle that year, a fitting celebration for baseball’s best team, a club that would wind up winning a record 116 games.

I felt the baseball buzz first-hand that year. This was long before I worked for The Sporting News, and I’d taken off on a meandering 40-something day road trip from St. Louis to Seattle and back, without much resembling a plan. I did want to see those Mariners play, though. My Great Uncle Don had just one piece of advice: “Make sure you sit in the Ichiro section!”

We did exactly that, finding seats way down the right-field line in the first game after the All-Star break. In many ways, it was the perfect game to tell the story of the 2001 season: Barry Bonds hit a home run for the Giants — one of his 73 on the season — and the Mariners rallied to win in walk-off fashion. I’ll never forget it. 

Turns out, there was someone from the 2022 Mariners’ team at that game, too. 

“I remember that one! I was there,” Seattle reliever Matthew Boyd said, standing outside the visitor’s clubhouse in Kansas City. “We went down to have a chance to see Barry hit. That was pretty awesome. Every time the Giants came to town, my dad made sure to get tickets.”

Boyd was born in Seattle and went to high school in Sammamish, a suburb just west of downtown, between beautiful Lake Sammamish and the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. To him, more than any other current player on the roster, the 2001 team feels sacred.  

“I was 10 years old, just enjoying baseball,” he said. “That year was really special, going down to the ballpark and getting to be part of that. That whole season, you were opening up the Seattle Times to see what player would be on the front of the sports page. It was really cool to be a Seattle sports fan." 

That he is part of this Mariners’ team is quite an incredible twist. Boyd made his MLB debut in 2015 with the Blue Jays, but was traded to Detroit as part of the rather shocking David Price trade that July. His years with the Tigers were mixed with success and injuries. The last injury, requiring flexor tendon surgery in September 2021, ended his time in Detroit. He signed with the Giants after the lockout ended, but never pitched with them as he worked through his recovery. 

He was traded to Seattle at the Aug. 2 deadline, where he’s been working out of the bullpen for the first time in his big-league career. In nine appearances, he has a 1.74 ERA. 

“It’s really, really special,” Boyd said. “Hard to even put into words, just in the sense of coming home. And not only coming home to a team that it was a childhood dream to play for, but to come into this clubhouse with these special guys, with a special organization, to be part of where they’re at — and to be welcomed in — that’s really, really cool. I’m just so thankful.”

There is one way Seattle fans hope this playoff team differs from the last playoff team. For as many games as the Mariners won in 2001, as magical as that first Ichiro season was, that was the end of baseball in October in a town that loves October baseball. It was a shocking departure for a group that seemed set up for continued success.

This group feels set up for continued success, too, and it would be even more shocking if these M’s aren’t October regulars. Rodriguez signed a long-term extension guaranteeing him at least $210 million through 2029, and could be worth as much as $470 million through 2037. 

And it’s not just him; the rotation looks set — and stacked — for the next several years. In the offseason, Seattle signed 2021 AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray to a five-year deal that runs through 2026. This year, the club traded for Cincinnati ace Luis Castillo before the trade deadline and last week gave him a five-year deal that keeps him in town through 2027. Lefty Marco Gonzales has been one of the most overlooked, underrated and reliable starters in the majors in recent years — he has a 3.94 ERA in 130 starts for Seattle since 2018 — and he’s under contract through 2024, with a club option for 2025.

The other two mainstays in the Seattle rotation are 25-year-old Logan Gilbert, who has a 3.20 ERA in 32 starts, and 24-year-old rookie George Kirby, who has a 3.39 ERA in 24 starts. Neither youngster is even arbitration-eligible for several years. It’s a group that works well together, that helps each other, as evidenced by Kirby’s addition of a two-seam fastball midway through the season, a pitch he’d never thrown in the minors. 

“I saw how Robbie implemented it in his arsenal, really gave the hitters a different look, with the two fastballs,” Kirby said. “I always struggled going in with the four-seam to lefties, and I wanted something I knew I could trust that would come back on the plate. That’s been a super good weapon for me, tunneling those pitches together and giving different looks.”

The bullpen, which has been outstanding, has embraced the nickname Los Bomberos, a name coined by Munoz. The primary pieces of the bullpen — Sewald, the closer, in addition to Munoz, Diego Castillo, Penn Murfee, Eric Swanson, Matt Brash Eric Swanson and Matthew Festa — are all under contract or club control through at least 2024. 

“When I was a little kid, I wanted to be a fireman,” Munoz said, through translator Freddy Llanos. “That’s always been in my mind, so when they started pitching ideas to see what the nickname for our bullpen would be, it seemed right, Los Bomberos, the Firemen. I feel that’s a good nickname for us. It’s not the same as what firemen do, but we come in and cool the situation down.”

Shortstop J.P. Crawford is under contract through 2026. France isn’t eligible for free agency until after 2025. Raleigh, the catcher who hit the clinching home run (his 26th of the year), is in just his second year in the bigs. Third baseman Eugenio Suarez, who came over in the offseason trade with Jesse Winker, is under contract through 2024, with a 2025 club option. He leads the team with 31 home runs and is beloved in the clubhouse.

“He’s a special human being. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him angry,” France said. “He’s always happy, just genuinely happy to be out here. He enjoys playing the game of baseball. 

“You have to give a lot of credit to our front office. They not only went out and got baseball guys, but they got good human beings. For us to mesh the way we have, I’m not surprised. It’s a fun group of guys, and I think we all understand that, for us to last past 162, it’s going to take us all pulling on the same end of the rope. We all have that same common goal in mind.”

The first step of that goal, reaching the postseason, has been clinched. The second part is bringing playoff baseball back to Seattle. The third part? Getting back year after year.

“We’re on,” France said with a grin, “the cusp of something pretty special.”

Author(s)
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Ryan Fagan, the national MLB writer for The Sporting News, has been a Baseball Hall of Fame voter since 2016. He also dabbles in college hoops and other sports. And, yeah, he has way too many junk wax baseball cards.
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