In the clubhouse Wednesday, Robbie Ray caught a snippet of the Mariners’ broadcast when his excellent seven-inning outing had ended after perhaps one pitch too many.
“I overheard them saying that’s like a couple of playoff teams going at it,” Ray said. “That’s what it felt like, especially with the atmosphere and the sold-out crowds. I mean, it seemed like it was punch for punch, every single pitch, every single inning.”
It’s getting increasing realistic to envision real, live playoff games for the Mariners in October, even for the hardcore grumps and ingrained pessimists (you know who you are) who have been conditioned by 20 years of failures to expect the worst.
The worst is indeed still possible, and would constitute the most bitter, cruel and unconscionable collapse of the drought era. But with an 89.2 percent chance of the Mariners making the playoffs as of Friday, via FanGraphs, it’s time for even the most jaded to wrap their brains around this reality:
The Mariners are set up beautifully to end their two-decade playoff absence.
Of course, even that doesn’t guarantee they’ll get their first home playoff game since Oct. 18, 2001, when the 116-win M’s lost Game 2 of the ALCS to the Yankees. Manager Lou Piniella thundered out of the clubhouse after the game and heatedly told the assembled media in the Safeco Field tunnel that the Mariners, down 2-0 in the series, would definitely be coming back to Seattle for Game 6.
Spoiler alert: They didn’t come back from Yankee Stadium, losing the series in five games. And the Mariners are still waiting to return in the postseason. Under the new format in 2022, the lower-seeded team in the first round must play the entire best-of-three series on the road. With Friday night’s win over the Rangers, the Mariners moved a half-game ahead of the Blue Jays for the first-place wild-card spot.
But who takes the No. 1 spot is an issue for another time. The preeminent goal of the Mariners, of course, is to sew up that long-elusive playoff berth, regardless of seeding. And let us count the ways that outcome is weighted in their favor.
- The lineup is returning to health. Mitch Haniger is back after a three-month absence. Dylan Moore came off the injured list Wednesday, and the indispensable Julio Rodriguez returned Friday, with Jesse Winker back as well after missing two games of the Yankees series because of a sore back. Reliever Diego Castillo also came off the IL this past week. As manager Scott Servais said Wednesday, “We’ll be as close to full strength as we have been all year.”
- Having survived a rugged 20-game stretch after the All-Star break with 13 games against the Astros and Yankees, the schedule now becomes hugely favorable for Seattle. The Mariners, in fact, have the easiest schedule in baseball over their final 49 games beginning Friday, facing teams with a combined .442 winning percentage. The only teams with winning records they face the rest of the year are the Guardians (seven games), Braves (three games) and Padres (two games), plus three with the .500 White Sox.
All the rest are against sub-.500 teams, including a closing 20-game stretch (the last 10 at home) against the Angels, A’s, Royals, Rangers, A’s again and Tigers, who are a combined 103 games under .500. If the Mariners can’t finish it off with that opposition (and many of their wild-card competition concurrently playing much more formidable schedules), well, they don’t deserve to advance.
- The addition of elite starter Luis Castillo is a difference-maker who will help the Mariners overcome an offense that has been one of the weakest in baseball since the All-Star break. Their attack should get better with the return of Rodriguez and Haniger, in particular. But right now the Mariners are showing a playoff-caliber pitching staff that should sustain them down the stretch.
If you want to really dream, the Mariners have the sort of staff that projects quite nicely for postseason success, if they get there (especially if they clinch early enough to have the luxury of setting their rotation).
Castillo is a bona fide No. 1, as he showed vividly in two starts against the Yankees, particularly the last one in which he blanked them on three hits over eight innings; his team has a strong chance to win any game he starts. The Mariners, in fact, could deploy a formidable rotation in any short series (Castillo, Ray, Logan Gilbert) with George Kirby, Marco Gonzales and Chris Flexen as long men (or spot starters in a seven-game series) and the sort of lockdown bullpen with power arms that are vital in the postseason.
Again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The task for the Mariners now is to get there, and worry about what happens next only after that is accomplished. Despite the rosy outlook I painted, the path ahead is still fraught with danger, if for no other reason than muscle memory. They must show that they can do the expected, now that they’ve shown they can do the unexpected (a 22-3 stretch, including 14 wins in a row, to resurrect their season in June and July).
But the just-completed Yankees series at T-Mobile Park was a stark illustration that this Mariners team has completely risen above the dismal early-season stretch that had them 10 games under .500 on June 19 and seemingly buried in the playoff race.
Their spectacular 13-inning, 1-0 win Tuesday, in particular — a game Servais said he’ll remember the rest of his life — was an affirmation that this Mariners team is different. And barring unforeseen disaster, the result will be different from the past 20 years.