Ever the gentleman, Eugenio Suarez leaned to the side and motioned for Julio Rodriguez to step up to the podium for their shared postgame news conference. Rodriguez obliged and sat down first, in a chair to Suarez’s right.
Problem was, as the Seattle sluggers settled into their seats, the in-house camera at T-Mobile Park was zoomed in only on Suarez. The news conference had to wait, just a moment, please, so the camera could pan out to include both of them.
Never one to shy away from the spotlight, Rodriguez immediately leaned in close to Suarez’s right shoulder until he could see himself enter the tight frame on a TV mounted in the back of the room. Then Rodriguez flashed that smile — oh, you know that smile — that has won over an entire city in one short summer and could, perhaps, take over an entire sport come October.
Nothing seems impossible now, does it?
That was the feeling already, the Mariners insisted later, inside the home dugout before the bottom of the ninth inning Sunday afternoon, before Rodriguez hit the game-tying home run off one of the most accomplished closers in the game, and before Suarez followed with a walkoff blast, giving the Mariners their most amazing victory of the season in a season already stuffed with so many of them.
Final score: Mariners 8, Braves 7.
Final result: Here … they … come.
If you didn’t believe before, if you’ve been bracing for the worst because that’s what being a Seattle Mariners fan has conditioned you for, then Rodriguez offered the loudest and most dramatic evidence yet that this year will be different for this team, this time.
The Braves delivered a gut-punch in the top of the ninth inning. Then they delivered another, hitting one massive home run and then a second to erase a four-run deficit with two outs (and two strikes) and stun a sold-out crowd of 45,245 at T-Mobile Park.
Back in the dugout before the start of the bottom of the ninth, Rodriguez, the Mariners’ 21-year-old rookie, implored his teammates.
“Come on boys,” he kept telling them.
“He was yelling at everybody: ‘We can’t give up,'” Suarez said.
After Sam Haggerty was thrown out on a bunt attempt to lead off the ninth, Rodriguez came to the plate for his first appearance against Kenley Jansen, the longtime Dodgers closer in his first season in Atlanta. Jansen’s cutter has been one of the game’s most effective pitches for a decade, and Rodriguez said that’s the pitch he was looking for initially.
Then Jansen, on a 1-1 pitch, made a mistake by throwing a hanging slider down the middle. Rodriguez didn’t miss it.
The ball rocketed off Rodriguez’s bat at 117.2 mph, with a launch angle of 17 degrees. It left the park in a hurry, bouncing off the scoreboard in left field and tying the score at 7-7.
Rodriguez spiked his bat toward the M’s dugout. He said he wanted to come through for his teammates in that moment.
“I’m just happy they let me be who I am,” Rodriguez said. “They know at the end of the day I’m playing for them. We all play for each other.”
It was the hardest hit of Rodriguez’s career and one of the eight hardest hits in the majors this season. It was his second home run of the game — he hit a leadoff homer off Atlanta starter Jake Odorizzi — and 25th of the season.
“Everything Julio does is special. He gives us that comfort,” Suarez said.
Suarez delivered the finishing shot, turning on a 93 mph cutter on the inner half and sending it into the Mariners bullpen beyond the wall in left-center. It was also Suarez’s second homer of the game, his fifth in his past four games, and team-leading 30th of the season.
Suarez, in his first season in Seattle, has become one of the most respected voices on the team, and his Good Vibes Only ethos has paired well with Rodriguez’s youthful exuberance and natural charisma, and that all bleeds through in a tight-knit clubhouse.
“It just speaks to the magic we’ve got going on here,” pitcher Marco Gonzales said. “It starts with all the guys in that room.”
Gonzales pitched one of his best games ever for the Mariners, all things considered. Atlanta’s lineup has feasted on left-handed pitchers this season, but Gonzales held them to just two hits, with five strikeouts and no walks. The only run he allowed came on a home run by Austin Riley.
Adam Frazier had given the M’s the lead in the third inning with a two-run triple, and J.P. Crawford’s RBI double extended it to 6-1 in the sixth.
Seattle’s bullpen, so reliable for so long, collapsed late. Michael Harris II, Atlanta’s own stellar rookie center fielder, hit a 380-foot blast off Erik Swanson in the eighth and then a 433-foot bomb off Diego Castillo with two on and two outs in the ninth.
Robbie Grossman followed with a two-run home run to deep right field off Paul Sewald to give Atlanta a 7-6 lead.
“It was pretty deflating. Every game matters for us,” Sewald said. “And to feel like you blew it was tough. Thank goodness they pulled it out. Every single guy said the same thing: ‘You’ve saved us 25 times this year. Every once in a while it’s OK for us to save you.’”
With the win, the Mariners (79-61) moved up to the top spot in the American League wild-card chase, in a tie with Tampa Bay.
The Rays (78-60), Blue Jays (78-61) and Orioles (73-67) had all lost Sunday.
October inches closer, in every way.
“I believe in this team,” Rodriguez said. “… I feel like we have a chance. We have the guys. And that’s why I was confident we would be able to come through in that last inning. I know what we’ve got on this team.”