There’s a center fielder named Julio Rodriguez who’s 21 and awesome — so awesome his peers selected him to the All-Star Game in his first season in Major League Baseball.
There’s also a first baseman named Ty France who has had a stellar year — but not stellar enough to convince those same peers he is All-Star worthy, prompting the word “snub” to proliferate across Northwest social media Sunday.
Normally, these two would be the primary points of discussion among Mariners die-hards, but that’s not the case right now. No, instead the hot topic is the hottest team in baseball — a club that, in three weeks, has gone from out of contention to out of this world.
At the risk of hyperbole or moment-imprisonment, these past 19 games have been one of the greatest responses to adversity in Mariners history. On June 19, the club lost for the ninth time in 12 games and, after a disastrous series against the Los Angeles Angels, fell 10 games below .500. Twenty-one days later, Seattle (45-42) is tied with Toronto for the third American League wild-card spot after winning eight straight and 16 of its past 19.
In automotive terms, the M’s transformed from a Yugo to a Lambo in about 500 hours. And the way they’re shattering opponents that dare share the diamond with them, they don’t look like a team merely in the hunt; they look like one on the hunt.
“I’ve often said that your character is really revealed when you’re struggling, and you find out about people when things are not going good, and we certainly went through our struggles early,” said Mariners manager Scott Servais, whose team has won its past six series. “But I believe in this team, I’ve always believed in it. We work, we prepare as well as any team in the league, and if you keep doing those things and being consistent with your process, eventually they’ll pay off.”
Since June 19, the Mariners’ 16-3 record has been the best in MLB. Before Sunday’s 6-5 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, they ranked first in ERA since that date, sixth in runs and seventh in OPS.
They are the only team in Major League Baseball to have five different pitchers produce at least five quality starts (six innings or more with three earned runs or fewer), and their offseason whale — reigning American League Cy Young winner Robbie Ray — has given up just four earned runs in his past 42 2/3 innings.
Of course, the pitching wasn’t considered a key factor in the Mariners’ dismal May and early June. The onus fell on the offense, which had long led the league in stranded base runners. But now those base runners are traveling 360 feet instead of being cut off at 270, 180 or 90. After spending two months on a labor strike, the timely hits are working triple-overtime.
The timeliest hit Sunday came from first baseman Carlos Santana, with whom the Mariners are 11-1 since acquiring him from the Kansas City Royals. After a solo homer in the first inning, the Dominican socked a two-run dinger in the eighth to put the Mariners up 6-5 en route to their 18th one-run victory of the season — tied for the second-most in MLB.
Yes, those “fun differential” M’s from last season seem to have resurrected themselves. They’ve got five walk-off wins, including one via third baseman Eugenio Suarez in the 11th inning Friday night.
It’s all starting to click. That doesn’t mean it will continue to click, but with the once absent run support becoming abundant for this increasingly dominant pitching staff, Mariners fans can start to dream big.
“Can” is the operative word there. That’s a lot different from “should.” This franchise has teased this town too many times with its oh-so-close seasons, only to miss the playoffs every year since 2001.
That’s why I asked Servais if catching the Blue Jays in the wild-card race was cause for celebration. “Can’t celebrate anything,” Servais said. “Everybody knows — the drought. It rains a lot in Seattle, so we gotta end the drought.”
Scorching as the Mariners are, the algorithms are still skeptical. FanGraphs.com gives the M’s a 45.6% chance of making the playoffs, while the Blue Jays are at 80% and the 41-43 White Sox are at 51.1.
But the odds shouldn’t matter to the Mariners. After all, it was probably more than 200-to-1 they would win 16 out of 19 after their mid-June plunge.
They were dead in the water three weeks ago. Now, they’re knocking ’em dead.