Before Saturday’s game, Cal Raleigh was reminded that the clip of his epic home run would now be in the Mariner highlight reel forever, right there with Edgar Martinez’s double.
“I hadn’t even thought about that,’’ said Raleigh, who added that he essentially “blacked out” as he danced around the bases.
The tangible results of Raleigh’s pinch-hit, two-out, two-strike home run in the bottom of the ninth on Friday for the Mariners were there for the world to see. It gave them a 2-1 win over the Oakland A’s, and clinched the team’s first playoff berth since 2001.
But beyond that clinical assessment of the Mariners’ payoff, which was profound enough to inspire a massive celebration at T-Mobile Park that radiated out to every corner of the Northwest and beyond, there was a very significant hidden benefit.
Call it the end of Mariner fatalism. The crushing of the belief that the Seattle ballclub, by dint of some indefinable flaw in their DNA, would always wilt and wither in crunchtime. Because for 20 years, the naysayers, doubters and skeptics always had the last laugh, the walk-off reproach.
It’s as if a giant burden has been lifted from the entire organization. I’m sure some people will point out that they really haven’t accomplished much yet, that the expanded playoffs diminish the scope of this achievement. Get to the World Series (the Mariners are the only major league team that has never done so), and then we can talk.
And that’s fair, to a certain extent. But when the dominant talking point about the Mariners for years has been its ever-growing playoff drought, the symbolic importance of ending it should not be minimized.
Certainly, it was not lost on manager Scott Servais, whose overriding goal since he was hired before the 2016 season has been to get the Mariners to the postseason. He has said recently that he became borderline obsessed with it.
“We’re going to end the drought,’’ he said last week. “We have heard it for seven years. Every day when I get up in the morning and I drive to work. That’s what’s on my mind.
Now that they are there (and even before), Servais has been pushing a new talking point: That this ballclub has the talent to not just get there, but to make a deep run. Yet to do that required taking the huge and, for so long, unattainable first step that they accomplished Friday night — one they couldn’t finish off in 2021 despite a furious charge that put them in playoff position heading to the final weekend.
“For me, this year started at the end of last year,’’ Servais said. “Going back to that last series we had here with the fans and the belief signs, and all of a sudden the people around town being like, ‘Hey, these guys might be OK.’
“But then, as soon as you don’t get in, it’s like, ‘Oh, they can never do this again. The bullpen was lucky, and all the one-run games and things like that. It’s not sustainable.’ But you never know. Sometimes it is.”
Yet even when analytics sites calculated the Mariners’ playoff odds with increasing optimism, eventually giving them greater than a 99% chance a couple of weeks ago, I heard from many, many people who still felt certain they would somehow blow it. And when the Mariners promptly lost 8 of 11 games to bottom-feeding teams, it seemed they might actually be in the process of the mother of all collapses.
But it didn’t happen, and now the Mariners have regained the high ground when it comes to the fatalistic mindset that doom and gloom is inevitable.
“I think that’s the biggest relief,’’ Servais said. “I said it the other day, when you’re driving to work, that’s all you’re thinking about. … Somebody’s going to say something around town, and that’s part of it. You have to earn it. You have to get over the hump.”
Servais got a classic demonstration of that dynamic when he played from 1995-98 for the Cubs — for more than a century the poster children for a team that always let down its fans in the end. Until they finally won the World Series in 2016, the Cubs spent generations futilely pursuing the title that perpetually proved to be out of their grasp.
“They were the lovable losers right? ‘The Cubs will never win.’ So it was a similar type thing,’’ Servais said. “There’s always that gray cloud hanging over your head. And there’s only one way to get through it. You’ve got to keep grinding. And lucky for us, we’ve got the team that got it done.”
Don’t think the players on the team don’t feel the release of this burden, either. Mitch Haniger was the one who penned the Players Tribune article after last season vowing to end the drought. And Haniger on Friday said that the accomplishment of that feat should free their minds to concentrate fully on the next item on the list — advancing in the postseason.
“I don’t really think it changes much because we want to keep winning and roll right in the playoffs,’’ Haniger said. “But it is nice knowing we’re in and it’s over with. Now, it’s just relax and keep playing hard and have fun.”
After Saturday’s 5-1 over Oakland, Servais observed, “That was probably the most stress-free game we’ve had in quite some time.”
He was referring primarily to starter Luis Castillo being in total command, and the makeshift lineup, missing five regular starters, executing a mistake-free game.
But he might also have been talking about the two decades of stress that were miraculously lifted by Cal Raleigh’s blast.