The sweet memories came flooding back on what could have been, and really should have been, Seattle’s best baseball night in a long, long time.
Ah, yes, it’s coming back to me now. This is what it used to feel like when the stadium was jammed in late September and October, when the games bristled with intensity, when it seemed like the fate of the season hung in the balance with every pitch.
That is the delicious tension that the Mariners have coaxed out of what seemed like thin air over the final month of the season. They played the Angels in front of a sold-out throng of 44,169 Friday at T-Mobile Park, and the fans roared like they used to when Junior, Edgar and the Bone roamed the Kingdome.
The only thing missing, in fact, was a Mariners victory. And that’s a massive, gut-wrenching omission, turning what fans yearned to be a massive celebration into an anti-climactic 2-1 defeat that severely dampens Seattle’s playoff hopes. It was a game that was theirs for the taking, but handed two golden scoring opportunities, the Mariners could not muster the clutch hit they needed.
“The energy we had in the dugout, we were all anxiously waiting to see who’s going to come through,” losing pitcher Marco Gonzales said. “But we weren’t able to come up with a big hit.”
It has been 19 long, agonizing seasons since the Mariners made the playoffs, and they entered this final series on the brink of ending the postseason drought that had come to define the franchise. Four teams — the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays in addition to Seattle — reached the final weekend of the regular season with a shot at two wild-card berths. The prospect of a happily chaotic ending jangled the senses of every red-blooded baseball devotee — and reawakened the latent interest that once made Seattle a true baseball town.
“This was easily the best crowd that I’ve pitched in front of in a very long time, and I think I still have chills from the energy and just how loud it was,” Gonzales said. “I can’t really explain the feeling that I had pitching in front of however many people came tonight.”
It was as if every cynical, jaded Mariners fan dropped their warranted skepticism simultaneously and decided virtually overnight it was finally safe to believe. Indeed, the Mariners have turned the word “Believe,” borrowed from the “Ted Lasso” series, into their motto. The familiar yellow sign from the show, emblazoned with that word, dotted the stands.
This homestand, with the season on the line, began with disappointingly small crowds in the teens, their volume and enthusiasm belying the sparse turnout. But after the Mariners swept the Oakland A’s this week and pulled into a tie with the Boston Red Sox for the second wild-card playoff berth, it set off a veritable ticket stampede. All three games this weekend are close to sellouts, and the Mariners hoped to ride the sheer force of their newly unleashed support as far as it will take them.
“Everyone wants to talk about the ’95 season and the run they had, what the Kingdome was like,” Mariners manager Scott Servais had said before the game. “I was playing at the time, and I remember watching from afar and saying, ‘Wow, what kind of an atmosphere that must be.’ It’s been a while since they got this excited about baseball. It’s a credit to our players that we’ve been able to break through to get to this point.”
Servais noted that a raucous crowd can impact a ballgame by getting in heads of an opposing team.
“I do know when you go into a ballpark like that as a visiting player, it can be daunting,” he said. “You hear it. All of a sudden, anxiety picks up. It’s not like the right tackle moves early and you get a five-yard penalty, but we can certainly take advantage of what the crowd is going to bring tonight, the pressure they’ll put on the other team and the boost they give our guys.”
The Mariners were in the best possible situation, in control of their own destiny, as the expression goes. That means they didn’t need to rely on help from other teams; if they won their final three games, they would keep playing. But now they once again need help, in the form of a Red Sox loss to a bad Nationals team. It’s a lot to ask, maybe too much.
The Angels, meanwhile, entered the series nine games under .500, with nothing to play for but pride. They possess the MLB’s most celebrated player in 2021, Shohei Ohtani, a two-way wonder at the plate and on the mound. And they didn’t seem daunted at all, even when the Mariners scored first on a second-inning double by rookie Jarred Kelenic.
The crowd was itching to cut loose, and Kelenic, whose emergence from a season-long slump has been a major storyline for the Mariners, gave them a reason with his drive into the right-field corner. Abraham Toro, running from first, was daringly waved home, and would have been dead to rights if the throw hadn’t been offline.
But that moment, as electrifying as it was, wasn’t sustained by Seattle. The Angels reached Gonzales for two runs in the third, while Angels pitching stymied the Mariners. The fans tried their best to coax more out of the Mariners, and finally succeeded in the seventh.
Or so it seemed. Luis Torrens led off with a triple into the right-field corner that increased the decibel level multifold. The Mariners seemed to be on the verge of at least tying the game, which would have sent the crowd into a frenzy. But after a walk, reliever Jose Quijada came on to strike out three Mariners hitters in a row and shock the throngs into a stunned silence.
They had one last chance in the ninth to get the storybook ending that this situation called for, at least if you believe in fate, or in schmaltz. Kyle Seager, possibly playing the final series of his distinguished Mariners career, led off with a double into the right-field corner. But this was not a night for a Hollywood ending. Torrens grounded weakly to the pitcher. Toro popped out. And Kelenic flied out.
Another golden opportunity squandered, the story of an electrified night turned dark.
“We’ve played this game so many times this year, and we’ve always been able to put something together,” Servais said. “Tonight we just didn’t execute like we normally do.”
And then he said, “We’re at the moment of truth.”
Everything had fallen into place this week for the Mariners to win back their faithful who had turned unfaithful. Exciting games. Stirring victories. Unexpected losses by the teams they needed to lose. There is nothing quite like a town turning its collective hearts over to a sports team, and this transition has been building throughout a season in which little was expected of the Mariners.
The fans tried their best to will the Mariners to a victory Friday night. But in what had been a magical season, the magic ran out, at the most inopportune time. The Mariners now have just two games to get it back.
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