A little over a year after he threw his first professional pitch in the Gulf Coast League, as the Cardinals’ first-round draft pick out of Gonzaga, Marco Gonzales stepped on the mound of Dodger Stadium in Game 1 of the National League Division Series.

With the Dodgers knocking around Adam Wainwright early and St. Louis trailing 6-2, the 22-year-old Gonzales pitched a scoreless bottom of the sixth inning, allowing one hit. And when his team rallied against Clayton Kershaw in the top of the seventh, scoring eight runs in the frame and eventually prevailing 10-9, Gonzales was credited with the win.

Not a bad postseason debut.

Gonzales would make six appearances in the 2014 playoffs before the Cardinals lost to the Giants in the NL championship series.

It was the last time he got to experience the thrill of the postseason. Injuries in 2015 kept him off the Cardinals’ postseason roster. When he was traded to the Mariners midway through the 2017 season, he inherited a playoff drought that would dominate his thoughts and motivations over the next five seasons.

Fast forward to Wednesday’s final game of the 2022 regular season, with the Mariners having clinched a spot in the playoffs and thinking of the three-game series in Toronto, Gonzales jogged to the mound of T-Mobile Park, knowing that he wouldn’t be on the postseason roster for at least the wild-card series, and that, win or lose, pitching for as long as he could on Wednesday would be how could contribute this team’s postseason success.  

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Gonzales gave the Mariners seven innings of work, and the Mariners ended the 2022 regular season with 5-4 victory over the Tigers on Ty France’s bases-loaded walk-off single down the first-base line in the ninth inning.

The Mariners finished with a 90-72 record for a second straight season. But this one certainly feels different with the team headed to Toronto after the game.

“An exclamation point on our regular season,” Servais said. “Ninety wins, man. It’s hard to get there, and doing it in back to back years.”

On June 19, they lost 4-0 to the fall to the Angels. They were 29-39 and trending toward irrelevance.

“We’re 10 games below .500, and we go 61-33 from that moment forward,” Servais said. “That’s a credit to our players. The game is about the players. It’s always been about the players and always will be. Our guys they enjoy playing; they enjoy competing. They don’t back off. It doesn’t matter what the stakes are. And that’s what excites me so much about going forward.”

No player represents that mindset more than Gonzales, who has been the leader of the pitching staff since the 2018 season.

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“Credit to Marco, he knew what he was up against today,” Servais said. “There’s nobody I’d rather have out there in that position, knowing what he’s done for our team here over the years.”

It wasn’t Gonzales’ normal turn in the rotation, but with the M’s unlikely to pass the Blue Jays for the top wild-card spot, they pushed his start to Wednesday to allow Logan Gilbert to get extra rest to presumably start a game in the wild-card series.

It also meant that Gonzales wouldn’t be on the roster for the wild-card series.

“That’s a huge role for them to put on me, and I embraced it,” Gonzales said. “Just empty the tank to be able to give us a chance to be fresh going into the games. I welcome that. That’s a huge role for me. So anything I can do to put us in a good position going into the playoffs, it’s what I’m here for.”

Disappointed but not deleterious, Gonzales, the son of a longtime coach, understood what was needed in a way many other pitchers in his situation might not.

“I’ve had a lot of people that have believed in me along the way and pushed me to be better,” he said. “I’m not the biggest dude and I don’t throw the hardest. So I have to compete, I have to have those intangibles that set me aside. that’s what’s gotten me to this point. Hopefully, that’s what keeps me around. That’s why we’re here. It’s because we’ve set that culture that the team wins come first.”

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Gonzales will find more ways to contribute in Toronto.

“I was the starting pitcher on this team for all 162 games and helped get us here,” he said. “I’m proud to be part of this team and whatever that means going forward. For me, I’ll embrace it and I’ll show up and bring some energy for us in Toronto. That’s all I can do.”

Servais was quick to point out that Gonzales could be on the postseason roster if the Mariners advance past the wild-card round.

“He’s done nothing but show up to work and throw 30 times a year, and it’s pretty impressive,” Paul Sewald said. “I know he’s disappointed that he’s not going to pitch against the Blue Jays, but I’m hoping to have another series and another series and another series where Marco maybe is going to win a game that helps us get to the World Series.”

It looked like Gonzales’ teammates would provide him with ample run support. Julio Rodriguez greeted Tigers starter Tyler Alexander with a mammoth leadoff homer to add another accolade to his stellar rookie season.

Rodriguez crushed a cutter up in the zone, sending a missile into the upper deck in left field for his first homer since returning from the injured list and his 28th homer of the season, which set a Mariners rookie record, surpassing the 27 of Mr. Mariner Alvin Davis.

Two batters later, Mitch Haniger continued his recent surge, launching a solo homer into the Mariners bullpen for a 2-0 lead. With two hits, Haniger has 13 in his last nine games, including four homers and 10 RBI.

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After working the first three innings scoreless, a two-out walk to Spencer Torkelson and a double to Eric Haase would lead to two runs in the fourth inning. Abraham Toro’s offline throw to first after bare-handing Jeimer Candelario’s swinging bunt allowed both runners to score.

The Tigers pushed the lead to 3-2 in the fifth on Javy Baez’s two-out single to center.

The Mariners briefly retook the lead in the bottom of the sixth when Luis Torrens smacked a two-run homer to left off Alexander for a 4-3 lead.

Gonzales couldn’t hold the lead, giving up another frustrating two-out single when Riley Greene looped a ball to center to score a run.

After a quick visit from pitching coach Pete Woodworth and his pitch count over 100, Gonzales pounced on Torkelson’s swinging bunt and fired to first to end the seventh.

He received a strong ovation from his teammates for his efforts.

“You can’t give him enough credit,” France said. “For him to come out here and give us seven today, knowing our bullpen needed some rest. It’s very impressive, and honestly, I’m not surprised. I’m proud to call him a teammate.”

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