Mariners catch A's, keep pace in Wild Card

Seattle remains focused, three back of WC spot with 11 games left

September 22nd, 2021

OAKLAND -- The scene was a Zoom call in mid-January with local media previewing the 2021 season, and their tones were confident and firm. and unapologetically projected that the Mariners’ only barometer for success this year would be winning.

Not individual player development. Not a much-improved farm system. Not the potential from its unproven talent in the years to come.

Winning and winning alone was the measure that Seattle needed to chase in the eyes of its blossoming shortstop and No. 1 starter. So, it was perhaps fitting that those two -- widely regarded as clubhouse leaders for the present and future -- were the key contributors in a 5-2 victory on Tuesday that clinched the club’s 82nd win, and with it, the Mariners’ first winning season since 2018.

Gonzales navigated his way through six solid innings to continue his stellar second half and Crawford backed him up with a few stellar plays that boosted his candidacy for a second straight Gold Glove Award. He also crushed his ninth homer in the ninth inning as insurance.

A pair of fourth-inning triples from Jarred Kelenic and Dylan Moore were also crucial moments in the victory, which pushed Seattle into a tie with the A’s in the American League Wild Card standings at 82-69, three games back of the final spot.

The other three teams ahead of them in the hunt -- the Red Sox (87-65), Blue Jays (85-66) and Yankees (85-67), in that order -- all won on Tuesday, so Seattle remains three games back with 11 to play. But the Mariners are staying in the hunt, even though they are running out of time and would need to supplant at least two of those clubs to clinch their first playoff bid since their 116-win season in 2001.

And that remains the ultimate goal, rendering Tuesday’s mini-milestone a little more moot.

“It's important, but it doesn't really mean much,” Gonzales said of ensuring an above-.500 season. “We still have a lot of work to do, and so we're not going to hang our hat there. I’m proud of this group, proud of the work we put in, but we have significant work to do still. So, we’ve got to keep our heads down.”

Before looking ahead to this final week and a half, it’s worth circling back to those candid conversations in January.

What made Gonzales and Crawford so convinced -- despite the club's limited spending in free agency, a lot of promising-but-unproven prospects and external projections that had them finishing well under .500 -- that the Mariners would surprise their fans, competitors and perhaps even their own front office by battling in the playoff hunt this late in the year?

“A lot of different things,” Gonzales said. “It's hard to explain. Some of it was just gut feeling. Some of it was just willing it into existence. But I think the big thing is just the character, the guys. Like I said, we all get along really well. And there's just enough salt in the clubhouse to keep things interesting. And I think that's a pretty good combo. We saw that early on, and we said, ‘If we get on a roll, we can have something special here.’”

“We all knew we could do this and the type of team we have, so it's nothing new to us,” Crawford said. “It's been fun, though. I mean, it's been really fun. We love that energy, though. Everyone keeps down on us and we keep proving people wrong.”

Eight months ago, Crawford was speaking with confidence, but he didn’t quite carry the credibility he has now as “the heart and soul” of the team, as his manager called him three weeks ago, the heir apparent leader of Seattle’s position-player nucleus if Kyle Seager doesn’t return next year. Gonzales was coming off an impressive 2020 without the longevity of a 162-game season, though his voice still echoed louder.

Either way, both were clearly onto something, because whether their season will continue beyond these final 11 games or not, there’s no denying that the Mariners have shifted the competitive landscape in the AL West.

Seattle has now won 10 of 14 (and seven in a row) against the defending division champion A’s, and they still have another three-game series against them next week at T-Mobile Park. They are also 39-26 against the division this year for a .600 winning percentage that trails only the first-place Astros.

But they’re not popping champagne, patting themselves on the back or relishing in the huge step forward that they’ve taken as arguably the biggest surprise team in the Majors this season. No, there’s still too much to play for in the eyes of two of their most confident -- and competitive -- clubhouse leaders.