SEATTLE -- They smelled first place before they even took the field. They yearned it even more when the ticketed 45,175 at T-Mobile Park appropriately acted like they were watching a team in a pennant race.
And by the time the Mariners recorded the 27th out in a 7-5 victory over the Royals on Friday night, they reached territory they haven’t occupied in more than two decades.
Seattle (72-56) holds a share of first place in the American League West this late in the season for the first time since Aug. 26, 2003.
Let that sink in.
Thanks to losses from the Astros in Detroit and the Rangers in Minnesota, the Mariners climbed into a tie with Texas and advanced to a half-game lead over Houston, which it also surpassed for the second AL Wild Card spot.
“Like Jay Buhner once said, 'Forget the Wild Card, man, we're going for that division,’” J.P. Crawford said.
For a team that spent 23 days at exactly .500 -- which is still an MLB high -- the most recent of which was when they entered play exactly one month ago, the second-half rise has been resounding. On June 30, the Mariners were 38-42 and 10 games out of first.
And for a franchise whose brightest moments are rooted in yesteryear, it’s becoming impossible not to draw the parallels between the 2023 club and that of 1995, the team that also hovered in the middle most of the year, finally took off to win its first division crown on the season’s final day and, ultimately, saved baseball in Seattle.
“It's been a long time, certainly since the Mariners have been in this position,” manager Scott Servais said. “It's a credit to our players, staff and organization. We got off to a rough start this year with really high expectations. We have a lot of baseball yet to play.”
Yet, reaching these uncharted heights wasn’t easy. Facing the team that’s been perhaps their peskiest opponent this year, the Mariners had to overcome a blown lead early then stave off a late K.C. rally -- including a bases-loaded jam with two outs in the ninth inning behind Andrés Muñoz, who struck out pinch-hitter Freddy Fermin to end the game.
Just prior, Eugenio Suárez led an impassioned mound meeting reassuring the up-and-down leverage reliever, which was maybe his biggest contribution on a night where he ripped a go-ahead single in the fourth and added an insurance run in the eighth. It was a sequence emblematic of Seattle’s second-half surge: When one player stumbles, the others rise.
“Just letting him know that, 'You are the best here and you've got the baseball in your hand,'” Suárez recounted of the confab with Muñoz. “And letting him know, 'You got it.'”
Beyond Muñoz, Bryce Miller labored through 34 pitches in the second that led to three runs and ballooned his workload, forcing him out after the fourth. Just as it became clear that Miller’s night was done, Suárez ripped a two-out, two-run, go-ahead single with the bases loaded to regain a 4-3 lead.
Then in the fifth, Teoscar Hernández scored on a wild pitch after lining his 26th double and advancing to third on a single from Dominc Canzone, and Canzone scored when red-hot Josh Rojas lined him home with a single.
That followed a first inning in which Crawford crushed his longest career homer (432 feet) on the first pitch and Julio Rodríguez singled, stole his 35th base and scored on an RBI knock from Cal Raleigh.
Yet, dating back to their four-gamer in Kansas City last week, the Royals have proven that no lead seems safe. Matt Brash surrendered a leadoff single in the seventh, then a two-run homer that made it a one-run game. But Tayler Saucedo, Justin Topa and Muñoz carried Seattle scoreless to the finish line.
“We didn't do that in the first half,” Seravis said. “We are swinging the bat. And as many critiques as we had on our offense early in the season, our guys have flipped the script.”
There are 34 games remaining, an eternity given how tight this AL West race figures to be down to the wire -- especially considering that Seattle’s final 10 are against Texas and Houston. But for how long the Mariners’ second-half surge has lasted and how reinvigorated the fanbase has become after a disappointing first half, a sellout on the heels of an 8-2 road trip showed that it's daring to dream.
That ‘95 run nearly three decades ago remains among the most iconic in the history of sports in the Emerald City. And nights like Friday showed that maybe -- just maybe -- there’s something similar brewing here in 2023.