The Ballad of Big Dumper: How Mariners seized the moment

October 6th, 2022

SEATTLE -- It had to happen this way, in the most dramatic, euphoric, edge-of-your-seat thriller. The stakes of snapping the longest active playoff void in American professional sports demanded an emphatic ending to the drought that has weighed down this region for two decades.

Diving into Cal Raleigh’s massive walk-off home run that secured a 2-1 victory and playoff berth, consider the backyard-type moment that manifested:

Bottom of the ninth, two outs, full count, packed ballpark, a fan base eager to celebrate. A guy at the plate with the nickname "Big Dumper" -- of all things! -- with the chance to put his teammates (and a city) on his shoulders. Add in the fact that he was pinch-hitting and with one swing could send said team into the playoffs, how often does that happen?

Literally never.

Cobble all those circumstances together, and Raleigh’s game-winning homer on Friday was the first of its kind in MLB history, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. It featured all the ingredients that kids dream of, and it was perhaps even more fitting for this Mariners team, one that before Raleigh’s epic swing, hadn’t reached the postseason since 2001.

“There was no other way it was going to happen,” Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto said. “We said it upstairs, this one was going to go down in some weird way.”

Even more so, it was fitting for Raleigh, the switch-hitting backstop who’s emerged among the game’s top power-hitting catchers. His 26th homer extended his MLB high at the position, and the pitch he demolished, a low-and-in slider -- a pitcher’s pitch -- embodied how far he’s come in his progression, specifically hitting breaking balls.

With no one on and needing one run to win, Raleigh worked a 2-0 count on two changeups from Oakland reliever Domingo Acevedo, who then went slider heavy. Raleigh cut through the first, fouled off another then dug out the decisive one -- not necessarily a bad pitch -- and pulled it with the utmost authority, resulting in arguably the most significant home run in Mariners history since the 25-year-old was in diapers.

How’d he do it?

“It’s a big moment, a lot of people here,” Raleigh said. “It just goes back to having a good approach. That’s about all I got.”

Just as impressive was that he did so off the bench, having been out of the starting lineup against a lefty while nursing a sore left thumb suffered while sliding head-first into first base on a single against the Padres on Sept. 14. Yet, Raleigh left T-Mobile Park on Thursday urging manager Scott Servais to include him in the starting lineup.

“He's got the bad thumb,” Servais said. “He came into my office after the game last night and said, 'I can go tomorrow. I want to play,' and I said, ‘No, we're trying to win the war here.’ We've got a battle tomorrow night but we're trying to win the war and he's a big part of what we do.”

Raleigh pressed and Servais seceded that he’d allow him a chance if game circumstances dictated -- which is precisely what manifested when Oakland called Acevedo for the ninth in a 1-1 game. Mitch Haniger and Carlos Santana, two veterans, each struck out, putting the game on the brink of extras, and Raleigh looked like he might be on his way before he broke through in the biggest of ways.

“You stay ready, you look at the matchups,” Raleigh said. “I knew there was a chance for me to come up in that ninth inning and I was just staying ready and staying loose.”

Mariners history aside -- and it’s big history for them, for obvious reasons -- consider that in late April, Raleigh was demoted to the Minors to sort out his swing and confidence, the odd man out in a three-catcher rotation. Raleigh began the year 2-for-24 and was still trying to find his footing on the MLB stage, a continuation from an up-and-down rookie season.

Late April seems like both eons ago and yesterday in the context of a marathon MLB season pitted against the early stages of a young player's career, yet Raleigh has not only fixed his issues against secondary pitches, he’s also assuaged the confidence challenges of not seeing immediate results in 2021. With the most emphatic homer in this region since, well, nobody can remember, it checks out.

“It’s not really a pressure moment,” Raleigh said. “We're having fun. We're playing baseball. That's the way I look at it, and I think that's the mentality you’ve got to have. It's fun. It's baseball.”

Raleigh, a third-round Draft pick in 2018, is one of the countless homegrown prospects who’s contributed to this postseason push -- and one of the many likely here for the long haul.

“He does mirror where we are,” Servais said. “Because anytime young players come to the big leagues, they struggle at times, and Cal certainly did, but he got an opportunity to play. He took advantage of it and he's matured along the way. And what we saw tonight was kind of a culmination of that, when you put a lot of hard work in. You care, you listen, you're coachable. He's going to be a big part of what we're doing here for a long time to come.”