Kelenic walks it off -- literally! -- vs. Blue Jays

August 14th, 2021

SEATTLE -- This was the moment Jarred Kelenic had dreamed of and eagerly anticipated for 22 years. And Seattle’s blossoming rookie delivered -- albeit in perhaps a far different way than he would’ve imagined in those childhood, backyard simulations he ran on the green pastures of Wisconsin.

The Kelenic of up until three months ago would’ve hacked at the first pitch, determined for dramatic flair that would’ve sent T-Mobile Park into a frenzy.

But he evoked that effect all the same.

Instead of swinging for the fences, the uber-confident, yet-far-more-humble Kelenic drew a game-winning walk that scored Kyle Seager from third base to stun the very team ahead of Seattle in the postseason standings, with a 3-2 victory over Toronto on Friday.

“I feel like I've really been able to control my breathing and just slow it all down,” Kelenic said. “Because you can really let your heart rate go up and make emotional decisions just because you want to be the hero. And I really think that recently, even in those big situations, I'm more comfortable than I am when it's my first at-bat of the game.”

The win was the Mariners’ third in a row, and it inched them to just one game back of the Blue Jays in the American League Wild Card standings. Both teams trail the Yankees, who are the first team on the outside looking in of Boston, which holds the final spot, 4 1/2 games ahead of Seattle.

But back to Kelenic, who has suddenly emerged as one of Seattle’s hottest hitters -- and one who’s either scored the walk-off run or driven it in on three separate occasions since his return from a Minor League demotion on July 16. His overhauled approach that preaches patience was put into a microcosm in Friday’s sequence: confronting a veteran lefty who was explicitly brought in to face him.

Beyond understanding the stakes, Kelenic, a rookie who was humbled in his first big league stint, put the onus on Hand, a three-time All-Star.

“Coming up to the plate, I knew the pressure was on him,” Kelenic said. “He doesn't want to give that game up, and he's put in a tough spot. So I knew that if I just took what he gave me and was patient and got my pitch, he was going to give it to me. And if he wasn't, I was going to take the walk. And that's what I did.”

Lost in Friday’s bizarre finish was that Kelenic also scored the game’s first run following a leadoff double in the third inning directly down the left-field line that accounted for one of just five hits against Robbie Ray, one of the AL’s best lefty starters. That set up Tom Murphy, who immediately followed with a two-run shot, and gave Mariners starter Chris Flexen a 2-0 edge.

But that lead never seemed safe.

The double play of all double plays

Kelenic would’ve never been set up for the walk-off without the Mariners’ wildest double play of the season, which ended the top of the ninth. With Marcus Semien batting, Ty France chased a sky-high popup into right-field foul territory, then had the wherewithal to unleash a dime of a throw to catch Tom Murphy with pinch-runner Breyvic Valera surging home on a tag-up attempt.

Valera was initially ruled safe, but the call was overturned upon a replay review that ended the inning and kept the game tied instead of giving Toronto a one-run edge with two on and AL MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero Jr. coming to the plate.

“The weird coincidence is, like, two days ago, we went out for early work and worked on that,” France said. “So it paid off. But yeah, I was just trying to give [Murphy] something he can handle. I knew it was going to be a close play and I knew it was going to be easiest if it was a one-hop.”

Yet even after that play, Friday’s game looked like it was headed for extras after Toronto reliever Adam Cimber got two quick outs to begin the bottom of the ninth. But he then walked Kyle Seager and Abraham Toro and was the victim of a tough-luck infield single from Luis Torrens that caromed off his glove. That prompted a pitching change to Hand for the game-sealing walk of Kelenic.

A postseason atmosphere

The Mariners got break after break from Toronto, which would’ve made a loss all the more difficult to stomach.

France’s play bailed Drew Steckenrider out of a huge jam after the reliever gave up two singles to lead off the ninth, then a sacrifice bunt, which flipped the lineup. He then intentionally walked George Springer after working a 3-0 count, which set up the epic double play.

A sizable 13 of the 20 balls in play against Flexen were beyond the 95 mph threshold that Statcast classifies as hard-hit, including five greater than 105 mph. Yet Flexen, who battled hamstring tightness as of late, didn’t surrender a homer and held Toronto -- which entered the day leading the Majors with a .286 batting average with runners in scoring position -- to just 1-for-5 in such situations.

Luck is in play in any playoff chase, but capitalizing on those moments are key for any contender.

“We’re in this situation almost every night,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “So you go about your at-bats in a similar fashion. Don't try to do too much. And again, I can't say enough about Seags taking a walk, Toro taking the walk, all those things that led up to that. It's so key to playing winning baseball. It's just not one guy is going to thump one out of the yard and everybody goes home happy. It's really hard to do that. So stay within yourself. And our guys are doing that late in ballgames.”