Mitch mashes to keep Mariners alive in WC

OF swats 39th home run, drives in 5 to lift Seattle in must-win game

October 3rd, 2021

SEATTLE -- For the Majors’ most resilient comeback team, the hero on this penultimate game had to be its most resilient comeback player. It just had to be.

For all of ’s heroics this season, those that he willed on Saturday rank at the top. Seattle’s veteran outfielder put the weight of his team and a city so starved for the playoffs on his shoulders, almost single-handedly lifting the Mariners to an epic 6-4 win over the Angels that will ensure Seattle takes its postseason aspirations to the final day of the regular season.

Haniger drove in five runs, including a decisive, two-out, two-run, go-ahead single in a full count that ignited T-Mobile Park in a way that hasn't been seen in nearly 20 years. He also crushed a booming two-run homer in the fifth inning that broke a 1-1 tie.

The Mariners (90-71) now head into their final game on Sunday still alive, a thought that seemed so unimaginable at multiple points throughout this season of surprise. But they will need help from the teams ahead of them if they are to play beyond their 162nd game.

The Red Sox and Yankees occupy the two American League Wild Card spots, tied at 91-70, with Boston holding the head-to-head edge in that matchup. Toronto (90-71) also won on Saturday and is tied with Seattle as the teams on the outside looking in, with the Mariners holding that head-to-head advantage.

More on the tiebreaker shenanigans in a bit. Saturday’s wild eighth inning needs to be unpacked first.

It began with what was shaping up to be the most deflating of defeats, particularly given that it was a sequence that the Mariners rode on repeat all season. Paul Sewald, the bullpen’s linchpin, surrendered a three-run, go-ahead homer to All-Star slugger Jared Walsh that stunned the sellout crowd and left the Mariners with just six outs to work with.

But dire circumstances are Seattle’s specialty.

“He’s been absolutely incredible, so when that does happen, it definitely takes you back in and knocks you down a little bit there,” Kyle Seager said. “That's been what this team has been all about, just kind of righting the course, and then things happen.”

Saturday marked the Mariners’ 42nd come-from-behind win of the season, and Haniger’s go-ahead RBIs marked the Mariners’ 38th in the eighth inning or later, most in the Majors. They’ve now played in 83 games -- more than half of their schedule -- decided by two runs or fewer.

So, even when staked with a deficit and facing the quirky delivery of Angels reliever Steve Cishek, who was called on for the fateful eighth, the Mariners didn’t blink.

“We’ve believed in ourselves all year,” Haniger said. “We've come back a million times this year. And we’ve got to have our teammates’ back. … We’ve got to get Paul's back because he's been just absolutely dominant for us.”

Yet things looked dicey even after Sewald stumbled. The Angels nearly silenced Seattle’s rally by nabbing Jarred Kelenic at the plate for the second out on a bases-loaded force play that would’ve tied the game. Kelenic clearly didn’t beat the throw, but Mariners manager Scott Servais challenged, arguing that Max Stassi’s foot might’ve been in front of the plate. The call was upheld, which passed the season-on-the-line-stakes baton to Haniger.

“When [Haniger] came off the field, the whole team did after the eighth inning, he just said, I think I'm pretty sure I read his lips: ‘This is not over. Let’s go,’” Servais said. “And sure enough, he's standing up there with the game on the line and got it done.”

Consider the moments that led up to that, too:

• Kelenic led off by being plunked on his left knee by Cishek, exhibiting visible pain.

• Jake Bauers pinch-hit for Tom Murphy and drew a six-pitch walk.

• Jake Fraley laid down a perfect sacrifice bunt down the third-base line against the shift.

• With no outs, the Angels opted to intentionally walk J.P. Crawford to create forceouts across the diamond.

• Ty France’s dribbler to third nearly plated Kelenic, but came up short.

• Haniger worked a full count against Cishek, then yanked a pitch below the zone between the third baseman and shortstop.

The Mariners’ win probability after Walsh’s homer dropped from 79.6% to 26.7%, per FanGraphs. But after all, the Mariners are a team that continues to defy the odds. They entered this week with just a 2.5% chance to reach the postseason, yet here they are.

What’s at stake Sunday

The madness of a four-way tie is still in play, but the Mariners will, at the very least, need to defeat the Halos on Sunday and have either the Yankees or Red Sox lose to stay in it.

Because the best the Mariners can do is tie the Red Sox and/or Yankees -- both of whom hold their respective head-to-head series against Seattle -- their best-case scenario at this point is a Game 163 to be played Monday. Where that game would take place would hinge on how each of the other three teams fare.