'We're here': Mariners clinch first postseason spot since 2001

October 1st, 2022

SEATTLE -- For all the rain that this lush region of the country accumulates, more than any major U.S. city, there’s been a widespread drought here as equally insatiable as it is intangible. The Mariners, who on their best days can be the most coveted and beloved show in town, have longed to return to that elite stage, but the drought has weighed down those ambitions, especially as it lingered for two decades.

Manager Scott Servais says he thinks about the drought every day but acknowledges that it comes with the territory, a byproduct of 20 long years seeping into the fabric of an organization to the point where it becomes ingrained in its identity.

And now, the drought is over. A reign is underway in Seattle, and finally, the longest active playoff void in North American professional sports has ended. The Mariners, at long last, are headed to the postseason.

crushed a massive, 406-foot solo homer in a full count with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning that sent Seattle to a 2-1 walk-off victory over the A's on Friday night and into the postseason for the first time since 2001.

Raleigh, pinch-hitting for Luis Torrens, dug out a low-and-in slider from Oakland reliever Domingo Acevedo and sent the tiebreaking shot into the Seattle night, off the Hit It Here Café windows beyond right field. He raised his bat high, turned to the home dugout, then was off and running while the rest of the Mariners stormed to home plate to mob the burly backstop.

"The moment when I knew it was fair and then looking at the team and everybody's jumping, it was just crazy," Raleigh said.

Seattle, which entered the day with a magic number of one, clinched an AL Wild Card berth. The club holds the No. 5 seed by a half-game over Tampa Bay and trails Toronto by two games for the top Wild Card spot, the only non-division-winning seed that would host the best-of-three first round next weekend.

Given the weight of the stakes and the wait of the moment, did it live up to everything that the Mariners thought it’d be?

"Yeah, and more," Servais said. "I think with the fact that we're in our ballpark, there's 40,000 people here tonight, it's better than maybe what you can even dream it could be. And it's a testament to our players."

After the Mariners doused themselves with champagne and broke out the cigars in the home clubhouse, the seventh-year manager led a charge back to the field, where he gave a passionate speech to a huge crowd that remained -- capped with an emphatic urging: “Let’s party!”

"There are so many kids that grew up in the Pacific Northwest that don't know anything about the Mariners being in the playoffs," Servais said. "And now we get to show them."

With the agonizing drought behind them, the goal for the Mariners over these final six regular-season games, all of which are at home, is to ensure that they keep this celebration rolling in Seattle into next Friday, when the AL Wild Card Series begins.

"Absolutely, I feel like tonight was just a taste," said , who logged eight solid innings on Friday to put the Mariners in the position for Raleigh's heroics. "Those fans, they love baseball. They’ve supported us the whole year. We want to be back here next weekend."

But they’re thinking even grander than that.

"I do believe this team can go very deep in the playoffs and win a World Series," Servais said. "We’ve got that kind of pitching and defense. And we’ve got the ‘it’ factor -- and that goes a long way this time of year."

Throughout the three years of transition that led into the 2022 season, veterans Mitch Haniger and Marco Gonzales, the lone holdovers from the previous regime, have been vocal in the intent of not just getting into the dance, but winning the whole thing.

With a roster packed with elite starting pitching, a bullpen that despite a few hiccups of late has been one of MLB’s best, and a lineup that doesn’t have the star power of other juggernauts but instead wears opposing pitchers out, Seattle possesses the ingredients that are typically conducive for teams that win -- and advance -- in playoff series.

Yet even with their talent, it hasn’t been the most seamless or straightforward season. The Mariners scuffled as spring stretched into summer, weighed heavily by their brutal early travel, and it all came to a head when the club dropped to a season-high 10 games under .500 on June 19 and their playoff odds dropped to 5.3%, per FanGraphs.

Things looked as bleak as could be before they emphatically turned things around, fueled heavily by a 14-game winning streak leading into the All-Star break, tied with the defending champion Braves for the longest this season. But even before the turnaround, most players -- Gonzales especially -- never had doubt.

"It’s the character in the clubhouse, I’ve said it all year," Gonzales said. "I said it in Spring Training. I said it in April, May and June. There were some people that were talking some outside noise. We closed that off. We just believed in ourselves. We knew we had a talented team. We just needed to hit our stride, find our identity and we found it. We're here."

Pitching has been the club's primary formula, with a rotation that has remarkably avoided an IL stint all season, and a bullpen packed with velocity. But they’ve also been carried by star rookie Julio Rodríguez, who is on the 10-day injured list with a lower back strain but began baseball activity on Thursday and is expected back Monday.

Rodríguez, who played his way onto the big league roster with an eye-opening Spring Training, has been a symbolic embodiment of the Mariners’ transition from mediocrity, with superstar potential that could make this playoff berth one of many to come.

"The goal here is to be that team that's in this position every year," Servais said, "so we don't have to talk about it like it's a big deal and we’re just used to it. But we’ve got work to do."

After taking their postseason hopes to the final day of last year’s regular season but ultimately coming up short, the Mariners transitioned from surprise darlings to a team with heightened expectations for the first time since at least 2018.

The club increased spending, bringing in reigning AL Cy Young Award winner Robbie Ray, graduated top prospects Rodríguez, George Kirby and Matt Brash from its then-No. 2-ranked farm system, made a massive splash at the Trade Deadline in acquiring two-time All-Star Luis Castillo and firmly went all-in on ending this drought.

“I have heard it for seven years,” Servais said. “Every day when I get up in the morning and I drive to work, that’s what’s on my mind. But the goal is winning a World Series. It’s not just to end the drought.”

The labors of a rebuild that began nearly four full years ago have finally paid off. With an aging and expensive roster entering the 2018-19 offseason, Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto, then the GM, made an uncomfortable yet necessary pitch to ownership to tear down from established veterans, trim payroll and stock a farm system that ranked dead last in talent by MLB Pipeline. Doing so could create a formula for sustained success.

It included a painful first season in 2019, when a talent evaluation approach led to Seattle using an MLB-record 67 players en route to a last-place finish. The club then suffered a stalled year of player development in 2020 with the cancellation of the Minors season and the MLB schedule truncated to 60 games with no fans. But it started to turn last year, when the club could taste the playoffs before falling short at the end.

Now, they’re finally here -- and with the way they’re built, they intend to stick around a while.