SEATTLE – The comebacks started before a pitch was thrown in the 2021 season. And before “Believe” became a thing at T-Mobile Park, there was belief in themselves when most others didn’t.
On Feb. 23, the first day of full-team workouts in the Arizona sun, general manager Jerry Dipoto, accompanied by manager Scott Servais, stood on the main practice field of the Mariners’ complex in Peoria trying to fix a problem that he didn’t create.
With the 65-plus players invited to MLB spring training along with the coaching and training staff waiting to hear something from the front office, the Mariners general manager tried to mend a bridge that was once aflame with distrust and had now disintegrated into ashes.
It’d been less than 24 hours since the video of Mariners team president and CEO Kevin Mather’s Q&A with the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club had gone viral on social media. In a wide-ranging and off-putting discussion, Mather made callous and controversial comments about multiple players in the group in front of Dipoto, while also offering insight into the team’s decision-making process.
They hadn’t played a spring training game yet and things couldn’t seem lower.
“It was surreal,” Mitch Haniger said. “Nobody knew what to do.”
It might have been rock bottom for the organization. But for those players listening to Dipoto and Servais offer apologies, it was a unifying moment. They’d already been irritated with the lack of spending in the free-agent market.
“It became about us,” Marco Gonzales would say in the aftermath. “This group is special, and this time is valuable. We believe we can win. We have too strong of a group to let it affect us. The players run this team now.”
It was that unflinching belief in themselves and their ability to win now and not have to wait for the team’s rebuild to run its normal course, mentioned often by Gonzales, J.P. Crawford, Haniger and others, that drove the Mariners to a 90-72 record and a game away from snapping a postseason drought that’s felt like a curse.
“Everyone doubted us besides the people in this clubhouse,” Crawford said. “We expected it. We knew we could win. We knew we’d go out there and compete with any other team in this league.”
That belief was tested early and often in the season that seemed destined for 90 losses.
When James Paxton grabbed at his forearm in the second inning of his first start of the season and Nick Margevicius was lost to a season-ending injury a few weeks later, and they were running bullpen starts in two of the spots in the six-man rotation due to injuries, success seemed unlikely.
It wasn’t like the Mariners’ offense could carry the team through the situation. They were no-hit twice in the span of two weeks. With a top-heavy lineup reliant on Haniger, Kyle Seager, Ty France and later Crawford, the Mariners didn’t walk enough, struck out too much and rarely scored without a home run.
On May 23, the season reached a nadir lower than any Mather comment. Already dealing with a COVID outbreak that knocked out four of their pitchers in their bullpen, including closer Kendall Graveman, the Mariners were pasted 9-2 by the Padres. They were outscored 28-7 in a three-game series where they weren’t just swept at Petco Park, but were “punked” as Crawford labeled it.
The Mariners had lost six games in a row and were 21-26, trending toward irrelevancy with the All-Star break two months away.
The Mariners won two of the three games in Oakland to close out the road trip and followed it up with five consecutive wins to get back to 28-27.
It would start a season-long trend that defied traditional thinking, run-differential believers and skeptics expecting their downfall.
Each time the Mariners would hit a rough stretch of losses, prompting the expectation of a regression, those players would answer with a stretch of wins.
“That was the story all year long. We’re never down, never out,” Gonzales said.
It wasn’t always pretty. The losses were ugly, usually with Servais punting late in games to save his bullpen for the one-run games, usually wins, they seemed to play most nights.
“We had weak links at different points in the season on different parts of our team,” Servais said. “But we figured out how to make adjustments. We figured out how to stay competitive and pick each other up.”
Then came the memorable Tuesday afternoon at T-Mobile Park on July 27. Less than 24 hours before, Dylan Moore had hit a grand slam in a stunning 11-8 win over the Astros. With the trade deadline looming and the Mariners sitting a game back of the second wild card, they had played their way into contention and into a situation where Dipoto said he would add to the team in hopes of making the postseason for the first time since 2001.
But how Dipoto did it, at least initially, wasn’t met with much appreciation.
In his first of three trades leading up to the deadline, Dipoto made a trade with the Astros, sending Graveman and reliever Rafael Montero, who had been designated for assignment a few days earlier, to the Astros in exchange for infielder Abraham Toro and reliever Joe Smith.
Given the emotion of the previous night’s game, the expectations of players, Graveman’s popularity as a team leader and the way they found out about the deal, players were angry. They felt betrayed, refusing to believe in Dipoto’s promises of more trades to make the team better. The other trades, which added reliever Diego Castillo and starter Tyler Anderson, made them better by filling immediate needs. With Toro hitting everything in sight, they kept on winning.
“What were we going to do, just give up?” Seager said. “It was always about the guys in that clubhouse. We just made it even more about us.”
But in a hint of their limitations, the Mariners could never take control of a spot. They made it difficult on themselves.
• On Aug. 26, they lost three of four to the Royals at T-Mobile Park and rebounded to win two of three vs. the Astros with Toro hitting a grand slam off Graveman.
• On Sept. 10, they returned home and lost two of three to the Diamondbacks, who had won 20 road games on the season, and lost two of three to the Red Sox in a head-to-head battle of wild-card contenders.
• With 16 games left, they were four games back in the wild-card race; they needed to finish 13-3 or 14-2 to have a chance.
•The Mariners finished 12-4 instead, losing two of three games to the Angels in front of sellout crowds at T-Mobile.
“I’m not gonna look back on this season with any sort of negativity,” Seager said. “It was a special run we went on. It was a special group. We came up short, but it wasn’t for a lack of caring, it wasn’t for a lack of work. We really fed off each other. It wasn’t a team where we were just more talented than the other team every single day. It was a group that just collectively played together and tried to win every single night. It was special.”
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