TORONTO – When J.P. Crawford ran out to shortstop in the first inning, he allowed himself a moment to soak it all in.
“You step on the lines, taking the first steps out there on defense, and you kind of just look around, and look at yourself,” Crawford said. “It’s like, ‘Dang, we’re here. This is so cool. We’re in the postseason.’ “
Considering it had been 21 years since a Mariners player could say that, a little bit of reflection is understandable. And for those wondering how the Mariners, playoff neophytes that they were, would respond to the big stage in a hostile road environment, well, the answer was emphatically and unambiguously delivered
With starting pitcher Luis Castillo shutting down an explosive Toronto lineup and Cal Raleigh delivering the latest in an ongoing series of massively important home runs, the Mariners on Friday dominated the Blue Jays 4-0 in the opening game of the American League wild-card series.
The game was a textbook display of what manager Scott Servais called “Seattle Mariners baseball” that he said delivered a message to the baseball world: “We belong here.”
It was also a profound manifestation of the desired impact of Jerry Dipoto’s trade deadline acquisition of Castillo from the Reds.
It cost a passel of top prospects to land Castillo, but Dipoto no doubt envisioned precisely this performance in October to make it amply worth it.
Castillo’s command and overpowering stuff had his teammates in awe. It’s not hyperbole to state that for a franchise that once had Randy Johnson, albeit in limited opportunities, it was the greatest outing in its sparse postseason history. Castillo blanked the Blue Jays – who led the American League in runs scored and many other offensive categories – on six hits, all singles and many of them softly hit, over 7⅓ innings.
Saying he fed off the excitement of the Rogers Centre crowd – and then proceeded to douse it – Castillo regularly exceeded 100 mph (14 times) and almost unfairly supplemented that power with dazzling movement.
With all the focus in modern baseball on exit velocity, Castillo showed that entrance velocity matters, too.
As Ty France said when asked for advice on how best to face Castillo, “The best hitting advice I could say is, ‘Close your eyes and swing.’ He’s nasty. That’s the reason we got him, and he delivered.”
The length of Castillo’s start allowed the Mariners to save their bullpen, and the Blue Jays were forced to use six pitchers. The Mariners closed it out with 1⅔ innings from Andres Munoz, who tormented the Jays with 102 mph stuff of his own to go with his devastating slider.
Servais said the Mariners executed “perfectly” in the game, and it’s hard to argue. It wasn’t just that they played error-free ball. They squashed one potential Toronto rally with a brilliantly turned double play started by third baseman Eugenio Suarez, and twice kept the Blue Jays from taking extra bases in another inning when Mitch Haniger quickly cut off a ball in the gap and Crawford made a diving stop to keep a single by Bo Bichette in the infield.
The Mariners scored three runs in the first inning off overamped Blue Jays ace Alek Manoah, with Suarez delivering an RBI double and Raleigh – exactly one week after deliriously sending the Mariners into the playoffs with a home run against Detroit – following with another towering blast into the right-field seats, also on a 3-2 pitch.
“As that at-bat worked through it, it was very similar to the home run he hit about a week ago today,” Servais said. “He got a good pitch. He didn’t miss it. Cal has been on fire.”
The early lead took the air out of what had been a frenetic crowd and knocked away whatever nerves the Mariners might have been harboring.
Especially when they saw the kind of stuff Castillo had. The Mariners not only had the sense that three runs would be enough; they felt one might have done it.
“It was all about setting the tone early,” Crawford said. “To do that right out the gate it set the tone for us, and it set the tone for them. After that, if we kept playing defense and kept playing our game, we had it. Especially when Luis went out there and just shoved. He just shut it down.”
“Whenever you can put some runs on the board early, it helps you take a step back and catch your breath, but especially when you got a guy like Castillo throwing for you,” right fielder Haniger added. “You know that that’s probably enough.”
Suddenly, the Mariners are just one win from ensuring that playoff baseball will be played in Seattle for the first time since Oct. 18, 2001. On that day the Mariners lost 3-2 to the Yankees to fall behind 2-0 in the American League Championship Series.
Afterward, a fiery Lou Piniella stormed out of the Mariners clubhouse and loudly vowed to the assembled media waiting in the tunnel at Safeco Field that they would be coming back to Seattle, despite how dire it looked. To do that would have required taking two games out of three in New York, which didn’t happen, as the Yankees eliminated Seattle in five games. And the Mariners have been waiting since to play a postseason game in front of their home fans.
On Friday, they showed exactly how they plan on doing that.
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