HOUSTON – I’m the nonbelieving fool who picked the Mariners to lose the American League Wild Card Series to the Toronto Blue Jays.
And now I’m the bold optimist (or fool) who, right here and now, is picking the Mariners to beat the Houston Astros, hands-down the best team in the American League all season and most everyone’s choice to make the World Series from the AL.
Last week they were calling me faithless. Now I can sense more than a few people calling me a dolt.
This is not a reactionary switcheroo, honest. I felt all along that if the Mariners made it far enough to face Houston, they had a real shot to shock the Astros. I just believed that the Blue Jays in Toronto, lined up with aces Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman on the mound, were the absolute worst first-round matchup. And if not for the miracle of the century, I might well have been right.
But here we are. J.P. Crawford’s little dumper (as Times reporter Adam Jude dubbed it) into no man’s land Saturday in Toronto fueled the comeback of massive proportions. The Mariners open the best-of-five AL Division Series with Houston on Tuesday at Minute Maid Park, and I see the makings of a huge upset.
Here are a few reasons:
There’s just something about this Mariners ballclub. I won’t call them a team of destiny, but every year there’s a team that feels touched with an aura; last year it was the Braves, who were under .500 in August, coalesced down the stretch and exploded in October to win it all. The Mariners can be that team in 2022. No guarantees, obviously, but the trappings are there.
One can feel the belief growing. A win such as Saturday’s will do that. Facing a Houston team that won 106 games, the Mariners fall short in matching Houston’s talent and depth. They certainly can’t match its vast playoff experience (some of it tainted by the cheating scandal, of course).
But it was Houston star second baseman Jose Altuve who said at Monday’s workout during a news conference, “It’s the team that plays better, not always the best team (that) is going to win it all.”
Altuve said he has been struck by the close-knit nature of the Mariners he’s witnessed during the 19 games this season between the teams (12 of which were won by Houston) and watching them on TV during the wild card series.
“I think what I see is a lot of union,” Altuve said. “A lot of chemistry going on there. I think they’re playing kind of like our same game. Not be the heroes, just play to win. And when you play to win, good things happen.”
That’s music to the ears of Mariners manager Scott Servais, who sees his ballclub the same way. Servais, too, spoke extensively Monday about the focus and camaraderie of this team, which he called his favorite to be around in his career.
This might be hokey pop psychology, but there’s an extra mental burden when everyone expects you to win, especially going into the postseason with the knowledge that anything short of a World Series title is essentially a failure. The Astros have lost two of the past three Fall Classics, including last year’s. Just getting there is no longer enough. It’s pretty much a win-or-bust mentality, which can produce its own pressure.
The Mariners, conversely, have a looser, more stress-free attitude that comes with being the playoff newcomer not weighted down with heavy expectations.
The Castillo factor
OK, enough of the esoteric stuff. Let’s talk ball. The Mariners face a formidable foe in the opener going against likely unanimous Cy Young winner Justin Verlander, whom they bashed for four home runs in one shockingly uncharacteristic May start but were otherwise very characteristically throttled by in the future Hall of Famer’s other five outings against Seattle.
But even if Verlander bests Logan Gilbert in the opener (the Mariners aren’t conceding that outcome, mind you), the Mariners have Luis Castillo going on full rest in Game 2, coming off his brilliant 7 1/3-inning scoreless outing against Toronto.
Castillo has just one career appearance against the Astros, and it was in 2019. Essentially, he is a new pitcher to them. If Castillo can steal a win in Houston, the Mariners will be set up nicely entering what should be the most highly charged atmosphere of any team in the postseason for the first postseason game(s) in Seattle in 21 years.
The days off after Games 1 and 3 allow the Mariners to potentially set up their rotation without using Robbie Ray, who pitched poorly in Toronto (and intermittently down the stretch) and was mercilessly battered by Houston this season (10.97 ERA in three starts, 23 hits and six homers in 10 2/3 innings). They could go with George Kirby (whom the Astros have seen only once) on Saturday, Gilbert again on full rest Sunday, and, if necessary, Castillo on three days’ rest in a winner-take-all Game 5 on Monday in Houston.
Many analysts will argue that it doesn’t exist, but ballplayers believe in it wholeheartedly. The Mariners hope to still be riding the wave of exhilaration from Saturday’s seven-run comeback as they enter this series. The Astros, meanwhile, won’t have played since Wednesday’s regular-season finale six days earlier. There are examples of teams losing their edge in the postseason from extended layoffs.
“We know they play a pretty strong brand of baseball, so we’ve got to play good ball to win,” Mariners infielder Adam Frazier said Monday. “Play clean baseball, you got a chance.
“They have also been sitting at home for a week, so I’m sure they’re feeling fresh, but at the same time, timing may be a little off. So hoping for that, and we’ll see how it goes (Tuesday).”
The Mariners are obviously a team built around pitching and defense, but they were as productive offensively in the wild card round as any of the eight teams who played. If they can get in a batting groove at just the right time, it makes them a hugely dangerous team. Particularly if Julio Rodriguez, hitless Saturday, gets untracked and joins Cal Raleigh and Eugenio Suarez in recent production.
Asked for the difference in the dugout vibe this season compared with previous years, Servais replied, “In 2019 and 2020 and 2021 we didn’t have Julio Rodriguez. I’ve got to be honest with you. What he has meant to our team, not just on the field but the constant energy and joy to play baseball is very unique in our game. And I don’t know if there’s too many players that have it.”
Servais cautioned against looking at previous matchups and stats between the Mariners and Astros. Too much has changed since then.
“Be careful reading too much into that at this time of year,” he said.
The Astros have owned the Mariners for years and years. That’s indisputable. But it’s also not immutable. In the biggest series the M’s have played in two decades, they’re due for some sweet payback.
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