If defying expectations is what defined the Mariners’ season, they saw it to the very end. Because one would expect a team that just got swept in the American League Division Series to be mourning – miserable from the results of three games that spanned 36 innings.
But the Mariners’ clubhouse was not one of sorrow after Houston beat Seattle 1-0 in Saturday’s 18-inning affair. It was one of pride, achievement and optimism – just as it should have been.
“This year was incredible. Not only for me, but for everybody in this room,” said Mariners third baseman Eugenio Suarez. “Today our season ended, but we go home happy and proud of this group.”
No doubt the “what ifs” will circle the Mariners’ minds this offseason. That’s inevitable considering they played the 106-win Astros tight in three straight contests, where an extra inch here or a better pitch there could have produced a trio of victories for the M’s.
There was the 7-3 lead in Game 1 that turned into an 8-7 loss thanks to excruciating eighth and ninth innings. There were the line-outs, warning-track fly balls and nine stranded runners that underscored a 4-2 loss in Game 2. And then there was the one-game doubleheader Saturday, in which the Mariners stranded 10 runners and provided no run support for one of the greatest collective pitching performances in postseason history.
That will sting for a while if not sear. But the tens of thousands of fans chanting “Let’s Go Mariners!” after six hours and 22 minutes of baseball knew this team was the polar opposite of a disappointment.
After ending a 21-year postseason drought and winning their first-round playoff series, the M’s earned the right to be celebrated citywide.
“We’ve come a long way. Twenty-one years is a long time to wait, so to be a little part of that, I think all of us are extremely proud of what we accomplished,” said Mariners first baseman Ty France. “It obviously didn’t end the way we’d like, but a lot of work went into this and for us to be in this room right now, it says a lot.”
Ending what was the longest postseason drought among the four most popular American professional sports leagues is noteworthy no matter how it’s done. Doing it while leading Major League Baseball in one-run victories (34) and walkoff wins (26) makes it memorable. But doing all that while cementing a playoff berth via a solo home run by Cal Raleigh in the bottom of the ninth makes it unforgettable.
These Mariners (90-72) may not have had the cachet of the 1995 team that reached the ALCS and, in all likelihood, saved MLB in this town. And it wasn’t anywhere near as herculean as the 2001 team that won a record-tying 116 regular-season games.
What characterized these Mariners were A) a sense of will that made you think they would always come back to win, and B) a slew of new faces that make you think they’ll repeatedly come back to the playoffs.
That will was best displayed in Game 2 of their wild-card series against the Blue Jays last week, when they trailed 8-1 before rallying to win 10-9. It epitomized a resolve that has reinvigorated a fan base that packed 47,690 people into T-Mobile Park Saturday.
Remember, this team was 29-39 at one point this season, then ran off 14 straight wins to vault into playoff contention. That’s far from typical.
As for the faces? There’s 21-year-old center fielder Julio Rodriguez, who is the overwhelming favorite to win AL Rookie of the Year. He signed a long-term contract that might keep him in Seattle for the rest of his career. There is 29-year-old All-Star pitcher Luis Castillo, who just inked a five-year extension of his own. There’s also 24-year-old rookie George Kirby, who just pitched seven scoreless innings Saturday.
These guys didn’t come cheap, either. At least not the first two. Rodriguez’s deal guarantees him over $200 million. Castillo – like teammate Robbie Ray – will net over $100 million. Seemingly stingy at one point, Mariners ownership has shown a willingness to spend, which should lead to their players spending more time on the field in October.
“We’re going to be back here,” Rodriguez said. “I feel like this is just the beginning for all of us.”
Only one team will end the playoffs without feeling disappointment. The Mariners aren’t immune to the agony of defeat.
But they don’t need Champagne bottles to mark their success. They proved themselves to this league, and they proved themselves to this city.
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