How Mariners swept reigning AL champion Rays: 3 things that stand out

Jun 20, 2021, 7:46 PM | Updated: Jun 21, 2021, 10:39 am
Mariners Shed Long Jr....
Shed Long Jr.'s walkoff grand slam capped off an incredible sweep of the Rays. (Getty)

Baseball fans dream of weeks like the one the Mariners just had.

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Seemingly out of nowhere, the M’s have caught fire. It all started last Sunday in Cleveland when rookie pitcher Logan Gilbert twirled 6 2/3 innings, sending the Mariners back to Seattle on an exciting win.

At home, the Mariners then hosted the Minnesota Twins, who have struggled all season, giving the M’s an opportunity to capitalize on the momentum from Gilbert’s win and build up some confidence. They certainly did that with two wins out of three games – first a 4-3 comeback victory delivered by newcomer Jake Bauers’ homer in the eighth inning, then a 10-0 blowout on Tuesday that included eight shutout innings by Chris Flexen and was clearly Seattle’s best all-around game of the season so far.

Though the Twins punched back in the series finale, beating Seattle 7-2, the best was yet to come for the Mariners.

How about a walkoff win? How about three walkoff wins? What if you add in a 5-1 Friday victory led by a sterling outing from the suddenly dominant Yusei Kikuchi to the mix?

That all adds up to a nearly unbelievable four-game sweep of the Tampa Bay Rays, the defending American League champs who came into the series as the AL East leaders and the team with the most wins in baseball. Those last two titles no longer belong to the Rays, and the Mariners – who have won seven of their last eight to get their record (38-36) back over .500 – are the reason why.

Shed Long Jr.’s walkoff slam gives Mariners 6-2 win, sweep over Rays

And when I say nearly unbelievable, I mean it. Every game seemed to be taken from a storybook.

Three different players were mobbed by their Mariners teammates after providing an RBI hit in the last at-bat of the game.

Leadoff man J.P. Crawford hit a laser that literally bounced off the top of the wall in right field for his first career grand slam.

Saturday’s game felt particularly significant as the Mariners, wearing throwback uniforms on Juneteenth honoring the Negro League Seattle Steelheads, clinched the series win with Crawford crossing home plate on Mitch Haniger’s walkoff single.

And then on Sunday, Shed Long Jr. hit what I think will become one of the most memorable home runs in team history to end the whole thing – his own first career grand slam with two outs in the 10th inning that sent the Mariners and the nearly 20,000 in attendance at T-Mobile Park into an absolute frenzy.

Just look at this scene.

It was one of those things that left you asking two questions. First, what just happened? And second, how did it happen?

Let’s take a look at three things that stood out from the Mariners’ crazy week and sweep of the Rays.

1. The lineup is different.

The Mariners had a very rough stretch earlier this season where every game seemed like a possible no-hitter. Two of them turned out to be. But that hasn’t been the case lately.

A big reason why is Crawford, who has taken over the leadoff spot and is making a push for an All-Star Game invitation. He’s currently on an eight-game hitting streak, and after just one extra-base hit in his first 21 games, he’s now up to 17 doubles and five home runs.

Additions have been key, as well.

Jake Bauers, who the M’s picked up for cash after Cleveland designated him for assignment, has hit safely in 10 of 11 games since joining Seattle, including nine straight. And being able to use him both at first base and the corner outfield spots has given Seattle a new bat they can turn to with multiple ways to get him into the lineup. That never hurts.

Long and Jake Fraley both came off the injured list and have provided offensive production. Catcher Luis Torrens returned from Triple-A and immediately started mashing, going 7 for 16 with three home runs and a walk since getting called back up. And though Ty France appeared on Sunday to re-injure the wrist that landed him on the IL last month, he stayed in the game at first base and has a nine-game hitting streak with three homers in his last six games.

The Mariners’ lineup has been lengthened, and it’s playing out by resulting in roughly one big inning per game. They struck for four runs in the first inning on Friday, had five runs in the second inning on Saturday, and then Long’s slam gave them four in the 10th on Sunday.

I say that, though, with a caveat. While the big innings are nice, the Mariners could stand to take advantage of runners on base in the innings around them. That almost bit them a couple of times against Tampa Bay, as the leads they built early weren’t always safe later on. Luckily for them, their flair for the dramatic won out in the end.

2. The defense is really good.

In the entire series against the Rays, the Mariners made one error. And that one error wasn’t even on a ball hit in play – it was an errant pickoff throw by pitcher Marco Gonzales on Sunday.

It’s not like the Mariners’ defense wasn’t getting a lot of chances or was limited to routine plays, either. The M’s made outstanding plays all over the field.

Jake Fraley and Mitch Haniger both laid out for catches in the outfield in the ninth inning of Friday’s 5-1 win. Crawford, the 2020 AL Gold Glove winner at shortstop, was fantastic all four games, and he combined with Dylan Moore at second base to make for a smooth double play combination. Kyle Seager had a beautiful stop, spin and throw to rob a hit Saturday. Fraley took extra bases away from Ji-Man Choi with a leaping grab at the wall in center Sunday. Even France, who is not known for his play in the field, has looked great at first base, including a nifty double play he started and finished Sunday to end the top of the fourth inning.

When a team’s defense is good, a pitching staff will appreciate it and keep the defenders engaged. The M’s were an example of that against Tampa Bay, most notably Kikuchi, who got 10 ground ball outs Friday to go with five fly balls and six strikeouts over seven innings.

3. The Mariners are officially fun to watch.

If you’re not planning your nights around the Mariners’ games, you might want to start because the last week was some of the most fun baseball Seattle has seen in a long time.

They’re now a team that’s a threat to bat around in an inning. The defense is incredible, and even the routine plays are exciting (balls in play equal entertainment). The starting rotation is coming around, especially with Kikuchi, Flexen and Gilbert on nice runs. The bullpen is good more often than it is not.

Most importantly, and this is a thing I’ve brought up before, these are all players that Seattle fans can take pride in as their own. Every player on the roster is either establishing themselves in the big leagues for the first time or, in a few cases like Seager, Haniger and Gonzales, did so in a Mariners uniform seasons ago.

When rebuilds go right, they eventually get really fun. And that’s exactly what has happened with the Mariners over the last week.

Follow Brent Stecker on Twitter.

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