Drayer: How Mariners’ 90-win journey wildly differed from April 1 expectations
As the Mariners’ season came to an end at 4:06 p.m. Sunday afternoon in front of 44,229 cheering fans at T-Mobile Park, the immediate temptation was to look ahead.
While the failure to advance to a Wild Card Game or tie-breaking 163rd game no doubt brought on more than a tinge of disappointment for those who had followed along this season, for many, those feelings were assuaged by the anticipation for how this young and growing team could build upon the franchise’s first 90-win season since 2003.
The national media certainly took notice.
Very much enjoyed this story — and the fact that the Mariners are still in the wild-card race is amazing since they're doing it without Julio Rodriguez, George Kirby, Emerson Hancock, Noelvi Marte and Matt Brash, all of whom will arrive soon.
Seattle is going to be a problem. https://t.co/f6mvxQ9nkV
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) September 24, 2021
There will be plenty of time for breakdowns, analysis and of course Hot Stove talk in the months to come, but it would be a shame not to acknowledge the steps forward this this team took.
Think back six months to Game 1 and the expectations that surrounded this team. It would be a year where the development of young players would be prioritized. There were questions to be answered with those who had not yet been seen at the big league level and those who had missed significant time. The offseason additions that were made were clearly not of the variety to propel the team forward into a postseason; at best, they would give the Mariners a chance if everything fell their way. It clearly did not, but in the end they darn near overcame the obstacles that were thrown in their path.
That path was expected to look very different, as the preamble to broadcast No. 1 by Rick Rizzs, the voice of the Mariners, illustrated.
Let’s start with the opening line on April 1 from the radio booth in the Dave Niehaus Broadcast Center at T-Mobile Park.
“Welcome to the on-time start of the major league season from T-Mobile Park in Seattle. It’s the opening game of the 2021 season as the Mariners take on the San Francisco Giants, and for the Mariners it is their 45th campaign around the American League.”
The Mariners took the series 2-1 against the Giants, who after being picked by most to finish third in the National League West went on to put up the best record in baseball.
“No fooling on April 1st – we will bring you a full slate of 162 games, and hopefully more in October.”
Rick came oh so close to hitting on his first “Pick to Click.”
“We are going to see some changes with this version of the Mariners. Rookie Taylor Trammell, one of the best stories in the spring, gets ready to make his MLB debut tonight.”
Trammell made the team out of spring training as center fielder Kyle Lewis started the season on the injured list after suffering what was called a bone bruise on his knee during the final week in Arizona. The belief was Lewis, whose ability to play center coming off knee surgery surprised many in 2020, would not be out for long. A popular question from fans at the time was what would the Mariners do with all of their outfielders once Lewis returned. With Julio Rodríguez on the horizon, how would they find enough playing time for all? As it turned out, we once again saw a good number of innings in the outfield filled by infielders.
“You will see a lot of new faces in the bullpen this year.”
That last line was said with a little trepidation by Rizzs. Who are these guys? Will Rafael Montero be the closer? With the tumor in Kendall Graveman’s neck forcing his move from the rotation to the pen, how much can they lean on him? Will Rule 5 pick Will Vest stick? Who the heck is Drew Steckenrider? So many questions, and worth noting that while the Mariners relief corps finished with the fourth-best WAR in the majors, only three relievers who were with the club on opening day – Steckenrider, Anthony Misiewicz and Casey Sadler – were still there for Game 162.
“And an old friend is back with us in the starting rotation: James Paxton.”
The Mariners were banking on a healthy Paxton to take the ball every sixth day, but that plan never came to fruition as Paxton’s season ended after pitching just 1 1/3 innings due to an elbow injury. In all, 14 different pitchers started games for the Mariners in 2021 with Chris Flexen the only one to not miss a start.
“It’s great to have a healthy Mitch Haniger and Tom Murphy back with us after missing all of last season with injuries.”
While Mitch Haniger turned in a Comeback Player of the Year-worthy performance, Murphy struggled mightily in April and May.
“One thing that hasn’t changed: staff ace Marco Gonzales gets ready to make his third consecutive opening day start. And on the mound tonight for the Giants, it will be veteran Kevin Gausman.”
As it turned out, Marco on the mound had changed, his good cutter nowhere to be found at the beginning of the year. Injury, time missed and all that comes with first-time fatherhood were all pointed to by manager Scott Servais as reasons the veteran left-hander struggled in the first half, posting a 5.88 ERA. The turnaround in the second half was remarkable and reassuring, however, as he went 9-1 with a 2.70 ERA. Marco was still Marco.
“There’s also one major change this year. We have replaced the 15,000 pictures of fans in cardboard cutouts with their pets with 9,000 fans tonight here in the ballpark, and what a great sight to see.”
And an even better sight, the three straight sellout crowds of 44,000-plus to end the season at T-Mobile Park this weekend.
This is just amazing. Rick with the marketing staff and others including president of business operations Catie Griggs and @Kevin_Martinez. A year ago they were placing cardboard cutouts of fans. Today, the stands will be full. What a day! https://t.co/6CfVBIRdX9
— Shannon Drayer (@shannondrayer) October 3, 2021
Perhaps forgotten, where we were April 1. Fans were welcomed back to the park after a year absence cautiously with capacity capped at 9,000 until mid-May, and attendance gains were modest even after capacity was raised. The return of the fans had to be earned, and in the end, this group – a group that looked quite different with just 14 players from the opening day 26-man roster active on the final day – did it. They ended the season with fewer questions remaining and expectations rightfully raised.
Now to Game 162.
“A swing and a miss by Haniger for strike 3, and the magic carpet ride of the 2021 season comes to a final close. The curtain comes down on one of the most remarkable seasons I have ever seen here in Seattle. The Mariners were oh so close to getting to the playoffs for the first time in 19 seasons. The season is over, it has been a remarkable run, and because of what they did, the young players with the veterans, they are going to have one heck of a year.”
Pick to click for 2022? Noted.
More Mariners coverage from 710Sports.com
• Kyle Seager gets emotional sendoff from sellout M’s crowd
• 710 ESPN Seattle’s voices react on Mariners’ first 90-win season since 2003
• Mitch Haniger: 2021 is ‘the most fun playing baseball I’ve had’
• M’s 3B coach Manny Acta: “Special group” led by Manager of the Year Scott Servais
• ESPN’s Jeff Passan: ‘This is just the beginning’ for ‘really tough’ Mariners