Drayer: How Mariners went from brink to MLB’s hottest team in a month
You know you are in a very bad place with your baseball when the very first thought you have when you wake up in the morning is, “I can’t watch this offense anymore.”
You are in an even worse spot when that is your job.
Yeah, we got there. I wish I had circled the date on the calendar.
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I am fairly certain the morning of horror came around the time the Mariners were hosting the Angels in mid-June. The excitement for the Mariners to finally see the Angels, who were still ahead of Seattle in the standings despite cooling off from a 24-13 start, gave way to the disappointment of miserable baseball that week, with the team dropping seven of eight games, getting shut out in four – four! – of them.
Hello low point. June 19 found the team 10 games under .500, with the prospect of postseason goals being realized reduced to silly talk at that time. Mercifully, June 20 was an off day. The next day, a new series in Oakland began. My outlook that morning, not much better, with the first thought being, ‘What the heck am I going to talk about today?’
Desperate times call for desperate measures, and for the pregame show discussion segment that evening I went to the old standby that I hate to use: the “Apollo 13 Roundtable,” building off Ed Harris’ line in the movie when chaos breaks loose, with a rocket ship that has suffered catastrophic failure after catastrophic failure seemingly making the return of the three astronauts onboard impossible:
“What have we got on this spacecraft that is good?”
As it turned out, for spacecraft and ballclub, just enough.
The Mariners beat the A’s that night 8-2. Taylor Trammell, Julio Rodríguez, Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suárez all went deep. Cal Raleigh reached base safely four times. Marco Gonzales threw seven innings of two-run ball, and after missing nearly two years to injury, reliever Ken Giles returned to the field, receiving the soft landing of pitching in the ninth inning with a six-run lead. It was the first game of a road trip where the Mariners’ families joined, and it was as much of a feel-good win that they had had in some time.
“It feels good, and it has been a struggle,” Mariners manager Scott Servais admitted after the game. “Hopefully we build on it.”
Does winning 21 of your next 24 work, skip?
This has been quite a run and ridiculously fun to watch.
The next day the Mariners hit back-to-back-back home runs with two outs in a 9-0 laugher that stunned even the biggest Mariners believer.
“I was in shock!” Servais exclaimed (jokingly, I think) in his postgame meeting with the media. “I looked up to the sky and said, ‘Finally!’ I haven’t seen this in awhile. (Jesse) Winker looked at me and said, ‘Are you happy?’ And I said I was in shock. I’m ecstatic right now, but good for you guys.”
If not shocked, then perhaps stunned would best describe the manager and everyone else who witnessed A.J. Puk wild-pitching in the tying and winning runs the next day. Just like that, a little three-game winning streak and on to Anaheim where the winning continued, and an opportunity for Servais arose. A good, veteran manager once pointed out to me that the best time to push and to ask for more was not when a team was dow, but when they were doing well.
Against the Angels, Servais got that opportunity.
“It’s not often you live to talk about leaving 16 on base and win a ballgame,” were his first comments following the Mariners’ fourth win in a row.
He went on to credit the bullpen for what it did, Suárez for an in-game adjustment and then Winker for gaining momentum at the plate. His final comment and biggest takeaway from the game, however, went back to the Mariners’ ongoing struggle with runners in scoring position.
“Part of offense is scoring runs and getting guys in. I can’t believe we left 16 men on base and still won. We have got to get better.”
The next day, another win, and another emphasis on doing the right thing at the plate.
“We’ve seen Logan (Gilbert) sharper,” Servais opened his postgame comments with. “I keep talking about it but we could have done better with runners in scoring position.”
The Mariners would win a brawl the next day but lose three of the next six games. Backsliding at this point perhaps would have been the knockout blow of the season. Moving forward perhaps would give them a chance. The conventional wisdom was they needed to get to or as close to .500 as possible by the All-Star break to keep their playoff hopes realistic. Option 3, an historic run into the break. I’m fairly certain nobody who covers or follows the team had that on their card.
I think we did, however, have the formula. Going back to that Apollo 13 Roundtable about finding the good, it turns out that unlike past years when I resorted to that topic, there was plenty of good.
Rick Rizzs, the voice of the Mariners, pointed to the track record of the guys that were brought in from the outside. Producer/engineer/broadcaster Gary Hill highlighted the starting rotation and how at that point it seemed the bullpen had stabilized with Diego Castillo finding his footing. Longtime M’s radio and TV announcer Dave Sims pointed to a favorable schedule that they were about to embark on.
Then we looked at key areas that could be improved upon.
Rizzs felt the key was getting more aggressive at the plate like they did with Astros ace Justin Verlander earlier in the month. Put the ball in play, do better with two strikes. Gary emphasized that the three hitters who were getting it done, J.P. Crawford, Ty France and Rodríguez, needed help. The lineup had to be lengthened. I saw an offense that was pressing. Don’t try to do too much. Trust in what you have got and perhaps they could find some of that road magic.
It was all right there. And you know what? They knew it.
In late May and early June, I left the clubhouse shaking my head on numerous occasions. How could the Mariners’ outlook be so upbeat after ugly losses? How could they possibly believe they were in a good place as they were digging a bigger and bigger hole? How could they have such confidence that they could do again what they did in their 90-game season last year?
I heard this over and over again: Does anyone know it’s June?
I wasn’t the only one wondering.
“That’s basically what it was,” said second baseman/outfielder Adam Frazier.
“It was mid-June and we were still going through that grind. The guys were definitely saying we went through this last year, but you know, I didn’t,” he said with a chuckle, referring to the fact that he was in the National League in 2021. “The other four new guys didn’t. You could only believe them at their word. At some point you have to put your money where your mouth is, and so far they have been right. We still have a long way to go, so one game at a time and keep having fun with it.”
A key lesson that I will take away from this season is that an adjustment period can be a very real thing for a club that is young or has made a substantial number of additions. The 2022 Mariners fall into both categories. I expected this team to hit the ground running out of spring training. That expectation may not have been fair. Perhaps some in that clubhouse did have that expectation, and perhaps that contributed to some of the struggles especially as key players were lost to injury.
A key quote I go back to from the first half comes from Dylan Moore in his walkoff interview with me on the radio broadcast following win No. 4 in the Mariners’ current 14-game winning streak.
“Everyone is just playing the best type of baseball they can play,” he said. “Everyone has a unique skillset that they show up to the field with, and when there are guys out, all you have to do is you don’t try to do anything more than you can do. You are in the big leagues for a reason. You hit well. We’re the best of the best and you have got to know that you have got to have that mentality, and I think these guys do. We have a group that sets us up for success in that regard. It’s exciting. It’s a brand of baseball we knew we could play, we just had to find it a little bit and hopefully we can run with it as long as we can.”
Do your job and trust those around you. It doesn’t matter who is out. When this offense clicks, that is what we are seeing. This perhaps is best illustrated in that during this 14-game winning streak, the longest in MLB history going into an All-Star break, nine different players have game-winning RBIs.
“The way that we have been getting together, bonding together, that has been key for us,” Rodríguez said on the field following win No. 14 on Sunday. “I feel like that’s why we are playing the way we are playing because we are trusting each other, we are relying on each other, and we just compete and we win.”
Huge credit goes to the starting staff for making their adjustments quicker and carrying the team while the offense found its footing. The bullpen has done its part, as well. The offense, well, it took some time, but what was gained in learning that they could survive without a Mitch Haniger, a Kyle Lewis and even for a time a Ty France (let alone the suspended three) should prove invaluable going forward.
“I’m going to be honest, we’re pretty dangerous,” said France of an offense that has posted the third-best wRC+ in the American League since June 21. “I still don’t think we have hit our best offensive streak. We are starting to put it together, we are playing good baseball, but there’s still a lot of games where the pitchers have to carry us. I think once we get fully going, fully healthy, it’s up there in the best in baseball.”
That offense and the rest of the team will be put to the test right out of the gates in the second half as they will face two of the three best teams in baseball, the Houston Astros (59-32) and New York Yankees (64-28), in 13 of their first 20 games after the break.
It is a test they have been building up to. And unlike a month ago, after what we have seen transpire with this group? One to look forward to.
More on the Mariners from Seattle Sports
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• Mariners draft HS SS Cole Young and his ‘beautiful swing’ 21st overall
• Mariners take college corner IF, HS pitcher with pair of 2nd-round picks
• Stecker: Mariners rebuild is complete – they were just missing Julio Rodríguez
• Ty France finally named an All-Star, replacing Mike Trout
• Mariners’ Sam Haggerty gave Rick Rizzs greatest gift for an announcer
• Mariners OF Check-In: Winker’s new stance, latest on Lewis and Kelenic
• Mariners’ Dipoto looking for pitching help, open to trading for “impact”