Salk: Mariners have something special — and different — going on

Sep 11, 2022, 5:57 PM | Updated: Sep 12, 2022, 2:28 am
Mariners Julio Rodríguez...
Julio Rodríguez celebrates his tying home run in the ninth inning against the Braves on Sept. 11. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The Mariners have had some fun teams and some huge wins in the past few years. Certainly the Mitch Haniger game last year against the Angels felt like the start of something. But it came for a team that did not control its own destiny, was desperately trying to hang on, and everyone knew they were ahead of schedule when it came to competing for a playoff spot.

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In retrospect, that win felt like a line of demarcation. It was the moment the Mariners announced their rebuild was over and they were ready to compete. Unfortunately, it came just a little too late to get over the hump in 2021, but it gave Mitch the confidence to pen his now famous open letter to fans and management letting them know it was go time.

It is too early know for sure the significance of Sunday’s 8-7 comeback victory over the Atlanta Braves, but if Mitch’s hit declared the end of the rebuild, this one – which saw game-tying and game-winning home runs in the ninth inning by Julio Rodríguez and Eugenio Suárez, respectively – may have signified the beginning of contention.

It was special.

Special because it came with more than 45,000 in the park, a number that wouldn’t have been possible without their efforts this year to date.

Special because it came against the defending champs. Atlanta won last year and then added presumed NL Rookie of the Year Michael Harris II (who went yard twice Sunday).

Special because the Mariners tagged three-time All-Star closer Kenley Jansen, who has pitched in 20 postseason series and has been tremendous.

Special because it came after the Mariners’ regular formula failed them. This bullpen has carried them for nearly two years, but after Erik Swanson got an early hook, manager Scott Servais burned through Andrés Muñoz in the eighth. He could have (and probably should have) gone to Matt Festa in the ninth but instead turned to Diego Castillo. And he probably should have pulled Castillo after his second straight walk to start an inning with a four-run lead. But by the time Paul Sewald surrendered the second home run of the inning, this dominant ‘pen had turned a four-run lead into a one-run deficit.

But they didn’t give up. They weren’t shell-shocked. They didn’t panic.

Special because after all the games this pitching staff has won despite a lackluster offensive output, this one allowed the bats to pick up the arms for a change.

There’s a reason why Servais spoke at length about the importance of “team” after this win. As former Seahawks wide receiver Ricardo Lockette once explained, teams play for each other, not with each other. And if you saw the image of Sewald celebrating with Suárez after the victory, you know how much it meant for someone to take him off the hook.

Special because Julio hit that ball 117.2 mph, the hardest hit by a Mariner in the Statcast era. In the ninth. Down a run. Because Julio is different.

He is the reason this team has real, genuine hope. He isn’t like most ballplayers. He is playing at a level that 21 year olds only play at when they are starting Hall of Fame careers.

This is the same player that Marco Gonzales called the best player he had ever played with – just three months into his big league career! And he does it all with the charisma of a Hollywood star and the joy of a kindergartner at recess.

Special because it came in September, with the Mariners tied for the top wild card spot in the American League and a 5 1/2-game cushion to make the playoffs with 22 games to play and their AL East competition scheduled to play each other a lot down the stretch.

And special because of the emotional roller coaster for everyone playing in or watching this game. Much like the extra innings win over the Yankees, it felt like a precursor of what is to come: a taste of the drama and anxiety that only postseason baseball can create.

Time will tell just how important this win was. But as 45,000 went home happy, you could tell they had a different feeling than any crowd leaving this ballpark in decades. They had just seen something special.

And they know it could be just the beginning.

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