The Mariners found the perfect way to finally end the drought

Oct 1, 2022, 1:44 AM | Updated: Oct 3, 2022, 11:50 pm
Mariners Cal Raleigh...
Cal Raleigh runs around the bases after his walk-off home run on Sept. 30, 2022. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

There are plenty of ways for a baseball team to clinch a spot in the postseason, and several of them were available to the Mariners as they aimed to finally put 21 years of frustration behind them on Friday night.

First, they quite literally could have done nothing. With their magic number down to one, a Baltimore Orioles loss to the New York Yankees would have sealed the playoffs while Seattle was in the early innings of its own game.

Clinching the playoffs because the Yankees won? I’m sure any Mariners fan’s response to that idea would be, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Luckily the Orioles told the Mariners they had to take care of it themselves, winning 2-1 in the Bronx.

Second, the M’s could have just had a ho-hum victory over the lowly Oakland A’s, capping it off on defense in the top of the ninth without even playing the bottom half of the inning.

OK, a little better, but does that really befit clinching the first playoff berth since less than a year after the team’s youngest player was even born? Not a chance.

How about nine innings of white-knuckle baseball ending with a two-out walkoff homer that breaks through the proverbial glass ceiling, clanging off the Hit It Here Cafe to set off an hours-long celebration at the corner of Edgar and Dave?

Now that’s how you end the freaking drought.

The 2-1 win Friday night over the A’s could have gone easier, but these are the Seattle Mariners we’re talking about. It needed to be a struggle. It needed to come down to the wire. It needed to give the 44,000-plus fans at T-Mobile Park the best possible way to blow the roof off the joint – and did they ever.

‘It was the craziest thing ever’: Mariners end playoff drought and party is on

But something that should not be lost in the mayhem of the biggest win in Seattle baseball since Junior was waved around third base was that the heroes of that victory could not have been more fitting. And that’s because they, as much as any of the players on the Mariners roster, are products of the only way the team was ever going to end the longest active drought in North American major league sports.

The Mariners tried just about everything to get back to the playoffs over the last 21 years.

They changed managers – a lot. They came up with new philosophies that failed. There were half-hearted attempts at youth movements. At times there were big payrolls, signing marquee free agents like Adrián Beltré, Robinson Canó, and (brace yourself) Chone Figgins. There were blockbuster trades for frontline starting pitchers like Erik Bedard and Cliff Lee.

None of it worked.

Finally, after the 2018 season ended with Seattle once again coming mere games short of the postseason, the M’s did the one thing they hadn’t tried during what was then a 17-year drought.

They began a rebuild.

The Mariners wouldn’t have been in the spot they were Friday night without tearing down and starting anew after that 2018 campaign. All the proof you need is the 2022 roster, made up entirely of players acquired since Jerry Dipoto took over as general manager in 2016 and including several key names who were completely homegrown.

More obviously, though, are the two players who delivered that beautiful, cathartic victory over the A’s.

On the day when a single Mariners win would send them to the playoffs, the ball was handed to 25-year-old right-hander Logan Gilbert. And he did not flinch, throwing eight dominant, one-run innings for his longest start yet in what has been an impressive first two seasons in the big leagues.

And in the moment when a single Mariners run would send them to the playoffs, they called the number of 25-year-old catcher Cal Raleigh to pinch hit with two outs and no runners on in the bottom of the ninth. And he, too, did not flinch. Raleigh worked his way into a 3-2 count, then dug out an 86 mph Domingo Acevado changeup for a mammoth, no-doubt home run that exorcised the demons that have plagued the franchise since the end of 2001.

The Mariners needed to rebuild to get back to the playoffs, and nothing was more crucial to that rebuild than developing their own prospects into key contributors on the big league club. And while Julio Rodríguez has grabbed the headlines this year, and before that was the face of the farm system along with Jarred Kelenic, the M’s were always going to need more than just the big names to break through to get where they wanted to go.

This season has been about that. Gilbert built on his stellar September in 2021 to put himself in the All-Star conversation at midseason, and he’s come on strong down the stretch. Raleigh, meanwhile, shook off a rough start to his MLB career to become an indispensable part of the team not just as a power source (his walk-off shot Friday set a new Mariners record for home runs in a season by a catcher with 26) but also as a stellar backstop and general of the pitching staff.

The improvements of those two as well as breakout seasons by Rodríguez and rookie pitcher George Kirby aren’t just important to the M’s reaching the playoffs this season. They’re the biggest sign that the rebuild set the Mariners on a trajectory to heights higher than the franchise has ever seen. That what Dipoto, manager Scott Servais and their rest of the brain trust have built is sustainable.

The Mariners’ path back to the postseason needed homegrown players. That Friday night’s stars were those players proved as much – and proved that the M’s, like Servais said on the field after the game, are just getting started.

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