BRANDON GUSTAFSON

Cal Raleigh’s walkoff highlights how important he’s become to Mariners

Oct 1, 2022, 2:23 PM | Updated: 3:00 pm
Mariners Cal Raleigh...
Cal Raleigh of the Seattle Mariners celebrates his walk-off home run against the Oakland Athletics at T-Mobile Park on September 30, 2022. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Cal Raleigh’s pinch-hit walkoff home run that smacked off the window of the Hit It Here Café on Friday made him the hero of the night as it sent the Mariners to their first playoff appearance since 2001, ending the longest active playoff drought in North American professional sports.

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But it was also extremely fitting that Cal Raleigh was the man to come through in that moment.

As Brent Stecker pointed out, it made all the sense in the world that the moment the Mariners clinched a trip to the postseason would be due to young players seen as cornerstones of the rebuild coming through in the clutch. That was the case Friday night for Ty France, Logan Gilbert and, of course, Raleigh.

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But let’s focus on Raleigh here for a bit, because while Friday night was a storybook moment for the man affectionately known as “Big Dumper,” you would have never guessed he’d be in that situation after the first month of the season.

Raleigh, a 2018 third-round pick out of Florida State, made his MLB debut last year to decent fanfare as he was seen as a top-5 to top-10 prospect in one of the best farm systems in baseball. He slugged two home runs in his first 47 games and was solid behind the plate, but he slashed just .180/.223/.309 with far too many strikeouts.

Fast forward to April and Raleigh not only broke camp with the big league club, but he actually caught Robbie Ray’s start on opening day.

But in his first nine games, Raleigh did little at the plate, hitting just .083 with two hits – one of them being a solo home run – and he was demoted to Triple-A Tacoma at the end of April.

Raleigh going down to the minors again wasn’t seen as a big deal like it was with Jarred Kelenic, in part because the Mariners had Tom Murphy and Luis Torrens with the big league club.

But roughly one week after his demotion, Raleigh’s services were needed as Murphy was out with a shoulder injury that ultimately required season-ending surgery.

Suddenly, Raleigh was thrust into a major role with the veteran catcher out for the year, and he’d done little at the plate to show he could be relied upon as an everyday MLB catcher.

But after four hitless games in his return to MLB action, Raleigh smacked a home run on May 15 and never looked back.

Overall this season, Raleigh has played in 117 games and has slashed .208/.283/.485 with 26 home runs and 62 RBIs. Over 162 games, that’d pace out to 36 homers and 68 RBI.

But if you look at Raleigh’s season since just May 15, it’s even more remarkable what he’s been doing.

He’s slashed .221/.292/.515 with 25 homers and 61 RBIs in that time frame, good for 39 homers and 96 RBIs over 162 games. He’s emerged as not just a key component of this Mariners ballclub, but as one of the top catchers in the game.

Raleigh has also been stellar behind the plate and a force at throwing out runners attempting to steal, and he draws rave reviews from pitchers and coaches for his pitch-calling. Raleigh has thrown out the second-most runners in baseball with 24, and his 32% caught stealing rate is third-best in MLB among qualified catchers.

“Any time young players come to the big leagues, they struggle at times, and Cal certainly did,” manager Scott Servais said after Friday’s playoff-clinching win. “But he got an opportunity to play and he took advantage of it. And he’s matured along the way. And what we saw tonight was kind of a culmination of that. When you put a lot of hard work in, you care, you listen, you’re coachable. And he’s gonna be a big part of what we’re doing here for a long time to come.”

Raleigh’s 26 home runs lead all of baseball for catchers as he has two more than the Dodgers’ Will Smith, who has played in 17 more games this year.

Additionally, Raleigh’s walkoff blast was his 26th of the year, surpassing Mike Zunino for the most home runs by a catcher in a single season in Mariners history. And again, all but one home run have come since May 15. Heck, by WAR, he’s been third-most valuable Mariner this season.

“I don’t know where we’d be (without him),” veteran pitcher Marco Gonzales told reporters Friday night. “For someone to step up and replace Tom Murphy, who is such a presence in our clubhouse, for Cal to come in and take ownership of that role and do what he did, it’s incredible.”

The man who drafted Raleigh, Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto, made it clear how important Raleigh is to the team and organization.

“It changes your organization when you have a young catcher with that kind of makeup, two-way skills, that kind of power,” Dipoto said. “And he’s now come through in big moments on a number of occasions down the stretch here. It’s just huge. Having a guy like that in the clubhouse who everybody else respects the way we do.”

It’s clear when talking to Raleigh that he grew up around the game. His dad, Todd, is a longtime college baseball coach.

After the game, Raleigh gave an answer that sounded like someone whose dad is a coach.

“Just try not to do too much,” he said of coming through in the moment. “I mean, it’s big moment, a lot of people are here. It just goes back to having a good approach.”

Let’s not get it twisted, though – Raleigh had a blast on Friday.

“We’re having fun. We’re playing baseball. That’s the way I look at it,” he said. “And I think that’s the mentality you got to have. It’s fun. It’s baseball.”

Raleigh doesn’t remember rounding the bases after his home run left the yard and stayed fair, but he does remember the feeling of crossing home plate into the embrace of his Mariners teammates and coaches.

“It was the craziest thing ever. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to forget that moment,” he said.

This Mariners team has been carried by strong pitching and stars in the lineup, namely Julio Rodríguez, Eugenio Suárez and Ty France.

But make no mistake about it – this Mariners team wouldn’t be where they are without Raleigh, and him belting the walkoff blast further emphasized just how important he’s been to this team’s playoff run.

From an early-season demotion to cementing his place in Mariners history, all in the span of about six months. Take a bow, Cal Raleigh.

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