The defining factors in Wild Card series between Mariners and Blue Jays
Oct 6, 2022, 9:17 AM | Updated: Jan 23, 2023, 3:38 pm
(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
We’re certainly through the looking glass as the Mariners prepare to play their first postseason series since 2001.
The new Wild Card format, a best-of-three-series, is entirely familiar yet somehow feels completely different than a run of the mill three-game set in mid-May.
While the stage is foreign to a majority of players on the Mariners’ roster, the goal boils down to the essence of what teams try to do all season: win two out of three games, any which way works fine. How do the Mariners accomplish that feat? Well, here are the factors that will define this AL Wild Card series.
It’s a dead heat when it comes to comparing rotations: the Mariners have more reliable frontline depth for a three-game series, but the Blue Jays top two might be better than the M’s top two. What isn’t up for debate is the relief pitching: the Mariners bullpen is the best in baseball.
And as Mariners broadcaster Gary Hill Jr. explained on Seattle Sports’ Bump and Stacy, the Blue Jays’ lineup is perfect for the M’s relievers to carve up:
“The Blue Jays being right-handed heavy can play into the Mariners’ favor. Because as we know, the Mariners are right-handed heavy in their bullpen, they have a ton of swing-and-miss in the bullpen. There are slider monsters down there, especially against righties,” Hill said.
However, the Mariners starters must be able to GET to the bullpen with a lead. Luis Castillo has shown he can do that, as evidenced by his start on Saturday, where he blew through the A’s with eight strikeouts in six innings and in his memorable home debut of eight shutout innings against the Yankees. Can he do it on the road, though? His last two road starts (against the Royals and A’s) were his toughest since joining the Mariners. If he can avoid the “blowup inning” that punctuated the end of those two outings, the Mariners will be in good shape.
Alek Manoah, the Blue Jays’ Game 1 starter, has the fourth-highest WAR (5.9) of any pitcher in the American League, along with the second-best ERA (2.24) in the AL. Manoah has also been an innings-eater this season, going at least six innings in 25 of his 31 starts. That includes a 7 1/3 inning outing against the Mariners on July 9, where it took a Carlos Santana two-run HR in the seventh to give the Mariners their first runs, the only ones they would need, in a 2-1 win.
The Mariners have become reliant on the home run as their form of offense, especially in the 2nd half of the season. Their 94 home runs since the All-Star break are the second-most in the American League (Yankees, 97). That is great when it works, yet we have also seen the complete lack of scoring that occurred when the home runs dried up, most notably during the final road trip of the season – 1 run or less scored in 6-of-7 losses.
Putting together sustained innings is also critical because of how magnified everything becomes in a playoff series. A long inning drives up a pitch count, it could knock a starter out early, causing a bullpen to overextend in one game and leave it unavailable for the next. That also ties back to the first factor: pitching. An inability to put up a crooked number, or big inning, makes for a slim margin for a starter to hand over the game to the bullpen with a lead.
Make no mistake, the Blue Jays like the home run ball as well: 5 players have hit at least 24 this season, yet they also are able to score at a blistering pace by consistently getting guys on base. Bo Bichette led the American League in hits (189), eight of their everyday players have an on-base percentage over .300, and the Blue Jays +96 run differential trails only the Yankees and Astros in the AL.
The Blue Jays have the established postseason star in George Springer, and ESPN’s Jeff Passan detailed what makes him so dangerous. The 24 home runs against the Mariners are concerning, even more so are his 19 career playoff home runs. He can set the tone for this series on the first at-bat, heck even the first pitch the Blue Jays see on Friday. A game-changing leadoff hitter sounds familiar though … oh, that’s right, the Mariners have one of those as well.
It is fitting that Julio Rodríguez has already transcended to the realm of “only needs one name to know who you are talking about” players. He is preternaturally built for big moments, one of those which might include starting off the biggest series in two decades with a home run. He has the most leadoff home runs by a rookie in Mariners history, and the words “Julio” and “most” have become synonymous this season in quantifying the caliber of his debut season.
So, can Julio continue the upward trajectory of this season? It wouldn’t be overly surprising, considering everything else he has accomplished this season. The entire baseball world will be watching – the last time Julio had that many eyes on him he proceeded to mash the most home runs and win over legions of fans during the Home Run Derby.
Big moments? Yeah, there have been plenty of those. The first Mariners grand slam of the season. The home run off the Western Metal Supply Co. Two home runs, one of which tied the game in the ninth, off the defending World Series champs. It might be a lot to ask to put the weight of the Mariners’ playoff run on Julio’s shoulders, but in the midst of a record-breaking rookie season, the likes of which hold only Mike Trout as a contemporary, this is moment where a superstar makes his mark on the big stage.
All three games at home. It’s a huge advantage for the Blue Jays, the reason that top Wild Card spot loomed all important in the race to the finish. Mariners fans have certainly experienced the yearly Northern invasion down to Seattle, and that effect will be felt in full force with a rabid fan base, frothing in excitement and anticipation for the first home playoff games for the Blue Jays since 2016. Both Gary Hill and Jeff Passan stressed the effect the crowd could have on this series.
“They have guys that have been around and have been there, but you just never know until you’re there – especially with the young guys – and see it for the first time, especially in that environment (in Toronto). I can’t stress that enough, that it’s going to be a ridiculous environment to be in. So I think for the Mariners, they would love to get ahead early in the ballgame, especially in Game 1, and keep that crowd a little quiet to start things,” Hill said.
“The atmosphere in Toronto during the playoffs is the best atmosphere I’ve seen in baseball, anywhere…anywhere,” Passan said. “You’re going to see what the Mariners walk into and it’s going to be scary because Rogers Centre gets so freaking loud.”
The Mariners have faced big crowds this season, and they have done well against hostile crowds in New York and Houston (for one series), but a regular season crowd pales in comparison to the frenzied, ear-splitting nightmare of a playoff road game. This will be new, even for the few players on the team who do have postseason experience. Yet, we have seen this team thrive amidst adversity…in fact, complacency seems to be the toughest opponent, so perhaps this is the moment these Mariners were built to endure.
From a competitive standpoint the best way to take the crowd out of a game is to take an early lead. It has been a successful formula for the Mariners all season, and the reason they reached 90 wins for a second straight year: grab a lead and let the bullpen hold on for the win.
That brand of baseball makes for stressful games, which is perfect because hopefully 34 one-run wins built up a high tolerance for drama. It’s what we live for in sports, it’s what we’ve been missing for 20-plus years: the immeasurable joy and the hair-pulling, heart clenching agony of living and dying with every pitch.
Here we go!