Five storylines as Mariners take control of AL West

Jun 16, 2024, 6:55 PM | Updated: Jun 17, 2024, 10:30 am

Seattle Mariners Josh Rojas trident Rangers 2024...

Josh Rojas celebrates after the Seattle Mariners' sweep of the Texas Rangers. (Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

(Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

After narrowly missing the playoffs last year, the Seattle Mariners entered this season laser-focused on winning the American League West. It’s something they haven’t accomplished in more than two decades, with their last division crown coming during their magical 116-win campaign in 2001.

Seattle Mariners Insider: Quick hits after AL West leaders’ 6-1 homestand

With a statement-making sweep this weekend, Seattle put itself in prime position to finally end that lengthy division title drought.

The Mariners completed a three-game sweep of the defending World Series champion Texas Rangers on Sunday to seize a commanding lead atop the AL West, moving 8.5 games ahead of Texas and nine games in front of the Houston Astros. It marks Seattle’s largest division lead at any point in a season since 2001. And it’s currently the largest division lead of any team in the majors.

The red-hot M’s have won 15 of their past 21 games and are now 43-31, sitting a season-high 12 games over .500. Before they embark on a nine-game East Coast road trip, here are five things that stand out following their monumental sweep of the Rangers:

M’s seize firm control of AL West

For nearly the entire past decade, the AL West has run through the Lone Star State. Since 2015, the Astros and Rangers have combined to win eight division titles, five AL pennants and three World Series trophies.

Last year, the Mariners battled the Astros and Rangers into the final weekend of a tight three-team race for the AL West crown. Houston ended up winning the division over Texas on a head-to-head tiebreaker, while the Rangers made the playoffs as a wild card and went on to win the World Series. Seattle was the odd one out, finishing two games behind their AL West rivals and falling just short of the postseason.

Fueled by that near-miss, the Mariners made it clear in spring training that their goal this season was to win the AL West. And thanks to a red-hot surge over the past three weeks and the continued struggles of their two biggest rivals, Seattle has taken firm control of the race. According to FanGraphs, the Mariners now have a 79% chance of winning the division.

Seattle has built its commanding AL West lead by dominating its division opponents. The Mariners are 17-5 within their division, which is the best divisional record of any team in the majors. They are 5-2 against Houston and 5-1 against Texas, just one year after struggling to a 4-9 mark against the Rangers.

“Our guys know it. If you want to win the West, you’ve gotta beat the teams in Texas,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “And you need to keep focusing on that.  … And we’ve talked about it all year long. Everybody knows what our goals are: Get into the playoffs, get deep in the playoffs. But you’ve gotta take care of your division.”

Starting rotation shuts down Texas

The Mariners’ starting rotation has been spectacular all season, but this was its finest moment yet. In a pivotal series against likely its biggest threat to a division crown, Seattle’s starting pitchers completely shut down one of the game’s more dangerous lineups.

Luis Castillo, George Kirby and Logan Gilbert combined to allow just two earned runs and nine hits in 20 innings, while totaling 22 strikeouts and just three walks. Castillo gave up two runs in the first inning of Friday’s series opener, but the Mariners’ trio of starters went the rest of the series without allowing an earned run. Gilbert capped it with a sensational outing in Sunday’s series finale, tossing eight shutout innings of two-hit ball with nine strikeouts and no walks. In six games against the Rangers this season, Seattle starting pitchers have combined for a 1.47 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP in 36 2/3 innings.

The dominant series on the mound came after a strategic move by the Mariners. Seattle called up Emerson Hancock from Triple-A Tacoma to start Thursday’s series finale against the MLB-worst Chicago White Sox, which allowed the club to push the rest of its rotation back a day. That enabled the Mariners to align their rotation so that their top three arms were throwing in the pivotal series against Texas. It also gave Seattle’s starters a much-needed extra day of rest at the tail end of a grueling stretch of 43 games in 45 days.

“Their starters, that’s the story of the series,” Rangers manager Bruce Bochy said. “We just couldn’t do too much against their starters. They have a really good staff. You’ve got to find ways to score runs, and we had a tough time.”

Infield defense is shining

Heading into the season, defense was one of the primary concerns surrounding this Mariners team. But following a shaky first week or two, Seattle certainly seems to have quieted those doubts, especially with its infield play. Entering Sunday, the Mariners ranked second in the AL with a .986 infield fielding percentage.

Josh Rojas has been a revelation at third base, where he leads all MLB players at his position with six outs above average, according to Baseball Savant. J.P. Crawford has been his usual steady self, leading all MLB shortstops with a .994 fielding percentage. Utilityman Dylan Moore has made a handful of highlight-reel plays across the diamond. Rookie second baseman Ryan Bliss has made some nice plays since being promoted earlier this month. And recently promoted first baseman Tyler Locklear made the biggest play of the weekend, sealing Saturday’s victory with a game-ending diving stop.

“Tremendous defense,” Servais said after Sunday’s series finale. “I can’t get away from what our guys do defensively. Just all over the ballpark here in this homestand, our guys were really focused.”

Julio heating up?

The Mariners’ lineup was constructed with the idea that Julio Rodríguez would be the centerpiece. For much of this season, the 23-year-old center fielder hasn’t provided his typical superstar-caliber thump in the middle of the order. He was hitting .252 with just two home runs and a .606 OPS through his first 52 games – a far cry from the combined 60 homers and .834 OPS over his sensational first two seasons in 2022 and 2023.

But over the past few weeks, Rodríguez’s bat has started to heat up. He is hitting .305 with five home runs and an .860 OPS over his past 22 games, including two homers in his past four games. That included a two-run blast to left-center field off two-time All-Star Nathan Eovaldi in Saturday’s 7-5 win over the Rangers.

“As the weather heats up, Julio starts to heat up with it,” Servais said. “I just love the fact he pulled the ball in the air. I think that pitch, this year, we have seen him right on it and just miss it or pop it up probably at least 10 times. And he didn’t miss it. So it’s good signs there. Julio is at his best when he’s playing free, not thinking too much, just letting his ability take over and being super competitive. And that’s what we’re seeing here right now.”

Home-field advantage

The Mariners continue to excel within the friendly confines of T-Mobile Park. After completing a 6-1 homestand, Seattle is now 27-12 at home this season, which is the third-best mark in the majors. Dating back to mid-April, the Mariners have won nine consecutive series at home.

According to Statcast, T-Mobile Park has the lowest park factor of any MLB stadium, which means it’s the most pitcher-friendly ballpark in the majors. That, of course, plays right into the Mariners’ strengths, and they’ve taken full advantage. They have a 2.54 ERA at home this season, which is the best in the majors by a wide margin.

It also doesn’t hurt to have 40,000-plus fans packing the stadium, as was the case for all three games this weekend.

“It really feels like a playoff atmosphere in mid-June, which is kind of weird to say,” Gilbert said. “But the ballpark was packed all three games, the crowd’s going crazy. That’s a really good team. We’re playing really well right now.”

More on the Seattle Mariners

• Seattle Mariners reliever takes positive step in rehab process
• A top Mariners prospect out for season with torn ACL
• Former Seattle Mariners pitcher highlights two unsung heroes of pitching staff
• Mariners rookie Tyler Locklear making good early impressions
• Servais: Surging Mitch Garver will be ‘key’ to Seattle Mariners lineup

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