erik lundegaard

Saturday October 01, 2022

Stay Fair! 21 Long Years of Frustration End as Seattle Mariners Make the Postseason

A second later, everyone knew.

I was at the game. My friend Erika's husband got tickets from work, and they had an extra. Did I want to go? This was Thursday morning, I said “Yes!” then began to do the math. The M's had been so-so, middling to blah, since those great series against the Braves and Padres in mid-September, but the Orioles had been worse. In the past week they'd lost four of five and now the Magic Number for the M's was a mere 3. After Thursday's games (O's loss, M's win) it was down to 1, and the O's were in the Bronx against the mighty Yankees, 4:05 PST start, and we were playing the lowly A's, 6:40 start, and Logan Gilbert was going against a pitcher sporting a 7.15 ERA. Odds were pretty good, I thought, that I'd be at the park when the Mariners clinched a playoff spot for the first time since 2001.

M's fans on social media yesterday were rooting for the O's. They wanted us to do it on our own, not back into it with another team's loss, but it was more of a shrug to me. I mean, yes, we should do it. At the same time, the M's had last been knocked out of the playoffs by a Yankee victory, Oct. 22, 2001, Game 5 of the ALCS, so it wouldn't be unseemly, and maybe even a little poetic, if we were knocked back into the playoffs by a Yankee victory.

I crunched other numbers just for fun. The last time the Mariners were in the postseason ...

  • The Dow was at 9,200
  • The #1 movie in America that week was “K-PAX,” starring Kevin Spacey
  • Mark Zuckerberg was captain of his fencing team in high school
  • Barack Obama was in the state senate in IL
  • TIME magazine was about to name its “Person of the Year” ... Rudy Giuliani

You could do this forever. Most of the guys in our starting lineup were toddlers, our starting pitcher was 4 years old, our rookie star wasn't even 1. I'm turning 60 in January and I was in my 30s the last time the Mariners were in the postseason. Twenty-one years is a long time, basically. It's a quarter of a life. If you're lucky. 

I arrived 20 minutes early. The seats were great seats, section 119, row 11, seat 10, close to the Mariners dugout, the area where Mariners players toss baseballs coming off the field. That gets a little sad. The greed. The battles for tossed baseballs. At the same time, I saw a few adults giving them to kids. That warms the heart.

In the Bronx, the Orioles were winning 2-1 in the 8th.

For a moment it looked like it would be a breeze. In the bottom of the 1st, Dylan Moore led off with a single, stole second, and Ty France drove him in with a double. 1-0. Nice. And then nothing. Then Ken Waldichuk turned into Roger Clemens. He struck out the next two, got a ground out. He allowed a leadoff walk in the 2nd and a one-out double in the 4th but no one even got to third. And in the 2nd, Logan Gilbert gave up a two-out, two-strike, towering homerun to rookie catcher Shea Langaliers that tied it.

And the Orioles won it in the Bronx.

By the time Waldichuk left after 5, he'd lowered his ERA by nearly a run. Each inning we got an A's pitcher with a better ERA and an equally ridiculous name: Waldichuk ceded to Pruitt, who was replaced by Puk, who gave way to Cyr. Thankfully, A's batters weren't doing much, either. Their No. 3 hitter Jordan Diaz led off the 4th with an infield single that should've been an E-6 (J.P. Crawford pulled Ty France off the bag), which was their third hit of the game, and which turned out to be their last hit of the game. Gilbert went 8 full. 

And in the bottom of the 9th, the A's brought in Domingo Acevedo, 6'7“, 240, a mid-3.00 ERA and a WHIP below 1.00. Leadoff hitter Mitch Haniger went to a full count before striking out swinging. Carlos Santana went down on three straight pitches. I'd been hoping for a homer, an emphatic final yes, but those were the guys to do it. The next hitter was Luis Torrens, our backup catcher, whom we'd sent down mid-year, and he wasn't exactly Johnny Bench. Erika and Chris said every game they'd been to this year went into extras. The M's won them all, but none of them finished after 9. It seemed like we'd get that, and the stupid ghost-runner rule, again.

And then Cal Raleigh came to the plate to pinch-hit for Torrens. 

From the looks of him, I'd always assumed Raleigh was a kind of journeyman, someone who'd knocked around for lesser teams in the N.L. for, say, 10 years, but no, he's just 25 and he's always been ours. We took him in the third round of the 2018 draft from Florida State, and he made his debut in July 2021. His debut year numbers don't exactly leap off the page (.180./.223/.309). and this year his OBP is still below .300; but he's great behind the plate and he keeps hitting homers. I read the other day that he's the first catcher with 1.5 defensive WAR and 25 homers in a season since Johnny Bench? Nice company. I'd wondered why he wasn't starting but apparently it was a thumb thing? 

Against Acevedo he got two quick balls on him and I was hoping, with that 2-0 count, that hitter's pitch, for a nice sendoff, but he swung through it. It's fun checking out the pitches against him and what he did with them. The slider was the trouble pitch. Cal swung through the first two he saw. On 3-2 pitch, he fouled off the third one. And Acevedo tried it one more time. 

If you look at the footage, he's almost on one knee. He was ready for it. He would not swing through it again. 

Off the bat, even from my unfamiliar seat, I knew it had the distance but I couldn't tell if it would stay fair. Rick Rizzs, with way better seats, thought the same. ”Stay fair!“ he cried. For once the baseball gods listened. And 21 long years of frustration was over.

That's Dave Niehaus' line, of course, from the '95 clincher against the Angels. His was 19 long years of frustration, and back then that seemed forever, even though I'd only been following the team and suffering with them for ... four years? Really only three years: '93 was when I became a true M's fan. But the M's had never made the postseason, and there they did, and miracles kept happening. And it was joy. It was pure joy.

So is this, but I feel slightly removed from the greater Seattle celebration. The M's finally made it back to the postseason with a pinch-hit walkoff homerun with two outs and on a 3-2 count. Not only doesn't that happen every day, it's never happened. The crowd went nuts, the team celebrated, they did their little circle celebration dance with like everybody, including trainers, or at least people in street clothes, and hardly any of the fans budged from their seats. They stayed and cheered. They wanted to keep celebrating. The team went into the locker room, they came out again, they high-fived fans around the park. But by then I'd already left. It was partly to beat the crowd, it was partly leftover pandemic concerns, and it was partly because, well, as great as the end was, the game was kind of frustrating. Playing the worst team in the A.L., facing a pitcher with a 7.15 ERA, we did nothing for eight innings. It's a reminder that, while the M's have good defense and a solid bullpen, they also have the third-worst batting average in the Majors. That's why they have trouble with the likes of Waldichuk, Puk and Cyr.

I guess it's like Joe Posnanski's rejoinder for people who say baseball is boring: ”Baseball is boring. Until it isn't." The M's are a frustrating team ... until they aren't.

Goodnight, Mr. Niehaus, wherever you are.

Posted at 01:19 PM on Saturday October 01, 2022 in category Seattle Mariners  
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