The Seattle Mariners just finished an August like no other.
On July 31, they were five games out of the American League West division lead and four games above the .500 mark at 55-51
As August closed, they were in first place in the division and won 21 of 28 games in the month, setting a franchise record for wins in a month.
The question now is, will their historic August be enough to get them to the playoffs for a second straight year?
Throughout August, for every wrong move Jerry DiPoto made in the offseason to build the team, he made a right one in the final week in July to set up their tremendous August. For every flailing strikeout and ball pounded into the ground from April to July, Julio Rodriguez and Teoscar Hernandez deposited one deep into the outfield seats in August. For every efficient start and magnificent bullpen appearance the team had in the first half of the season, the pitching staff kept doing what it had been doing the entire season through August.
How did a team that was simply treading water flip the switch from a mediocre first half into such an incredible month?
The first was the decisions the team made leading up to the July 31 trading deadline.
The Mariners were in a unique position before the trading deadline. Sitting around the edge of the wild card race, the team could not really justify going all in for a playoff spot. However, they couldn’t justify selling either. Instead, Jerry DiPoto chose a middle path, one that wound up being perfect. He traded from the team’s strongest and deepest area in shipping out closer Paul Sewald to the Arizona Diamondbacks. In return, he brought back scuffling utility player Josh Rojas, outfielder Dominic Canzone, and prospect Ryan Bliss.
Rojas was acquired to be another flexible body for the Mariners to plug into various positions. Instead, he has played himself into the starting second base job. Seeing regular playing time for the first time since May, he responded by hitting .288 with a .329 on-base percentage for the month to go along with three home runs and four stolen bases. Canzone hasn’t been off to as strong a start in a Mariners uniform, but he has given them a reliable left-handed bat to help compensate for the loss of Jarred Kelenic to injury in July.
Possibly even more important than the moves they made were the moves they didn’t make. Outfielder Teoscar Hernandez was widely viewed as a trade candidate, given that he is a pending free agent and had an overwhelming season leading up to the trading deadline. The Mariners instead elected to hang on to the slugger, and he has repaid that decision in spades. In July, Hernandez managed just a .200 batting average with an abysmal .248 on-base percentage and a single home run. In August, he hit .365 with a .398 on-base percentage and launched seven home runs, including two in a 15-2 romp over Kansas City last weekend.
Somehow, that wasn’t even the best month by a Mariners hitter. That belongs to Julio Rodriguez, who dug himself out of a sophomore slump with a ridiculous August that featured a .429 batting average and a .494 on-base percentage, meaning he was getting on base essentially one out every two times he came to the plate.
How did the team flip the switch so suddenly? Seemingly overnight, the offense got out of the free-swinging ways. Hernandez, in particular, had been chasing any breaking or off-speed pitch, regardless of its proximity to the strike zone. In August, he finally began laying off bad breaking pitches and forcing pitchers to either throw them in the strike zone or to throw him fastballs. Regardless of what pitchers threw him in August, if the pitch was in the strike zone, he hammered it. He saw the lowest number of off-speed pitches of the season in August, probably because those that he did see he destroyed with a Barry Bonds-ian 1.273 slugging percentage.
While the Mariners eventually caught and passed both Texas and Houston in the division standings throughout August, they certainly didn’t put the division away. While the Mariners struggled in series against the New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds to open September, the Astros hosted the Rangers and demolished their Texas rivals in a three-game series to snatch the division lead right back from the Mariners.
Barring any of the Rangers, Mariners, or Astros entirely collapsing over the final month of the season, it’s highly likely all three of them, or at least two, will make the playoffs. However, how they get there will be very important. The winner of the division will finish with the second-best record in the American League, earning an automatic bye to the divisional playoff round. The others would have to settle for wildcard spots. With Tampa Bay firmly in control of the first wild card spot, Cleveland hosting a wild card series as the lowest-ranked division winner, and the three AL West teams all within two games of each other, the final margin in the AL West standings will likely be the difference between a first-round bye or having to play three games on the road to stay alive in the playoffs.
It’s been a rollercoaster of a season for Mariners fans, from the lows of the first half of the season to the highs of August. If the opening week of September is any indication, they should make sure their seatbelts are fully fastened and hold on tight because they are in for a wild finish to the season.