The ongoing 2021 #SeaUsRise campaign is nothing if not a brutal rollercoaster for those of us who, for whatever mystifying reason, proclaim they remain “True to the Blue.” Recent back-to-back and humbling late innings losing debacles aside, the Seattle Mariners have sixteen games left. And you know what? That’s a ton of baseball. We all know this – almost exactly ten percent of the regular season schedule. Yet last I checked, ESPN gave the Seattle Mariners a minuscule 0.7% chance of making the playoffs. Not very good odds, obviously. Then again, “Chaos Ball” has laughed at the outlandish hope for even a slight chance of triumph, success, victory, and won very big games anyway.
I foresee there are two distinct possible season concluding trajectories for the M’s down the stretch. The first and most obvious series of events culminates in exactly the same dismal September devastation M’s fans know intimately and about as well as they do the polar opposite and raucous, bellering eleventh inning 1995 walk-off win soundtrack when The Kid landed at the bottom of the pacific northwest immortalized dog pile that we all remember fondly. It is the two decades plus of lukewarm but mostly humdrum, “We’ll rebuild, retool, maybe sign a big slugging marquee free agent in the offseason and next year.” Or there is the second possibility, that visceral magnificence, the rare thing that gives you and every baseball fan full-body chills: the miraculous.
Before the Boston debacle, I was riding high. I sent a note to our fearless OSN editor detailing my lofty vision for the team. I said the M’s were going to sweep the Bosox. They did not. I also said both significant extensions for Scott Servais and Jerry Dipoto were not premature at all, and I still believe this – and I’m still right. Next, I mentioned the coruscating young talent pipeline the M’s have ascending as we speak, and I pointed out that ESPN calls and ranks this as the best in the entire sport. And they’re right too. Then I said, “What we’re witnessing with the M’s this year is the equivalent of the wondrously convoluted yet legendary NFL season when the Seahawks stumbled into the playoffs then hosted the Saints where – I know you know where I’m going with this – we were all witnesses to the Beast Quake….My money is on the M’s sneaking into the Wild Card. (And debuting new uniforms in the next 24 months).”
Outlandish? Or on the money? Your call. I know where I stand.
Here’s what we know right now.
The M’s are ten games over five hundred. They are 4-6 in their last ten games. They currently trail both Wild Card spots by four games. As of Thursday afternoon, there is a three-way tie between the Blue Jays, Yankees, and Red Sox for the top slot. And the Athletics remain one-half game in front of the M’s.
This is where we are now—previewing the miraculous. A defiant act that flies in the face of logic, and that is, transparently, to be blunt: nothing but a buck wild label for this new, fresh endeavor. And yet, previewing the miraculous seems not even remotely close to a grand fool’s errand for this ball club and us, like it may have been the last decade or two.
Seattle is still within striking distance. Many sage visionaries who have, as the saying goes, been through all of this before will often tell their young and talented progeny that the final ten percent of anything, any sort of long haul, will usually require as much or more total effort than the summary effort needed to even arrive at the start of any final push.
These final sixteen games feel very much set up the same way so many Mariners games have this frenetic season when the long odds were clear, front and center; when the scrappy young team needed just someone or several runs; then found enough moxie, lockdown innings from the bullpen, guts, double play balls turned up the middle, gusto, high leverage Home Runs with runners aboard, and Hits with Runners in Scoring Position, Walks with the bases loaded. And then the ineluctable firepower to scratch out a few crooked scoreboard numbers and hold on for a ludicrous victory that makes every single ESPN M’s win probability graphic afterward resemble non-other than, emblematically, yes, an exactly perfect silhouette of what is truly a brutal rollercoaster.
Here we go.
This is my projected starting lineup for most games during the last 16.
1. SS – J.P. Crawford
2. RF – Mitch Haniger
3. 3B – Kyle Seager
4. 1B – Ty France
5. 2B – Abraham Toro
6. CF – Jarred Kelenic
7. DH – Luis Torrens
8. LF – Jake Fraley
9. C – Cal Raleigh
Now the games.
Fifth to last series – 3 GAMES against the Royals in Kansas City.
Key to a series win: The Mariners starting pitching must return to “midseason form.” The M’s will start Chris Flexen, Yusei Kicuchi and Logan Gilbert. Flexen and Gilbert often inspire a level of gut-instinct confidence I once had in James Paxton when the Big Maple threw gems for the M’s the first time he wore a Seattle uniform during his career; or actually, the high level of confidence I had in Kicuhci before the All-Star break. Side note: Huge, Zaftig, Big ups to the city of Seattle and the Mariners organization, and T-Mobile Park for locking up the 2023 All-Star Game. Great news. Who among us, honestly, is there anyone who isn’t thrilled this amazing long weekend of events and baseball ceremony is finally coming back to what almost all of the baseball world agrees is a complete gem of a stadium? Best summer of my childhood was the magnificent 2001 Mariners regular season when I was fortunate enough to attend all of the action nearby SODO and the convention center. Now back to the bump and our aspirations to witness a triplication of potential star, stallion performances: three Quality Starts are not beyond the realm of possibility. Zero QS won’t happen. Three seems more likely than none. But I’m banking on at least two, probably from Gilbert and Flexen. And the third, here’s the rub (irony!): if Kicuchi’s fastball velocity starts, stays, and remains higher than 97 mph, there is a strong chance he lasts for longer than six innings, and then the bullpen can slam the door. However, the New York Times did a spin rate reduction analysis for pitchers following the sticky stuff crackdown earlier this season. Kikuchi’s spin rate was the fifteenth most dramatic. My unconfirmed suspicions for his prolific first-half success are unfortunate but lucid: he was all of himself and his talent plus a monumental boost from Spider Tack throughout the entirety of the first half. Then he reverted, hard and fast, ironically.
The major obstacle on the other team: Just several hours ago, and also with ten percent of his regular season to go, Royals C, Salvador Perez, tied the astonishing 45 home run mark set by the legendary Johnny Bench. Perez homered in every single game the last time he faced the M’s at T-Mobile Park. Perez leads all of baseball in RBI with 112. My question is simple: with the stakes so high, why are we or would we ever even pitch to the man? Just put him on first base. Take the bat out of his hands.
Prediction: M’s take 2 of 3 from the Royals. Flexen and Gilbert each go seven innings plus, but only if Gilbert can keep his pitch count very low through five innings. And Kikuchi gets rocked in the one loss. Haniger, Seager, France, and Toro combine for at least 20 RBI between them. Kelenic doubles four times in three games. Torrens finishes the series with a .500 batting average for the set.
Fourth to last series – 4 GAMES against the Athletics in Oakland.
Key to a series win: Hitting. Offense. Consistency. Although Seattle swept the Athletics in a two-game set the last time these two teams faced off and took three of four in the series just before that as well, it seems throughout the year; the Mariners have this bizarre, entertaining but challenging time finding anything that resembles consistency against the A’s. Seattle is one of two types of baseball team when they play the Athletics this year. One type is absolutely my favorite version of this ball club: when they carry a gigantic chip on their shoulder because of some Oakland pitching staff comments about our squad’s talent level, so they transmogrify into a juggernaut of a lineup that scatters 10, 12, 15 Hits through all nine innings. And then the other type is sincerely the kind of M’s team that forces me to mutter the most convoluted expletives I can fathom at my television – and in doing so freaking out my very confused sweetheart of a dog – as they get shut out and or smoked by what has primarily been superlative Oakland’s starting pitching this season; a starting rotation that makes me nervous precisely because it’s one that’s had to carry the bulk of the workload. The Athletics bullpen is atrocious – about as bad as the LA Angels late-game pitching staff. So, this goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. The M’s have to do one thing above all: score as much and as soon as possible. Second priority: avoid extra innings. The A’s are great at knocking in RBI in high leverage situations. And if within each of the four games, the M’s can manage to put up three runs plus before the sixth, then add on and add on and dig into the Athletics bullpen early, then and only then will they stand a great chance to make up some ground late in games should they fall behind. Consistent run support from the Mariners bats is the only way to have a good shot against an Oakland team that sometimes does seem like they want to mail it in for the rest of the year.
The major obstacle on the other team: The bats. And Matt Olson especially. Olson has turned into the type of slugger one typically finds playing for the Astros. He sees the ball better than anyone else playing for the A’s. I expect his next free agency will net upwards of $100 million. He leads the Athletics in batting average, home runs, and RBI – .275/35/101
Prediction: Sure, I’d love a four-game sweep. But it’s not going to go as well as you and I and all of us want it to – though there will be silver linings everywhere. Jarred Kelenic will continue to swat bombs and lace several 108 mph exit velocity doubles into the gap. At the same time, he improves on and learns even more about the disciples to lay off every single curling breaking ball thrown six inches into the right-handed batter’s box. And Cal Raleigh will start a nice multi-hit game hitting streak in the second half of the four-game series. The M’s will, unfortunately, drop two in this four-game set because the A’s will hit at least 1.5 home runs per game, and despite what obvious apathy I sense on their roster, they still have something to play for and a lot to prove. The bats: Seager goes almost entirely hitless aside from solo home runs in the games the M’s drop. Toro and France finish the set with a series batting average above .300
Third to last series – 3 GAMES against the Angels in Los Angeles
Key to a series win: This is the first and best opportunity for the M’s to pick up a series sweep against a team from the AL West. (And the second-best opportunity – but not the second time it’ll need to happen – to pick up a series sweep is when the M’s take on the Angels to finish up the season at T-Mobile Park.) The M’s have to sweep at least two and ideally several teams, several times, in multiple series down the stretch to have any sort of shot at picking up much-needed and absolutely necessary ground and games against the Jays, Red Sox, Yankees, and A’s. So even if the M’s lose three of six against the Angels and then also win on average, two of three against the rest of the teams in their final games on the schedule, it won’t be enough. The key to a series win for Seattle is total domination on both sides of the ball. And you know what? This is actually not beyond the realm of possibility because the Angels have been consistently mediocre, and at times entirely awful, and from thirty thousand feet, they have no chance of winning any game unless they score what feels like a bare minimum of eight runs so their dreadful bullpen can give up six – and the Halos still survive somehow. The other big news out of LA this week is that Shohei Ohtani has a sore arm and may not pitch again this season. That’s not only great for Seattle’s competitive advantage – it is also the hallmark characteristic of a squad that is desperate for the offseason so they can rest, not risk any other injuries, and try it all again next season.
The major obstacle on the other team: The POP. Those bats. The power. Huge exit velocity numbers. Thundersticks all up and down the lineup. Tenth in batting average and thirteenth in slugging percentage. And led by Shohei Ohtani, who still has 44 bombs and 94 RBI, the rest of the Angels sluggers like David Fletcher, Jared Walsh, and Justin Upton are fully and entirely capable of hanging double digits on any team they face. They’ve already done it to the M’s several times this season.
Prediction: It’s the successful series sweep we desperately wish for, three games in a row – and then enough clout, hype, and steam to make it seem in Seattle, but also nationwide, that the M’s are ready to ascend to the next level; as they’ve become the team to beat when they again face the A’s and then the Angels one more time each. With a single win to add onto the three games they’ll take from the Angels; the winning streak will sit at four games after they finish up their last road trip of the season before they play before a staggering season-best thirty thousand plus average home game attendance during their previous six games. Fraley will walk at least five times. Then Toro, France, Haniger and Torrens will hit over .400
Second to last series – 3 GAMES against the Athletics in Seattle
Key to a series win: With a slim but every day expanding half-game lead over the suddenly slipping and slumping and sliding and once again bizarrely hitless Toronto Blue Jays, and despite their flare and goofy blazer sharing rituals, and memories of their recent forty-four combined runs in the three games against Baltimore, the M’s will not need to focus on catching the Jays because they will have to see either the Red Sox or the Yankees to grab a Wild Card spot. This, of course, requires what I anticipate is going to be the four-game win streak they carry into this three-game set against Oakland at home. It has to; it must, there is no chance unless the streak becomes seven, and then, after Oakland, while facing Los Angeles, ten. Ten games. The Mariners will have to win ten games in a row to sneak into the playoffs. So the key to victory in this series is to not once ever go down by more than two runs. If the A’s score, the M’s have to respond immediately. The bullpen has to come in early and often. We’ll need another ongoing 18+ innings scoreless streak from Casey Sadler and Drew Steckenrider.
Paul Seawald cannot give up another home run this year. The M’s must prevent every single loose thread that becomes a pitching staff or bullpen unraveling. They have to keep everything close if it starts to unwind. Intentionally walk hot hitters. Forget pitch counts but also pull sluggish starters. Maximize the hyperactive bullpen strategy. Take advantage of every metric-defined edge. And do not, for whatever reason, make one single fielding error. Play flawless baseball. In essence, minimize every single competitive edge the A’s will have and could gain because, at this point, they’ll remain in the mix for a Wild Card spot.
The major obstacle on the other team: I anticipate a red hot offensive streak from several A’s bats to either accelerate in this final three-game set or become a complete non-issue. There is no in-between. But what concerns me the most is a set of sterling starting pitching performances sinking the M’s. Oakland will most likely trot out and start Cole Irvin, James Kaprelian, and Frankie Montas against Seattle. All three have stuff good enough to throw a complete game that brings to mind the complete game shutout gem Sean Manaea tossed in Seattle back in June.
Prediction: The M’s will sweep the A’s, and two of three victories will require both a come-from-behind effort then multiple extra innings. Someone in a Mariners jersey will hit a Grand Slam.
Final series of the season – 3 GAMES against the Angels in Seattle.
Key to a series win: The M’s have no choice but to treat this final three-game set at home like a playoff series of its own to get into the playoffs. The entire mindset of the team has to focus on one single fact – that if they do not sweep the Angels? It’s all over. They must imagine they’re down 3-1 in a playoff series. That being said, the M’s veteran players will have to lead the charge. That’s Kyle Seager, yes, but mostly Mitch Haniger too. A man who’s already ascended beyond his career-best in home runs this year, who may or may not approach 40 bombs by the end of the season if he gets red hot yet again.
The major obstacle on the other team: Nothing. Not this time. And this will feel almost like the easiest series sweep of the season for the Mariners.
Prediction: This entire team gets at least one hit in two of three or potentially each of the last three games. Home runs come from Crawford, France, Toro, Kelenic, and then Torrens maybe moves up the order to sixth. Ty France hits for the cycle.
Final note: The Mariners are 62-25 in all games when scoring four runs or more. That’s the statistic. The Big One statistic that matters far more than any other for the entire year. Maybe the only stat that matters. Or let’s all agree that the M’s are in great shape when they’ve Got Five On It. Someone knows what they are doing/managing. Scott Servais is long overdue and ready to make a postseason debut. So is Kyle Seager. A walk-off win to reach the playoffs and perhaps host a Wild Card game will almost certainly deliver T-Mobile Park its very first Seager Quake.