SEATTLE — There was bunting draped off the railings in October and logos painted on the grass of T-Mobile Park on Friday that were absent for the past two decades when the Seattle Mariners were stuck in baseball purgatory, left as a spectator every postseason.
Twenty-one years later, playoff baseball is back in the Pacific Northwest. But unless the hometown team can find some late magic, it may just be a one-day cameo for this year.
“I cannot wait to step on the field with them,” Seattle rookie Julio Rodríguez said on Friday.
Rodríguez was less than a year old the last time Seattle hosted a playoff game, highlighting the pain and longing for fans in these parts who have waited since 2001 to see their ballclub host a playoff game inside their ballpark. It’ll finally happen Saturday when the Mariners face Houston in Game 3 of the ALDS in what should be a cauldron of noise and energy.
But after a pair of agonizing losses to open the series in Houston, the Mariners will be playing for their postseason survival in the best-of-five series.
“The factor that I don’t think is getting talked about enough and I think it’s going to show up tomorrow on the first inning is when there’s 45,000 Mariner fans in the stands pumped and ready to go, and all behind us. Because we certainly need it,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “I talked about it when we clinched, ended the drought, how valuable our fan base has been to this team. This team really, somehow, we get wired, we get going when its loud here.”
Seattle snapped the longest playoff drought in the four major North American sports when it clinched one of the AL wild-card spots on Sept. 30 thanks to Cal Raleigh’s walk-off home run. And from the moment it became clear Seattle wouldn’t host game in the wild-card series, the rallying cry became getting to the ALDS to ensure Mariners fans could once again experience the feel of postseason baseball.
Seattle’s last home playoff game came on Oct. 18, 2001. It was Game 2 of the ALCS against the New York Yankees with the Mariners coming off a record-tying 116-win regular season.
Seattle lost 3-2 to the Yankees that day and never got another home game in the series losing to the Yankees in five games. At that time, the Mariners appeared to be a juggernaut with two straight appearances in the ALCS. Seattle went on to win 93 games in each of the next two seasons but neither time was it good enough to reach the playoffs.
And then the bottom dropped out of the franchise. Years of angst and anger and lots and lots of losing, leaving an entire generation void of seeing postseason baseball.
All of which will make Saturday a celebration no matter the circumstances facing the Mariners. It’s a day for the fans that made the “rally shoe” a thing watching last weekend’s memorable comeback in Game 2 of the wild-card series against Toronto. Or the fans that danced with unbridled joy in the service area of a car dealership watching those final outs against the Blue Jays.
Or the ones that watched in anguish at Yordan Alvarez’s torment of the Mariners in the first two games of the series, living and dying with each pitch in a way fans in these parts haven’t in a long time.
Even the starting pitcher for Houston — trying to end Seattle’s season on Saturday — has appreciation for seeing the Mariners back in the postseason.
“Moments like these where the fans get to come back out and watch postseason baseball for an organization that hasn’t been there in a while I think is really cool,” Houston right-hander Lance McCullers Jr. said.
Ultimately, it comes back to what happens on the field and if Seattle is to ensure two home games are played this weekend, it must find a way to solve the combo of Jeremy Pena and Alvarez. That job will fall to rookie George Kirby, who starts for the Mariners.
While Alvarez has provided the biggest blows, it’s been the paper cuts of Peña that created those opportunities. It was Peña’s two-out, two-strike single in Game 1 that set the stage for Alvarez’s game-winning homer in the ninth inning.
In Game 2, Peña’s two-out bloop single into shallow center field was the precursor to Alvarez’s two-run homer in the sixth inning that gave Houston the lead for good. And for good measure, Peña walked and scored an insurance run in the eighth inning of the 4-2 win.
“He’s doing his job. So far he’s been unfazed by the playoffs or anything,” Astros manager Dusty Baker said. “He’s a very calm and mature young man. Boy, I’m glad that he’s getting on in front of Yordan.”