Mariners left looking up at Rangers, Astros after falling just short of playoffs

SEATTLE — On the penultimate day of the 2023 regular season, the Texas Rangers clinched their first playoff berth since 2016.

This is a story about how the Seattle Mariners missed the postseason.

If you read any national coverage of baseball, you’ll know the theme of the season was how all the big spenders came up short. Splurge at your own risk. It takes discipline and patience, not just deep pockets, to build a winner. That’s why the teams running the top three payrolls in the sport will all spend October at home.

But payroll No. 4? That’s the Rangers, a team that didn’t let 102 losses in 2021 deter them from making major free-agent moves that offseason and didn’t let another losing season last year deter them from doing it again.

And on Saturday in Seattle, they doused one another in booze, while down the hall, the Mariners silently watched as their last hopes for their season slipped away.

With two games to go, everything was still possible. The American League West and the final two AL wild-card spots were up for grabs, with all the various contending clubs’ fates fully intertwined. If they won Saturday, the Mariners’ season would come down to Game 162. If they lost, they could still go into Sunday with a slim chance to sneak in — provided the Blue Jays and Astros both lost as well.

Through the first two games of this series, as the Mariners won a nail-biter and a blowout, manager Scott Servais repeatedly referenced their need for a little help. Before the third game, he acknowledged that everyone would be watching the scoreboards.

“That’s what makes this part of the year in baseball just awesome,” he said.

First on Saturday, the Blue Jays lost to the Tampa Bay Rays. Inside T-Mobile Park, the Jumbotron showed the final few innings of that contest as fans filtered in. When the Rays won in extras before the Mariners got underway, the early arrivers knew to cheer.

Games with stakes so high are often said to have a playoff atmosphere, but the sold-out Mariners crowd seemed jubilant, not tense — at least initially. Momentum was on their side, and La Piedra (The Rock) was on the mound. Luis Castillo had struggled against the Rangers in a series last weekend in Texas, but surely, that had been an aberration for the All-Star pitcher.

Not so. In the shortest outing of his Mariners career, Castillo managed just 2 2/3 innings while allowing four runs. And even with Seattle’s best relievers rested and ready, the bullpen surrendered another couple of runs. All the while, the lineup failed to mount much of a comeback and squandered what few opportunities it had. In the end, the Mariners lost 6-1, and while the Rangers celebrated securing at least a wild-card spot, the Mariners retreated to their clubhouse to find out their fate.

“You’re holding out hope that our season is not over,” Servais said to kick off a surreal postgame media availability. At that moment, the Astros were up 1-0 on the Diamondbacks with the innings winding down. If Arizona could muster just a couple of runs, the Mariners would play meaningful baseball on the last day of the season. If not, the Mariners’ elimination would come not on the field but in the clubhouse.

“We need a little bit of a miracle to keep our season alive,” Servais said. “Probably could have said the same thing back in June at some point.”

In truth, at that point, it looked nearly over, at least in terms of contention. On the last day of June, the Mariners were fourth in the division, 10 games back. Last year, 90 wins had been enough to barely make an expanded postseason field — and end the drought and give the young club confidence that a new era of baseball in Seattle was just beginning.

But over the winter, the team did little to supplement what had been a weak offense — 16th in on-base percentage, 17th in slugging and 28th in batting average in 2022 — and this year, the veterans they did add were proving to be huge disappointments. A.J. Pollock ended up traded after getting off to a career-worst season start in Seattle, and Kolten Wong went from starting second baseman to designated for assignment.

Maybe the problem was that the Mariners were no longer playing carefree, no longer the unexpected underdogs. Ending the drought had brought promise, but also pressure. And perhaps so did hosting the All-Star Game in July. The reigning Rookie of the Year, the star of last season’s Midsummer Classic, the recipient of an extension in his first season that could see him earn up to $470 million to spend his whole career in Seattle, Julio Rodríguez had gotten off to a slow start. And as J-Rod goes, so do the Mariners.

Then he got hot. From the All-Star break until the end of August, Rodríguez was the second-most valuable player in baseball, with a .365/.422/.635 slash line. Over that stretch, the Mariners went 31-12. Meanwhile, their deadline deals, which seemed to try to split the difference, shipping out closer Paul Sewald for bottom-of-the-order bats, proved productive. On Aug. 25, for the first time since Opening Day, Seattle gained a share of first place in the division.

By Sept. 5, they were back in second and falling fast.

Which is how they ended up here: on the last day of September, sitting in a solemn clubhouse, watching the D-backs try to eke out a ninth-inning rally.

Two groups of Mariners players sat facing away from each other, watching TVs on either side of the clubhouse. Some wore their street clothes already, some stood around in towels, most were still in partially deconstructed uniforms. They did not talk much; instead, they just slumped into the couches as the outs stacked up. Toward the end, some players realized that the MLB app on their phones was a few seconds ahead of the TVs. Then they got up abruptly. A beat later, Corbin Carroll struck out swinging on a dropped ball in the dirt. The Mariners did not wait to watch him try to beat the throw to first, dispersing as he ran down the line to reckon with what had gone wrong. They knew it was over; Seattle had been eliminated.

“It was not the most pleasant,” Rodríguez said a little while later of the experience of helplessly hoping another team could keep their chances alive. His sophomore season was a good one, but at exactly the wrong time, his bat went cold. The Mariners are playing their final 10 games against the same two division rivals that spent Saturday night celebrating. In 35 plate appearances through the first nine of those contests, Rodríguez has just four hits. And as J-Rod goes, so do the Mariners.

“At the end of the year,” he said, “you don’t want to have to rely on somebody else.”

Still, ever the gracious and engaging face of the franchise, he offered optimism for the future.

“We definitely got a lot of things to look forward to,” he said. “We’re going to be here for a while, and we’re going to keep competing. We’re going to get right back into it. But we’re not going to be needing to rely on somebody else to get to where we want to get.”

Maybe hope was the right sentiment, given the circumstances. But Cal Raleigh, the young catcher whose steady leadership guided an even younger pitching staff to season-long success this year and who has grown into something of a team spokesman, had more pointed critiques.

“We gotta become a better team,” he said. “We’ve been right at this 90-game mark for a few years now. … I don’t think by any means we were a bad team this year, but it’s not where we want to be. We want to be getting to the World Series. We [want to] make the playoffs every single year. In order to do that, some things have to change. And it starts with the players in the clubhouse.”

He wants the players to improve on intangibles, to grind out a few more games. But he also wants support from ownership and the front office. He wants the Mariners to stop having to be so scrappy, to instead reward and capitalize on their strong player development by supplementing it with established stars. To put it more bluntly, he wants his team to spend like they’re seriously trying to win a World Series.

“We gotta commit to winning,” he said. “We have to commit to going and getting those players you see other teams going out and getting: big-time pitchers, getting big-time hitters. We have to do that to keep up. I think we’ve done a great job growing some players here within the farm system, but you know, sometimes you got to go out, and you have to buy. That’s just the name of the game. We’ll see what happens this offseason. Hopefully we can add some players and become a better team.”

This year, the Mariners are 18th in MLB in payroll. There are playoff-bound teams below them in those rankings and baffling disappointments above them. It takes more than an upper-echelon payroll to field a contender, especially if you’re trying to do so for years to come. But the Mariners have shown that they can get close with the young core they have in-house. There’s good stuff in Seattle already. It took the Mariners all the way to the end, where they were left wishing they could be just a little more like the team that beat them.

“You look over at the other locker room right there,” Raleigh said, referencing the Rangers, “they’ve added more than anybody else, and you saw where it got them this year.”

Actually, we haven’t — not yet, anyway. Their season isn’t over.

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