SEATTLE — For a long time the playoffs had been a shimmering mirage here, far off in the space beyond Elliott Bay. The Seattle Mariners often had hope; they developed stars, they spent money to sign top free agents. Yet while every other team within the majors took a turn within the postseason, winter all the time got here early on the corner of Edgar & Dave.
On Saturday afternoon, on the intersecting streets named for Edgar Martinez, the Hall of Fame designated hitter, and Dave Niehaus, the Hall of Fame broadcaster, playoff baseball will finally return to Seattle with Game 3 of an American League division series against the Houston Astros. And the Mariners — ceaselessly on brand — took the hardest route possible to get back.
On Tuesday, within the division series opener of their first playoff trip since 2001, the Mariners lost on a game-ending homer that erased a multi-run lead. That had never happened before within the history of baseball’s postseason, which began in 1903.
Yordan Alvarez, the Astros’ slugging left fielder, connected that day and homered again in Game 2 to guide Houston to a 4-2 victory. The Mariners now face elimination on this best-of-five series, and their ravenous fans must help them stop the Astros.
“I do understand how hard it’s to win on the road, and it should be very hard for them to win in Seattle, I’ll inform you that,” Mariners Manager Scott Servais said after Thursday’s loss. “Because I do know what it’s going to be like when our crowd gets occurring Saturday.”
The Mariners have needed such inspiration before. This two-game deficit matches the one within the franchise’s very first playoff series, in 1995, when the Mariners played their best while on the brink.
After a miracle comeback to win the American League West that season, Seattle lost twice to the Yankees within the Bronx, including once on a walk-off homer (by Jim Leyritz). As every local knows, the team recovered to win three in a row, with Martinez doubling home Ken Griffey Jr. to clinch the series and shake the old Kingdome.
“I said, ‘Dave, this can be a game for the ages!’” Rick Rizzs, the Mariners’ play-by-play voice, said last month, recalling his view from the booth with Niehaus. “The Mariners celebrating, everybody celebrating, it was amazing. And so I can’t wait for these fans to feel that and to finally get there. It’s been so long, and it’s going to be outstanding.”
The Mariners have already won a round on this postseason, eliminating the Toronto Blue Jays on the road in a two-game wild-card series. Within the Astros, though, they’ve met a rival much like the one which ended their joyride in 1995.
That fall, the Mariners followed up the Yankees series with a six-game loss to Cleveland within the A.L. Championship Series. On the time, Cleveland was establishing itself as a perennial A.L. force that might win six division crowns and two pennants in seven seasons.
With another win, the Astros will earn their sixth consecutive trip to the L.C.S., something no A.L. team has ever done. Jerry Dipoto, the Mariners’ president of baseball operations, has meticulously built a contender that ought to have endurance. However the Astros, for now, remain the gatekeeper to the World Series.
“We thought we may very well be a competitive club by ’21 and contend for a divisional championship by ’22 or ’23, and that’s the way in which we talked through it with ownership,” said Dipoto, who has spent seven full seasons in Seattle. “You realize, the Astros have decided to not get old. They only proceed to be awesome. And that will, ultimately, be a hurdle we still need to determine recover from.”
Dipoto spoke in September over lunch in Belltown, a downtown neighborhood within the shadow of the Space Needle. A former pitcher, he spent two seasons with Cleveland but was traded to the Mets before the 1995 season, then dealt to Colorado a few years later. While Dipoto played for the Rockies, the Mets made the playoffs, too.
“My joke was that the sure option to the postseason was simply to trade me,” Dipoto said.
Now 54, after stops with Arizona and the Los Angeles Angels, Dipoto is the one making the deals. In Seattle, he first tried to prop up the core he inherited (Robinson Canó, Nelson Cruz, Félix Hernández and Kyle Seager) and now has a younger roster he crafted. Seven players within the lineup for the Mariners’ playoff opener — plus the starting pitcher, Luis Castillo — were acquired in trades by Dipoto.
The exceptions were catcher Cal Raleigh, who homered to clinch a playoff spot on Sept. 30, and Julio Rodríguez, the team’s cornerstone center fielder. Rodríguez caught the ultimate out of the Blue Jays’ series and is 3 for 9 (all extra base hits) against the Astros.
On Thursday, Rodríguez kept the sport alive with a two-out double within the ninth inning that brought the tying run to the plate. Alas, Ty France struck out to finish the sport.
The Toronto series was misleading, because it turned out: The Mariners were never going to make this easy on themselves. They’ve another probability to torment the Astros, the way in which their ancestors once did against the Yankees. The playoffs are back here eventually, and the team needs the fans again.