SEATTLE – More than an hour after Cal Raleigh ended the longest playoff drought in baseball, he was back on the field with his teammates, circling the edge of the field to acknowledge the tens of thousands of fans who were still there.
The celebration was more like winning something big in October than winning on the last day of September. But after 21 years, the Seattle Mariners could be excused for going a little over the top on their return to the playoffs.
“It’s better than what you could dream of,” said Seattle manager Scott Servais.
Raleigh hit a game-winning homerun with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, and the Mariners secured a wildcard spot in the American League with a 2-1 win over the A’s on Friday-evening.
Raleigh, pinch-hitting for Luis Torrens, hit a 3-2 pitch by Domingo Acevedo (3-4) just inside the foul-post in rightfield for a solo homerun that sent the Mariners into the postseason for the first time since 2001.
“I remember the moment when I knew it was fair and looking at the team and everyone jumping. It was just crazy,” Raleigh said.
Seattle’s on-field celebration lasted more than 10 minutes as fans and players relieved themselves of the burden of two decades without seeing their baseball team playoffs.
That was just the beginning.
Nearly an hour later, and with the stands still mostly full, Servais and his team were back on the field after a wild clubhouse party. He grabbed the microphone and colorfully reminded the crowd that when he arrived seven years ago with president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto, the mission was to end the “drought.”
“We did it. These players behind me are special. They care. They care about winning the right way. They care about representing the city of Seattle,” Servais told the crowd.
It was indeed a long wait – the last time the Mariners advanced to the postseason, the team was led by rookie Ichiro Suzuki and Edgar Martinez and led by Lou Piniella.
As has been the case with the Mariners for most of this season, their 86th win and the one that sent them back to the playoffs happened in the most stressful way possible. Seattle was unable to resolve Oakland-starter Ken Waldichuk and an assembly line of relievers for eight innings, but only held on to Ty France’s RBI-double that resulted in Dylan Moore scoring two batters in the game.
Acevedo struckout Mitch Haniger and Carlos Santana to open up the ninth, but Raleigh came through with his 26th homerun of the season, the most ever by a Seattle catcher.
“It’s not really a pressure moment,” Raleigh said. “We have fun. We play baseball. That’s how I look at it. And I think that’s the mentality you have to have.”
Aside from earning a postseason spot, Seattle remained 1½ games behind the Toronto Blue Jays for the top wildcard spot and a half game ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays as the three continue to jockey to seed.
But the place in the standings didn’t matter this evening. It was all about the last AL ticket and ending two decades without the guarantee of playoff baseball.
Seattle’s berth ended the longest active playoff drought in any of the four major professional sports, a dubious honor that now falls to the Sacramento Kings, who have not made the NBA playoffs since the 2005-06 season. The Mariners are still the only current team that has never played in the World Series.
The last time the Mariners reached the postseason, they tied a Major League-record by winning 116 games in the regular season, but lost 3-1 to the New York Yankees in the AL Championship Series.
Logan Gilbert of Seattle pitched eight innings high in his career and gave up three hits. His only error was a homerun by Shea Langeliers in the second inning.
Gilbert retired 18 of the last 20 batters he faced and put the A’s in order in each of his last four innings. Seth Brown walked in the seventh inning, but was eliminated on a double play.
Gilbert struckout four batters and walked off the mound after the eighth to a standing ovation and the plea from fans for a run.
Matt Brash (4-4) struck out a pair in the ninth to set the podium for Raleigh.
“It was crazy. I mean, I’ve only been to Seattle for a few years, but I feel like I’m one of the fans who’ve waited 21 years,” Gilbert said. “It was just a culmination of a lot of waiting. “