The drought ends in Seattle — Mariners clinch postseason trip for first time since 2001

Belief has returned to Seattle.

So ends the longest active postseason drought in major North American sports.

The Seattle Mariners are going to the playoffs for the first time in 21 years.

It wasn’t easy.

It took 26 outs, but they prevailed. And Cal Raleigh, a pinch-hitter with two outs in the ninth, was the hero.

Seattle Mariners including Jesse Winker, left; Ty France, third from right; Logan Gilbert, second from right; and Adam Frazier, right celebrate a home run by Cal Raleigh in ninth inning of a baseball game against the Oakland Athletics, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Seattle. The Mariners won 2-1 to clinch a spot in the playoffs. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)
Seattle Mariners including Jesse Winker, left; Ty France, third from right; Logan Gilbert, second from right; and Adam Frazier, right celebrate a home run by Cal Raleigh in ninth inning of a baseball game against the Oakland Athletics, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022, in Seattle. The Mariners won 2-1 to clinch a spot in the playoffs. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

His two-out home run left little doubt where it would land, and where it would send the Mariners next week. Starting pitcher Logan Gilbert tossed eight brilliant innings for the first time in his career, and Raleigh’s homer gave the Mariners a magical 2-1 walk-off win.

Mitch Haniger remained cautious with his words Thursday, wary of disrupting the baseball gods on what potentially was the eve of Seattle’s playoff clinch-game.

“I think there’s so much pressure, and expectations, and people freaking out,” he said before he continued, smiling. “Relax. We’re going to be fine. I’m not worried about it. It’s easy to get caught up in the standings and all of that stuff, but we’re gonna be fine.”

Seattle’s longest-tenured player penned a passionate letter to fans in The Players’ Tribune last October, concluding with a determined promise — to snap the Mariners’ 21-year-old postseason drought, the longest active streak in North American professional sports.

“We lost when it mattered most,” the outfielder wrote, only 11 days after Seattle fell short of the postseason on the regular season’s final day. “We fell short of our goal — period. And I need every Mariners fan to know that.

“But I also need them to know something else: This group is going to the playoffs. That’s not an if … it’s a when. And that when is soon.”

An All-Star with Seattle in 2018, Haniger said the moment Seattle clinches a playoff berth “will be awesome.”

Seattle Mariners’ Mitch Haniger celebrates scoring against the Detroit Tigers in the third inning of a baseball game in Detroit, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Seattle Mariners’ Mitch Haniger celebrates scoring against the Detroit Tigers in the third inning of a baseball game in Detroit, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

‘BELIEVE’

Tens of thousands packed T-Mobile Park full ahead of Friday night’s potential clinch-game, and the Venard family was among them, hoping for a piece of Seattle history unseen in over two decades.

Jake, 45, joined by his wife, Trina, and two children, sported Mariners garb and looks of anticipation as Seattle’s magic number dwindled to one after a walk-off win the night before. Any future Orioles loss or Mariners win would officially clinch Seattle’s first postseason appearance since 2001.

Their life in Kirkland revolves, mainly, around baseball: Jake coaches both his daughter’s 14U select softball team and son’s 11U travel team.

“It’s part of why we can’t get to very many games,” he said, chuckling. “We’re busy playing.”

But Friday night was an obvious exception. The Venards can look back to several memorable Mariner moments, like in April, when the couple took an impromptu trip to Peoria, Ariz. for Seattle’s final spring training game on Apr. 5. Ty France, Mitch Haniger, and Julio Rodriguez all provided autographs.

“That helped build the whole thing,” Jacob said. “(My kids) have been following those guys all year. It builds the whole experience.”

Now, the Venards can watch postseason baseball together. Seattle’s playoff drought was considerably older than both of Jacob and Trina’s children — and Friday created a new family memory.

“That’s a pretty rare moment to be a part of,” Jacob said. “And that experience is what it’s all about for us.”

ENDING THE LONGEST DROUGHT

The Mariners left the field at Yankee Stadium following their most recent postseason game on Oct. 22, 2001.

Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill and former Mariner Tino Martinez all hit home runs that night, while Andy Pettitte and New York’s bullpen limited Seattle’s offense.

The Yankees won, 12-3, ending the AL Championship Series with a convincing 4-1 series victory to move on to the World Series.

The Mariners returned to Seattle at the end of that historic 116-win season, no one knowing the club’s next playoff appearance wouldn’t arrive for another 21 years.

The Mariners have played 3,294 games since that loss inside Yankee Stadium. More than 250 months have passed since their last playoff appearance. More than 7,600 days. More than 183,000 hours. More than 11 million minutes between then and the moment the Mariners clinched a return trip to the postseason Friday night in front of a packed T-Mobile Park.

So much has happened across the professional sports landscape in Seattle — and beyond — in the time between.

While T-Mobile Park — known as Safeco Field for much of its history before it was renamed ahead of the 2019 season — has patiently waited to be the home of a playoff team again, success has been consistent across the street.

The longtime home of the Seahawks and Sounders, Lumen Field — which opened in 2002, built on the former site of the Kingdome, has also been previously known as Seahawks Stadium, Qwest Field and CenturyLink Field in its two-decade history — has seen many postseason contenders.

The Seahawks have made 14 trips to the postseason in the past two decades, including Super Bowl appearances in the 2005, 2013 and 2014, and bringing the city its first NFL championship with a win over Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII.

The Sounders arrived in MLS in 2009, and have advanced to four MLS Cups — including wins in 2016 and 2019 — since. They also became the first MLS club in the league’s current format to win the CONCACAF Champions League in front of a record-setting crowd at Lumen Field earlier this year.

The Storm have won the WNBA Finals four times — in 2004, 2010, 2018 and 2020 — in the past two decades, led by 13-time All-Star Sue Bird, who retired earlier this month.

The NBA left Seattle in 2008, when the Sonics were relocated to Oklahoma City. Their former home, KeyArena, began renovations in 2018 and reopened as Climate Pledge Arena in 2021, as the community continues to dream of a possible return of an NBA franchise.

Major league hockey did officially return in 2021, when the Kraken hosted Vancouver in the first NHL game inside the arena.

All the while, Seattle’s postseason baseball drought grew longer, surpassing any current active drought in major North American professional sports.

The burden of longest active MLB postseason drought, for the moment, falls to the Phillies, who last reached the playoffs in 2011. Philadelphia held the third NL wild-card spot solid as of Friday night, as the club tries to end its 10-season stretch without a postseason appearance.

Should the Phillies’ season continue, the Angels and Tigers both have playoff droughts that have reached eight seasons after being eliminated this fall.

Regardless of which club becomes the bearer of that unwanted label, the Mariners now leave it in the past.

On the heels of an 11-inning thriller Thursday night in Seattle — in which Seattle prevailed, 10-9, over Texas — Mariners manager Scott Servais, confidently declared years of waiting would finally end Friday night.

“We’ve got a really good team,” he told reporters postgame. “That’s why it’s exciting. We can pitch. We have clutch hitting. We can defend. We can run the bases. We check a lot of the boxes that you need to have to have that team to get deep in the playoffs and into the World Series and win it.

“I know everybody is exhausted. We’ve got to end the drought, we’ve got to end the drought. I’ve heard it for seven years. Every day when I get up in the morning and I drive to work, that’s what’s on my mind. The goal is to win the World Series. It’s not just to end the drought.

“We will end the drought tomorrow. We’re going to. And it’s a beautiful thing. And then it’s on to the next goal. And this team’s got a lot of high goals.”

Seattle Mariners, including Adam Frazier (26), J.P. Crawford, center, Chris Flexen (77), Luis Castillo, second from right, and Cal Raleigh, right, celebrate after a single by Crawford in the 11th inning drove in the winning run in a baseball game against the Texas Rangers, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Seattle. The Mariners won 10-9. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)
Seattle Mariners, including Adam Frazier (26), J.P. Crawford, center, Chris Flexen (77), Luis Castillo, second from right, and Cal Raleigh, right, celebrate after a single by Crawford in the 11th inning drove in the winning run in a baseball game against the Texas Rangers, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Seattle. The Mariners won 10-9. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

HOW THEY GOT HERE

There was a distinct smile on Jerry Dipoto’s face as Robbie Ray fastened the buttons on his freshly-minted Mariners jersey inside T-Mobile Park’s interview room.

The pair stood together, behind the podium last December as part of an introductory press conference, which formally announced Ray’s five-year contract with the franchise.

Ray’s arrival complemented the development of a farm system that was, for the first time, the best in baseball, per Baseball America.

Seattle’s plan to leap forward following a “step back” was coming together.

“It’s just nice to have Robbie Ray, to be honest with you,” Dipoto, Seattle’s president of baseball operations, told reporters last winter.

“And I’d say the same about Adam Frazier,” he continued, noting the arrival of the All-Star second baseman acquired in a trade with San Diego days earlier.

“The day on the calendar doesn’t matter for us. We believe that the next five years are going to be, for the Mariners, what we’ve been building toward. That’ll be the crescendo, and the fact that Robbie’s here for that is something we’re all excited about.”

Jerry Dipoto, left, Seattle Mariners President of Baseball Operations, shakes hands with new Seattle Mariners pitcher Robbie Ray, right, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, during a news conference in Seattle. The AL Cy Young Award winner — who previously pitched for the Toronto Blue Jays — signed a five-year contract with the Mariners. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Jerry Dipoto, left, Seattle Mariners President of Baseball Operations, shakes hands with new Seattle Mariners pitcher Robbie Ray, right, Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, during a news conference in Seattle. The AL Cy Young Award winner — who previously pitched for the Toronto Blue Jays — signed a five-year contract with the Mariners. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

No, the Mariners hadn’t snapped the lengthy postseason drought by then — but their almost-run in 2021 that ended on the last day of the regular season featured three sold-out crowds at the final homestand with yellow “Believe” placards saturated throughout the seats.

Victories by New York and Boston on the season’s final day deemed Seattle’s finale with the Angels inconsequential.

Still, it was the club’s first 90-win season since 2003. Ray, then with Toronto, remembers watching the Mariners play in front of playoff-hungry crowds as postseason qualification hung in the balance.

Ray was the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner. He was on a good Toronto team. But, he wanted to be in Seattle, the “lead dog” for a young, but blossoming rotation.

“Seeing the vision and the direction of this team and the way that it was headed, man, I just wanted to be a part of it,” Ray said last year, days after inking his five-year deal. “And I could just tell the excitement with this organization and with the city.”

The additions of both Ray and Frazier were the beginning, but Dipoto’s quest to add power bats to the lineup came to a screeching halt with MLB’s 99-day lockout that commenced Dec. 2. There were no transactions made until March 10.

When the trade market reopened, he called Cincinnati, eventually landing a power bat and left-handed-hitting outfielder — both atop Seattle’s offseason wish list.

On March 14, the Mariners acquired third baseman Eugenio Suarez and outfielder Jesse Winker — both former All-Stars — from the Reds, sending a package of four players back to Cincinnati.

“We feel like these guys make our lineup longer, a lot more ominous,” Dipoto said then. “We feel like it gives us the lineup depth that playoff teams have.”

Seattle Mariners center fielder Julio Rodriguez (44) bats during the first inning at T-Mobile Park on Sunday, June 12, 2022 in Seattle, Wash. The Mariners lost to the Red Sox 0-2 after a homer was hit in the eighth inning scoring both runs for the Red Sox.
Seattle Mariners center fielder Julio Rodriguez (44) bats during the first inning at T-Mobile Park on Sunday, June 12, 2022 in Seattle, Wash. The Mariners lost to the Red Sox 0-2 after a homer was hit in the eighth inning scoring both runs for the Red Sox.

A STAR EMERGES

The remarkable and raving reviews for Julio Rodriguez prior to his arrival at spring training hinted of the 21-year-old’s greatness.

Servais deemed him “different,” watching the 6-foot-3, 228-pound outfielder showcase his speed in preseason baserunning drills.

Even Rodriguez’s teammates would remark to Servais as they watched him embark on one of the better rookie seasons in franchise history, saying: “This kid’s for real, isn’t he?”

There was no guarantee of an Opening Day roster spot for Rodriguez, who was soon-to-be the youngest player on the team.

But, in 14 spring games, he outplayed everyone.

Rodriguez’s first spring training at-bat resulted in a 431-foot moonshot to left field, leaving his bat at an estimated 117 mph.

On March 31, he dove across home plate for an inside-the-park home run after clobbering a ball off the right field wall.

Rodriguez finished spring training with a .412/.487/.794 slash line, three home runs, and eight RBI.

“It’s not a matter of if Julio impacts our team,” Dipoto told reporters back in March. “It’s a matter of when.”

Seattle Mariners center fielder Julio Rodriguez (44) throws a ball back to a fan after signing it before the start of the game at T-Mobile Park on Sunday, July 24, 2022 in Seattle, Wash.
Seattle Mariners center fielder Julio Rodriguez (44) throws a ball back to a fan after signing it before the start of the game at T-Mobile Park on Sunday, July 24, 2022 in Seattle, Wash.

So Rodriguez, now the unrivaled frontrunner for the AL Rookie of the Year award, began his remarkable rookie season. And while his instant contributions weren’t unforeseen, the magnitude may have been.

Through 129 career games in the big leagues, Rodriguez already has 27 home runs and 25 stolen bases. He has posted a .280/.342/.502 slash line in an even 500 at-bats, including 24 doubles, three triples, the 27 home runs, 73 RBI and 40 walks.

Seattle needed less than that to extend the rookie to a record deal, which spans at least a dozen seasons and is worth $210 million.

He was Seattle’s lone All-Star selection before first baseman Ty France earned a later nod.

Rodriguez continues to pace rookies across baseball this season in a seemingly-unending list of categories — home runs, total bases, slugging percentage, bWAR, fWAR and wRC+.

Next week, Rodriguez will be set to return from the injured list, presently tending to a lower back strain, to boost Seattle’s lineup.

He may be the club’s youngest player — but he is undoubtedly their emotional and vocal leader.

‘ALL-IN’

Seattle’s memorable run to the postseason began with a largely-rocky road, particularly in the early summer.

A rare, five-game home series in June against the Angels resulted in perhaps the Mariners’ lowest point — four losses to their division rivals, plunging their record to a season-worst 10 games below .500.

A shutout loss on Father’s Day dimmed hopes and crumbled playoff odds to 5.3 percent by June 19, per FanGraphs. Seattle managed only two hits that day, and Angels star Mike Trout launched his fourth homer of the series.

The Mariners were 29-39.

Servais approached the podium, chuckling sarcastically.

“Not the Father’s Day, nor the homestand, we were looking for,” he said. “When it rains, it pours. We’re in a slump right now.”

Seattle’s offense posted a .694 OPS in June, ranking ninth in the AL. That number remained nearly identical throughout the summer — .695 in July and .693 in August — but Mariners pitchers undoubtedly began to carry the load. The club’s pitching staff posted a collective 3.22 ERA in July, which topped the league.

The resurgence back to postseason contention bloomed in the form of a 14-game winning streak paused at the All-Star break.

And it gave Dipoto and the front office no choice but to push the chips inward ahead of the Aug. 2 trade deadline.

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Luis Castillo tips his hat while walking to the dugout after a groundout by Cleveland Guardians’ Richie Palacios during the fourth inning of a baseball game Friday, Sept. 2, 2022, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Dermer)
Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Luis Castillo tips his hat while walking to the dugout after a groundout by Cleveland Guardians’ Richie Palacios during the fourth inning of a baseball game Friday, Sept. 2, 2022, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Dermer)

Of the available starting pitchers on the market, Cincinnati’s Luis Castillo — a dominant right-hander — was atop Dipoto’s list.

It took a package of four prospects — including the No. 17 overall prospect in baseball in infielder Noelvi Marte — but Dipoto and the Mariners got their guy.

Castillo joined a rotation which already included Ray and a pair of young right-handers in Logan Gilbert and George Kirby.

Seattle’s newest ace was quick to make AL history upon his arrival. On Sept. 7 against the White Sox, Castillo struck the first seven batters he faced, tying the all-time record.

He struck out eight in his Mariners debut at Yankee Stadium on Aug. 3, oozing “supreme confidence,” in the words of Servais, to complement a four-pitch arsenal and dominating mound presence.

After nine Seattle starts, Castillo had struck out 64 batters on the way to a 2.83 ERA since the trade.

He was set to hit free agency after the 2023 season, but the front office had seen enough to keep the 29-year-old in a Mariners uniform for another half-decade.

On Sept. 26, Seattle officially announced its signing of Castillo to a five-year extension worth $108 million, with team and player options that could extend the deal to six seasons.

“Five years ago in the winter of 2018, we set out to make some important changes and make that commitment to winning championships,” Mariners chairman John Stanton said at Castillo’s press conference. “Both a long-term and a short-term commitment. Today is further evidence of our commitment to do so.“

THE LONGEST WAIT

The path to the championships the Mariners seek seems clearer now than it has for much of the club’s 46-season history.

Certainly clearer than it has been the past two decades.

The postseason drought the Mariners just ended isn’t the only lengthy stretch the club has played without advancing to the playoffs — but it is the longest.

Back in 1977, the Mariners, then new members of the AL West along with another expansion team in the Blue Jays — who have two World Series titles in their history — finished 64-98 in their inaugural season.

Seattle didn’t post a winning record until season No. 15 in 1991. The club didn’t make its first postseason appearance until the storied 1995 run in season No. 19.

Everything finally came together for the Mariners during that magical season that captivated fans across the Pacific Northwest and beyond.

At one point double-digit games behind the Angels in August, the Mariners made a late surge to force a one-game tiebreaker for the AL West title.

Beloved Mariners Hall of Fame broadcaster Dave Niehaus said it all on the call as Johnson — the AL Cy Young Award winner that season — struck out Tim Salmon looking to complete a 9-1 win, and fans rushed the field at the Kingdome.

“Nineteen long years of frustration is over!”

Seattle moved on to face the Yankees in the AL Division Series, lost the first two games in New York, and one loss away from elimination rallied to win three straight in Seattle to keep the dream season going.

The Mariners trailed by one run entering the bottom of the 11th in Game 5. Joey Cora and Griffey responded with back-to-back singles, and Martinez stepped to the plate. And so many Mariners fans can still recite Niehaus’ historic call when Martinez hit “The Double.”

“Swung on and lined down the left field line for a base hit! Here comes Joey, here is Junior to third base, they’re gonna wave him in! The throw to the plate will be late! The Mariners are going to play for the American League Championship! I don’t believe it! It just continues! My oh my!”

FILE - In this Oct. 8, 1995, file photo, Seattle Mariners’ Ken Griffey Jr. smiles from beneath a pile of teammates who mobbed him after he scored the winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning of a baseball game against the New York Yankees, in Seattle. The Seattle Mariners are the only baseball franchise never to advance to the Fall Classic. Baseball has never been played in Seattle beyond Oct. 22. The Mariners have three times been to the American League Championship Series, and all three times were sent home before there could ever be a Game 7.(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
FILE - In this Oct. 8, 1995, file photo, Seattle Mariners’ Ken Griffey Jr. smiles from beneath a pile of teammates who mobbed him after he scored the winning run in the bottom of the 11th inning of a baseball game against the New York Yankees, in Seattle. The Seattle Mariners are the only baseball franchise never to advance to the Fall Classic. Baseball has never been played in Seattle beyond Oct. 22. The Mariners have three times been to the American League Championship Series, and all three times were sent home before there could ever be a Game 7.(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)

That season ended the following week against Cleveland in the ALCS, but energized the baseball community in Seattle, and opened a window of success for the Mariners that included four postseason trips in seven seasons.

Alex Rodriguez won a batting title with the Mariners in 1996, and the club added longtime starter Jamie Moyer midway through the season in a trade with the Red Sox.

The Mariners returned to the postseason in 1997, behind an AL MVP performance by Griffey, before they eventually lost to the Orioles in the ALDS.

Seattle missed the playoffs in 1998 and 1999, but also moved into their new home in Safeco Field midway through the 1999 season. Niehaus threw out the ceremonial first pitch, and Moyer the first game pitch.

The century turned, and the Mariners opened it with back-to-back playoff appearances in 2000 and 2001.

Griffey departed for Cincinnati in 2000, but the Mariners made it back to the playoffs as a wild-card team, and swept the White Sox in the ALDS before the Yankees ended their season in the ALCS. Closer Kazuhiro Sasaki was the AL Rookie of the Year after collecting 37 saves.

Then came the historic 116-win season in 2001, which included the arrival of that year’s AL MVP and Rookie of the Year in beloved right fielder Ichiro Suzuki.

A thrilling season led by so many stars also included another All-Star Game in Seattle. The Mariners had club-record eight representatives at their home field, including Bret Boone, Mike Cameron, Freddy Garcia, Martinez, Jeff Nelson, John Olerud, Sasaki and Suzuki. Piniella, the AL Manager of the Year that season, represented the Mariners as a coach.

The Mariners topped Cleveland in the ALDS, but their historic season ended against New York in the ALCS.

Then, the longest drought in franchise history began.