Mariners find themselves in rare spot heading into September: first place

SEATTLE (AP) — The Seattle Mariners started August with a loss that left them in fourth place in the AL West and continued a frustrating trend of hovering near the .500 mark.

They were on the fringes of being in the AL wild-card race after the Aug. 1 setback to Boston. But a contender for the AL West? That wasn’t even a consideration after the 6-4 defeat.

Fast forward 30 days and all has changed for Seattle following the most successful month in franchise history. For the first time in more than 20 years, the Mariners will go into September in first place in the division after winning a team record 21 games in August and changing the hopes for what this season could end up being in the Pacific Northwest.

The last time Seattle was in first place as the calendar turned to Sept. 1 came in 2001.

“These guys like to compete, and they like competing together,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said. “So when you’re doing those things, you’re getting good results, like I said you can’t wait to get back to the ballpark the next day.”

A year after ending the longest postseason drought in the four major professional sports in North America, the Mariners have again ignited the belief that this could be a special fall.

Seattle will enter September in a virtual dead heat with Houston and Texas in the AL West, all three separated by one game. It’s an enthralling division race and just the third time since divisions were added in 1969 that three teams are separated by one game or less entering September — the last coming in 1980.

And it’s a race likely to go down to the final days of the regular season. Seattle will play its final 10 games against those two teams.

“It’ll just get everybody ready for playoffs," outfielder Teoscar Hernández said. “As soon as September comes, every game is going to feel like that, and we’re ready for it.”

At one point this season, Seattle fans were fed up with a group they viewed as underperforming. The struggles on the field of such a talented group gave the vibes of being an unlikeable team.

The low point seemed to come June 30 when Seattle was thumped by Tampa Bay 15-4. The stands at T-Mobile Park were filled with boos as the Mariners dropped four games under .500.

Since that loss, Seattle has gone 38-15.

“We needed to earn it. You’re right, it wasn’t headed in the right direction,” Servais said. “And what excites me about our team going forward is the confidence, the energy from our team, from our fan base and everybody here in the building. We have a good team.”

It’s helped that Seattle’s best player has been one of the best players in baseball for the past two months. Julio Rodríguez is the engine that drives much of Seattle’s success offensively, and August was the best month of his young career. Rodríguez hit .429 with seven homers, 30 RBIs, 10 doubles, 11 stolen bases and a 1.198 OPS for the month. He had five games with at least four hits and set an MLB record with 17 hits in a four-game span.

When the month began, Rodríguez was hitting .251 for the season. He ended August at .286, including 28 hits in his final 10 games of the month before sitting out two games with a sore left foot. Seattle is hoping he’ll be back in the lineup this weekend in New York against the Mets.

“I feel like everybody is playing like how we all know we can play,” Rodriguez said.

To that end, it wasn’t just Rodriguez that got hot. Seattle’s bats hit .285 with 46 homers in August. Hernández, freed of trade speculation that swirled around him before the deadline, hit .365 for the month and cut down on his strikeouts. Newcomers Dominic Canzone and Josh Rojas both settled in with strong months after being acquired from Arizona. Even role players like Cade Marlowe, José Caballero and Dylan Moore had key moments in the August success.

But what makes Seattle a threat going into the final month is pitching. The Mariners will enter September with the best team ERA in baseball at 3.64. There is concern about the innings load starting to pile up on rookie starters Bryce Miller and Bryan Woo, but the trio of Luis Castillo, George Kirby and Logan Gilbert is a three-pack of arms no opponent would like to see in the postseason.

And Seattle made a small move to bolster its bullpen Thursday, claiming Dominic Leone off waivers from the Los Angeles Angels. Seattle will pay $375,000 of his $2.25 million salary.

“The vibes here have been the same all year since I’ve been here, even when we were four games under .500 to now,” Miller said. “And we’ve always believed in the team. It’s just sometimes you get it done, sometimes you don’t, and more times than not we’ve been getting it done the second half.”