Seattle Mariners' walk-off, comeback win over Texas Rangers keeps their playoff hopes alive — but barely

SEATTLE – It didn’t have to come down to this.

If the Seattle Mariners had not been swept last weekend in Texas, had not dropped two of three to the Houston Astros earlier this week or had not gone 9-15 in June and 9-15 again to start September, they wouldn't have entered the final series of the 2023 MLB regular season with their hopes of playing in October slipping away.

One year after ending the most infamous drought in sports and one month after playing like the hottest team on the planet, the Mariners' season concludes with 10 straight games against their division rivals and two of the three teams they're battling for an AL wild-card berth.

Six games into that stretch, they were profoundly squandering their opportunity.

It didn’t have to come down to this.

Heading into the bottom of the ninth inning Thursday, the Mariners had out-hit the formidable Texas Rangers lineup but were trailing 2-1. The starting pitching that carried them into contention had kept them in the game. Logan Gilbert surrendered two solo shots and little else. The bullpen was even stingier.

But Seattle's hitters couldn't come through when they needed to most. One night after they went 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position in a loss to the Astros, the Mariners were 1-for-6 with RISP through eight innings. That's not a new problem. This season, the Mariners' team batting average with RISP is 21st in baseball. None of the teams below them will be in the playoffs.

It didn’t have to come down to this.

If clutch hitting is the Mariners’ Achilles’ heel, the bullpen is the Rangers’. Facing an erratic Aroldis Chapman, Seattle gave its fans a reason to come alive in the ninth. Cal Raleigh led off with a single, Dylan Moore followed suit, and Ty France walked to load the bases. Just like that, the tying run was 90 feet from home with no one out. Almost any ball in play would constitute a comeback.

But after a pop-up that barely left the infield and a fly ball into foul territory, it seemed that this Mariners game was going to end like far too many have lately: one hit short.

Technically, a loss Thursday would not eliminate Seattle. But it would come close enough, leaving the Mariners so much at the mercy of games elsewhere that their final three contests would look like little more than a postscript. A loss would mean the Rangers spending their first night in Seattle celebrating having clinched a playoff spot, if not the division.

It didn’t have to come down to this: Bases loaded, two outs, the Mariners down by one run and J.P. Crawford stepping into the box.

But it did.

“We had the right guy at the plate,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said after the relief.

“I have faith in him that he was gonna do something,” Julio Rodríguez said after that faith had been rewarded.

"All that was going through my head was just, 'Get it done,'" Crawford said after he did.

Off Jonathan Hernández, who needed just six pitches to record the first two (futile) outs of the inning, Crawford smacked a 1-1 sinker into left field.

Over the winter, Crawford, then barely a league-average hitter for his career, focused on adding muscle. It has given him the strength to become a more confident leader in the clubhouse this season, and on Thursday, it gave him the strength to get the ball over the head of the Rangers' speedy left fielder.

Two runs scored, and the Mariners' playoff hopesstayed alive.

It wasn’t just hindsight speaking — Servais was right about Crawford being the guy you want in that situation. This season with the bases loaded, he’s 10-for-15, with a .667/.625/1.067 slash line. On the season as a whole, he’s slashing .264/.380/.434, good for a 133 wRC+ when his previous career high was 103.

“For us, day in [and] day out, he may be our most valuable player,” Servais said.

At the very least, that one swing from Crawford kept the Mariners playing meaningful baseball into the final weekend of the 2023 regular season. But they want more than that.

“I'm gonna be going about my business, expecting that I have another one and hoping that I have another one,” Gilbert said after the game about whether he’d just made his final start of the year. If the Mariners make the postseason, he’ll be back on the mound next week. If they don’t, he’ll have to wait ‘til spring.

The 3-2 victory Thursday puts Seattle one game back of the final AL wild-card spot, trailing the Astros, who will play three against the Arizona Diamondbacks this weekend. The Rangers still hold the lead in the division — by two over Houston, three over Seattle. Also ahead of the Mariners in the wild-card standings are the Toronto Blue Jays, whose last series is against the Tampa Bay Rays — a talented team with nothing left to play for. At some point, convoluted tiebreaker scenarios might come into play.

But none of that matters if the Mariners don’t win.

The walk-off Thursday left them motivated. Of hearing the fans chant his name, Crawford said, “There’s no better feeling.”

“Some of these moments, I'll never forget,” he said. “It's a very vivid memory of mine already in my head.”

On Friday, the Mariners will find out if it also gave them some momentum.

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