OAKLAND, Calif. — Back in mid-January, almost a month before they even reported to Arizona for 2021 spring training, Marco Gonzales and J.P. Crawford held steadfast to their beliefs even though those around them and above tried to lower or temper their expectations for the upcoming season.
It was during the “Mariners’ Baseball Bash” an online media blitz of coverage amid the pandemic, both general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais used terms like improvement and individual development as their goals for the 2021 team.
Gonzales bristled at such suggestions while Crawford said flatly: “It’s time to win.”
On Tuesday, the two players that refused to accept anything less than winning, led the Mariners to a 5-2 victory over the Athletics, giving them another day of hope that they can somehow crash a postseason party without an invitation.
Both Crawford’s and Gonzales’ continued surge in the second half of the season has been vital in allowing the Mariners to remain in a postseason race that seemed ready to leave them behind.
Crawford tallied three hits, drove in a pair of runs, including a towering homer in the ninth inning, and made a ridiculous play in the field to help Gonzales improve to 9-5 on the season. The lefty pitched six innings, allowing two runs on four hits with a walk and three strikeouts.
With an 82-69 record, the Mariners guaranteed themselves of a winning season, but they remain three games behind the Blue Jays (85-66), who hold the second wild-card spot. The A’s (82-69) are also three games back while the Yankees (85-67) are a half game back of Toronto
“We came in here really thinking we needed to win this series, believed it,” Servais said. “We get the first two and are in a good spot. Unfortunately, we didn’t pick up a whole lot of ground. We need help. And we weren’t able to get it outside of this ballpark tonight, but we can’t control that.”
The winning record isn’t really something that’s a focus for Servais or the players. The postseason dream is still alive with 11 games left to play.
“Obviously coming out of spring training, expectations were very, very low for this club,” Servais said. “We had a lot to prove. And I talked about it continuously throughout the season, our whole focus was continue to get better — doesn’t matter, just get better. And we’ve done that. Our guys compete their asses off every night. I take lot of pride in being a part of that.”
There might not be two more competitive people on the team Gonzales and Crawford. As team leaders, their mentalities and their expectations were contagious to others.
Why did they believe when others didn’t?
“It’s hard to explain,” Gonzales said. “Some of it was just gut feeling. Some of it was just willing it into existence. The big thing is just the character of the guys. We all get along really well, and there’s just enough salt in the clubhouse to keep things interesting. That’s a pretty good combo.”
Said Crawford: “We all knew we could win. We all knew we could compete. It’s not surprising to us. We all knew we could do this. Everyone keeps doubting us, and we keep proving people wrong. And we’re just gonna continue to get better.”
Crawford has reached base in 19 of his last 20 games, hitting safely in 16 of 20. He is hitting .304 (26 for 81) with 16 runs, five doubles, three home runs, 12 RBI and 12 walks over that span. And the defense? Well, it’s been Gold Glove level.
Since the All-Star break, Gonzales has made 12 starts and has an 8-0 record with a 2.57 ERA. In 73 2/3 innings pitched, he’s struck out 49 batters and walked 16. Opponents have a just a .209/.258/.403 slash line against him.
It’s a remarkable turnaround for the leader of the pitching staff. He struggled in the first half of the season, dealing with a forearm injury that kept him out almost all of May, coming back without a rehab assignment and posting a 1-5 record in 11 starts with a 5.88 ERA. In 56 1/3 innings, he struck out 49 batters, walked 21 and allowed 15 homers. Opponents were posting a brutal .278/.344/.583 slash line against him. He was struggling to find the tempo in his delivery, leading to a lack of command for a pitcher that relies upon it.
He vowed to get back to normal. With fellow lefty Yusei Kikuchi cratering, Gonzales has been vital for the Mariners to stay in this wild-card race. Of the 12 starts, he’s never pitched fewer than five innings with seven outings of six-plus innings.
“He’s on some kind of streak,” Servais said. “We would not be in this position if he hadn’t figured out a way to turn his season around. Because it wasn’t typical Marco in the first half. We needed it to happen.”
His two runs came on a solo homer from Matt Olson with two outs in the first inning and a solo homer off the bat of Starling Marte to lead off the fourth inning.
But the Mariners provided Gonzales with solid run support in the game to make the two runs allowed stand up and leave him in line for a decision.
Jake Bauers’ heads-up decision to sprint for home when Olson slightly mishandled a pickoff play at first base tied the score at 1-1 in the second inning.
Seattle scored four runs off of A’s starter Paul Blackburn, a one-time Mariners prospect. Jarred Kelenic led off with a triple to right-center, Jake Fraley worked a walk and Dylan Moore smoked a triple off the wall in deep left-center to score both runners. Crawford would make it 4-1 when he singled through the shift to score Moore.