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 perimeter of the field to acknowledge the tens of thousands of fans who still stuck around.
The celebration was more akin to winning something big in October, rather than a victory on the last day of September. But after 21 years, the Seattle Mariners could be excused for going a little over the top upon their return to the playoffs.
“It’s better than maybe what you could dream it to be,” Seattle manager Scott Servais said.
Raleigh hit a game-winning home run with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning, and the Mariners clinched a wild-card berth in the American League with a 2-1 victory over the Oakland Athletics on Friday night.
Raleigh, pinch-hitting for Luis Torrens, hit a 3-2 pitch from Domingo Acevedo (3-4) just inside the right-field foul pole for a solo homer that sent the Mariners to the postseason for the first time since 2001.
“I remember the moment when I knew it was fair and looking at the team and everybody’s jumping. It was just crazy,” Raleigh said.
Seattle’s celebration on the field lasted more than 10 minutes as fans and players lifted themselves from the burden of two decades without seeing playoffs from their baseball team.
That was just the start.
Nearly an hour later, and with the stands still mostly full, Servais and his team were back on the field after a wild clubhouse celebration. He grabbed the microphone and reminded the crowd, colorfully, that when he arrived along with president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto seven years ago, 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 indeed had been a long wait — the last time the Mariners advanced to the postseason, the team was led by rookie Ichiro Suzuki and Edgar Martinez and managed by Lou Piniella.
As has been the case for most of this season with the Mariners, their 86th win and the one that sent them back to the playoffs happened in the most stressful way possible. Seattle was unable to solve Oakland starter Ken Waldichuk and an assembly line of relievers for eight innings, held only to Ty France‘s RBI double that scored Dylan Moore two batters into the game.
“It’s not really a pressure moment,” Raleigh said. “We’re having fun. We’re playing baseball. That’s the way I look at it. And I think that’s the mentality you got to have.”
Aside from the clinching a spot in the postseason, Seattle stayed 1½ games behind the Toronto Blue Jays for the top wild-card spot and one half-game ahead of the Tampa Bay Rays as the three continue to jockey for seeding.
But the place in the standings didn’t matter on this night. It was all about punching the final 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 never to have 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 to the New York Yankees 3-1 in the AL Championship Series.
Gilbert retired 18 of the final 20 batters he faced and set down the A’s in order in each of his final four innings. Seth Brown walked leading of the seventh but was retired on a double play.
Gilbert struck out four 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 and set the stage for Raleigh.
“It was crazy. I mean, I haven’t been in Seattle but a few years but I feel like I’m one of the fans that have waited for 21 years,” Gilbert said. “It was just a culmination of a lot of waiting.”