What, for a fleeting moment, had the makings of the hardest of hard-luck losses turned instead, in the blink of a Cal Raleigh sprint, into one of the Mariners’ most thrilling victories of the season.
Rookie phenom Julio Rodriguez, in his return from a minor wrist injury, opened the game with a laser home run, and Carlos Santana ended it with a walkoff sacrifice fly to score Raleigh and give the Mariners a wild 5-4 victory Tuesday night over the Texas Rangers before a raucous crowd of 25,837 at T-Mobile Park.
Raleigh, continuing his breakthrough season, doubled into the right-center field gap to score J.P. Crawford from first base to tie the score at 4-4 in the bottom of the ninth.
After an Adam Frazier sacrifice bunt, the Rangers intentionally walked Rodriguez and Ty France — the Mariners’ two All-Stars — to load the bases for Santana. As he’s done so often already in his first month as a Mariner, Santana delivered when he was needed most, getting ahead 2-1 in the count and then lofting a fly ball to center field.
“No panic,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said of Santana’s at-bat. “When you’ve had as many at-bats as he’s had in his career, there shouldn’t be any panic. He’s been in that spot before. And it’s a great reminder and teacher to some of our young guys. In those spots, you don’t have to hit it too hard. You’ve just got to have a good at-bat.”
Raleigh, the slugging, lumbering catcher, tagged from third base, sprinted home and scored sliding just ahead of the throw from Texas’ Leody Taveras, and Mariners players poured out of the dugout in celebration.
The Rangers challenged the play at the plate and Raleigh’s tag from third. After a 90-second review, the calls on the field were confirmed — game over — and the celebration on the field and in the stands continued.
Rodriguez, once again, gave the Mariners plenty to celebrate, for now and for the future.
The 21-year-old budding superstar didn’t miss an opportunity — immediately and emphatically — to remind everyone just how gifted he is in his first at-bat back.
Rodriguez sat out the first four games coming out of the All-Star break because of a sore left wrist. In his return Tuesday, he needed to see just five pitches in the bottom of the first to reclaim his throne as the most exciting young player in baseball.
Rodriguez turned on an 80 mph slider from Texas starter Dane Dunning and rocked it 106 mph on a line over the wall in left field.
It was his 17th home run, second leadoff homer of the season and, ahem, 82nd blast to leave the ballpark over the past eight days (if you’re counting the 81 he hit in the Home Run Derby at Dodger Stadium).
He’s the first rookie in club history with multiple leadoff homers in a season.
“Nothing he does really surprises me,” Servais said. “We talk about it a lot — he’s got the ‘it’ factor. We know that. We knew it early on, and now the rest of the baseball world is seeing it too. Which is fun. It’s fun to watch. …
“We have a different vibe around our team when he’s at the top of the lineup, and we should. He’s a great player. Young guy. You just feel a different electricity around the ballpark, and we’re glad to have him back.”
As he began to round first base, Rodriguez half raised both of his hands, palms up, and shrugged his shoulders, shades of Michael Jordan in the 1992 NBA Finals.
What’s more, Rodriguez became just the second Mariners player to homer in his first game after participating in the Home Run Derby. The first — oh yes — was Ken Griffey Jr. in 1998.
Rare air, this kid’s in.
Rodriguez wasn’t the only rookie to make a dynamic return for the M’s on Tuesday night.
Right-hander George Kirby, recalled from Class AAA Tacoma earlier in the day, was brilliant in five shutout innings. He allowed just two hits with four strikeouts and one walk.
Kirby, on a strict pitch count in his first start for the Mariners in 18 days, needed just 51 pitches to get through five innings before handing a 2-0 lead off to the bullpen.
“George Kirby was awesome,” Servais said. “He was right on point. Commanded the zone and used all of his pitches.”
Kyle Lewis’ two-out RBI single off Dunning in the first inning extended the Mariners’ lead to 2-0.
The Rangers scored one in the seventh inning to cut their deficit to 2-1.
Raleigh, batting right-handed, answered with a solo home run off Texas’ Matt Moore in the bottom of the seventh. It was his 14th homer of the year.
Seattle’s bullpen surrendered four runs in the final three innings as the Rangers rallied to take a 4-3 into the bottom of the ninth inning.
The most bizarre sequence came in the eighth inning after Paul Sewald, the Mariners’ most reliable reliever, issued back-to-back walks to Corey Seager and Jonah Heim with two outs. Sewald got ahead 0-2 on the next batter, Adolis Garcia, and threw an up-and-in fastball that jammed Garcia. The ground ball first struck foul territory up the first-base line, then took an awkward, hard-luck bounce back into fair territory and past first base.
France chased down the ball in shallow right field, but his throw home was just a hair too late as pinch runner Charlie Culberson scored just ahead of the tag from Raleigh. That tied the score at 3-3.
It was Sewald’s first blown save since June 2.
The Rangers then took a 4-3 lead in the ninth on Ezequiel Duran’s RBI single off Erik Swanson.
“Our bullpen has been so good for such a long time,” Servais said. “And the reason we’re typically so good is because we control the strike zone. We pound it. We go after them. We make teams swing the bat against us … and we gave them an opportunity tonight and the Rangers took advantage of it. Obviously, the walks hurt.”
In the end, the Mariners (53-45) rallied for their seventh straight victory over the Rangers, and they’ll try for the series sweep Wednesday afternoon.
Overall, the M’s have won nine straight one-run games, and they moved ahead of Tampa Bay (52-45) and into second place in the AL wild-card standings.