SEATTLE — Before Bryan Woo’s last start of the MLB regular season, Seattle Mariners pitching coach Pete Woodworth told him: “Doesn’t matter if you throw 100 pitches in four innings. Just go get outs.”
“I probably didn’t need to take that literally,” Woo joked after the game Friday, an 8-0 victory for Seattle. “But, I mean, zeroes are zeroes, especially this time of year.”
Actually, Woo threw only 82 pitches in 3 2/3 innings. And zeroes are zeroes, regardless of the calendar. But the message was clear: The Mariners planned to approach Friday’s game with the urgency befitting a team with a lot left to play for. The reality was, even as a couple of playoff races came down to the final weekend, Seattle had left itself very little margin for error.
The Mariners were facing a team that had swept them a matter of days before and needed just one more win to have cause to celebrate. Of the many convoluted ways that the as-of-yet undecided AL West and AL wild-card picture could play out, the vast majority leave the Mariners on the outside looking in. Technically, they’re playing for a postseason spot. Statistically, they’re probably playing their final series of the season.
After J.P. Crawford delivered what could prove to be the single most impactful swing of the Mariners’ season to bring their chances back from the brink Thursday, manager Scott Servais made little secret of the situation as he saw it with three games to go:
“Bryan Woo is going to pitch a big chunk of the game for us tomorrow, young guy,” he said in his postgame comments Thursday. “[If] somehow we win again tomorrow, we get to Saturday and Sunday, I like our pitching. I’d take Luis Castillo and George Kirby any day of the week.”
No offense to Woo. Castillo and Kirby were both All-Stars this summer. Castillo has a 1.83 ERA across three career playoff starts. Kirby is young, but he threw nine innings last October without giving up a run.
Woo is a rookie with exciting stuff but an ERA+ a little below league average this season. He was facing a Rangers lineup that is the best in the American League in batting average and slugging. He’d be backed by a lineup that’s ninth in both those categories. He’d faced Texas twice already this season; both times, he gave up six earned runs and failed to get out of the fourth inning.
Friday marked his 18th big-league start. It was also the biggest start he has ever made.
“Yeah, I’d probably say so,” Woo confirmed. “I haven’t really played meaningful baseball in a while.”
On a chilly night in a packed park humming with playoff atmosphere, Woo worked into and out of trouble. It took him 29 pitches to get through the first inning with two walks, but he ended up striking out the side. In the third, the bullpen started warming up after a single, a walk and a hit-by-pitch loaded the bases; still, Woo escaped unscathed. Maybe his team would lose later, but there was nothing for him to do in the moment except try to win with every pitch he had. Even in the tightest of tunnels, it still makes sense to move toward the light.
The Mariners did not lose later. The more memorable parts of the game were a pair of solo shots from Ty France and Josh Rojas, plus a grand slam by the suddenly unstoppable Crawford. Eight runs went unanswered as the Mariners’ bullpen backed Woo for a league-leading 17th shutout.
“Big win,” Servais said afterward. “We still need a little help.”
The Mariners did not get any help Friday. The two teams ahead of them in the wild-card standings, the Houston Astros and the Toronto Blue Jays, both won, leaving the Mariners still a game back of getting into the postseason that way. In the AL West, the top three teams are drawing closer together as the season comes down to the wire. Everyone has two games left. The Rangers have 89 wins, the Astros have 88 wins, the Mariners have 87 wins.
At this point, the Mariners control not only their record but that of the Rangers as well. Yet even a series sweep won’t guarantee them anything without the right circumstances elsewhere. In a three-way tie, Seattle wins the division. In a head-to-head tie with just the Rangers, Texas wins.
Update after Friday: All “Astros win 0” and “Mariners win 1” rows removed.
There are now just 9 different ways the Astros/Arizona and Seattle/Texas series can go. 7 of them are good for Houston (2 division + 5 wild card).
This is fun. pic.twitter.com/rS8G3svis9
— Cory Lieder (@AustinCory) September 30, 2023
And so it is that even after taking the first two games of this series, the Mariners face unfavorable odds to end up in the postseason. Maybe that’s maddening or demoralizing. (Really? Texas could pop champagne in Seattle’s ballpark after getting swept because of something that happens in Phoenix?) Maybe that’s just baseball.
There are two games left in the regular season, and everything is still within reach for the three AL West Teams: a division title, a wild-card berth, an early offseason. From the outside, it can feel imperative to understand the permutations, to chart the possibilities, to brace for the outcomes in advance.
But at this point, the odds don’t matter. No one’s modulating their effort at this stage of the season. Maybe it’ll work, and maybe it won’t, but what option do the Mariners have except to try to win?
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