SEATTLE — Say this about the 2021 Mariners, who retained their first-place standing on Friday: Win or lose, they make just about every game interesting and take each down to the wire.
Seattle rallied from a three-run deficit for the fourth time in this young season, and it notched its second walk off when Ty France clobbered a single into the right-center-field gap that bounced over the fence and scored J.P. Crawford in the ninth after the shortstop led off with a walk. That followed a game-tying homer from Evan White in the eighth inning, which accounted for some much-needed production from the lower half of the lineup.
That’s because it was the usual suspects — France, Mitch Haniger and Kyle Seager — who slowly sparked mini rallies for two runs in the sixth and seventh innings each. The top three hitters in Seattle’s lineup went a combined 6-for-12 with five of the club’s six RBIs on Friday, helping the Mariners to just their fifth win in their past 30 meetings against the Astros.
“We know the type of group that we are,” France said. “We’re not going to come out and hit a ton of homers and win games like that. We’re a team who’s got to scrap it together. It takes those walks from J.P., those type of innings that get going. Late in the game, that’s huge for us. And the energy in the dugout never changed all game, which was fun to be a part of.”
The bottom-of-the-ninth sequence was precisely how Mariners manager Scott Servais drew it up in Spring Training.
Well, sort of. Servais wasn’t wielding a crystal ball six weeks ago revealing that the Mariners would have their best hitters coming to the plate against an Astros club that’s had Seattle’s number since the start of 2019.
But the lineup construction was conducive to the comeback. It began with Crawford, who’s batting in the No. 9 hole every day and who led off with a walk. The shortstop was the Mariners’ regular leadoff hitter last year and he began Cactus League play hitting in that spot.
But the return of Haniger presented a more potent threat at the top of the order, and moving Crawford to the very bottom essentially keeps him in a leadoff mentality since he’s hitting right in front of Haniger when the lineup flips. But Crawford loses one at-bat per game with this construction, and it took buy-in from the 26-year-old shortstop for it to be more effective.
Crawford went just 5-for-39 in Spring Training and was in a 4-for-25 funk to start the regular season. But he’s now on a seven-game hit streak after going 1-for-3 with the walk on Friday.
“It is so, so important with this club, and you saw it play out in the ninth inning tonight,” Servais said. “I tip my hat to J.P. for really embracing that, understanding what it can do for this team, and it’s showing up night after night. The only difference is he gets one less at-bat — that’s it. He’s always hitting in front of Hani and France and Seager, so it’s a really important spot in our lineup, and he’s doing great.”
After Crawford walked, the stakes were even higher for Astros reliever Ryne Stanek. A speedster on first base with no outs and the hot-hitting Haniger — who had his second three-hit game of the week — in the box led to another walk, this one on just four pitches. Haniger has now reached base in all 14 games this year, with a hit in 13 of those.
And that set the stage for France, who, after a pitching change to Ryan Pressley, ambushed a 95.7 mph fastball above the strike zone into the gap for the game-winner.
Haniger and Seager are veterans and one-time All-Stars, so their production is expected. But France has far and away been the offensive headliner among the young foundational pieces that will be here for years to come. Friday marked yet another victory with France’s name stamped on it.
“He’s got a swagger about him,” White said. “He trusts himself. He’s having fun. It seems like he’s always having good at-bats, no matter the situation. He really has faith in himself and believes himself. And I think that’s kind of infectious.”
Call them the comeback kids at the two-week mark of the season. The Mariners have been outscored 23-49 in the first five innings, but they are outscoring opponents, 39-21, in the sixth inning and later. That’s been a huge factor in their first-place standing.