Rosenthal: Mariners J.P. Crawford keeps playoff hopes alive with exit – ‘Our most valuable player’

SEATTLE – Shortly after last season ended, Mariners shortstop J.B. Crawford went to dinner with his agent, Nick Chanock, and the baseball team’s top executives, Jerry Dipoto and Justin Hollander.

During dessert, Dipoto and Hollander brought up the idea of ​​Crawford going to Driveline Baseball during the offseason. Crawford took one bite of the dessert and didn’t hesitate with his answer.

“I’m here, I’ll do it,” he said.

Crawford always believed that Driveline, a data-driven performance training center, was only for pitchers. This is not the case. Hitters are welcome, too, and Driveline’s coaches have helped him learn how to use his legs more and get his body in a better position to drive the ball.

Which brings us to Thursday night at T-Mobile Park, where Crawford was batting with two out, the bases loaded in the ninth inning and the Mariners trailing the Rangers, 2-1. The 2023 season will be over for the Mariners once again.

Crawford, 28, did not come out. Instead, he ended his offensive transformation season with the Mariners’ biggest hit of the year, an opposite-field shot that carried Rangers left fielder Evan Carter over the head for a two-run double.

“I think it comes down to GB’s offseason program getting a little stronger,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said after his team’s 3-2 win. “He probably couldn’t have done that a year ago.”

Crawford’s hitting has him an impressive 10-for-15 with the bases loaded this season. More importantly, it was a lifeline for the Mariners in the American League wild-card race, keeping them from falling behind in two games with three to go.

The Mariners remain at a disadvantage, trailing the Astros by one game and the Blue Jays by two. But if they win Friday night, which is no easy task as rookie Brian Waugh faces Rangers veteran Nathan Eovaldi, the pitching games will turn in their favor. Luis Castillo vs. John Gray on Saturday. The George Kirby vs. Rangers matchup will be announced on Sunday.

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The Astros can stay ahead of the Mariners simply by sweeping the Diamondbacks in Arizona. The Blue Jays can do the same by winning two of three against the Rays. But the Mariners hold the tiebreaker over the Astros and possibly the Jays (based on internal record). On Friday, the Astros will face Zac Gallen’s Diamondbacks, who will try to get his team into the postseason for the first time since 2017.

The magic number for the Diamondbacks is one. Win on Friday, and they will likely scratch No. 2 starter Merrill Kelly on Saturday, easing the Astros’ path. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays will host the Rays, who will only be in adjustment mode after they can no longer win the AL East and are set as AL Wild Card favorites.

Any combination of two Jays wins and a Mariners loss, Toronto qualifies. But at least Seattle still has a chance, a 33 percent chance according to Fangraphs’ latest playoff odds. Without Crawford’s strike, the calculations would have been much more difficult.

American League standings

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Julio Rodriguez’s solo shot to the opposite field off Rangers left-hander Jordan Montgomery in the fourth inning was the Mariners’ first step toward rallying from a 2-0 deficit. But then Service said something about Crawford that might surprise most fans: “For us, day in and day out, he might be our most valuable player.”

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While Service has acknowledged Rodriguez as the team’s star, the Mariners marvel at the growth of Crawford, who they acquired from the Phillies along with Carlos Santana for Jean Segura, Juan Nicasio and James Pazos in December 2018. Crawford won a Gold Glove in 2020. His work ethic is impeccable. He has developed into a leader. This season, he has emerged, seemingly out of nowhere, as an offensive force.

Crawford spent most of April batting ninth, a logical position for a player who previously had a career .691 OPS. But it moved to the top spot on May 10, and has remained there ever since. Not to mention his modest .265 batting average. He leads the AL with 93 walks, giving him a .380 on-base percentage. His 18 homers are double his previous career high. His .815 OPS is 140 points higher than it was a year ago.

When he stepped to the plate in the ninth inning, the Mariners were 0-for-8 with runners in scoring position. Throughout September, they struggled in those situations, batting .217 while giving up 16 of 25. So, even after loading the bases with none against Aroldis Chapman, victory was far from certain. Sure enough, Jonathan Hernandez replaced Chapman and hitters Mike Ford and Jose Rojas were retired.

The game and the season came to Crawford.

“Every time he’s there,” Rodriguez said. “I know he’s going to do something.”

The bat didn’t start well. Hernandez’s first pitch was a slam on a slider that barely scratched the inside of the plate. Crawford, instead of protesting to plate umpire Ryan Blakeney, remained undaunted. In such cases, he said, “I just try to take a few breaths and try to relax in the moment, even though it seems difficult.”

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Hernandez’s second pitch was also a slider, but he stayed well outside. Then he threw a sinker that remained in the middle of the plate. Crawford drove it to left field, unsure if Carter, the Rangers’ fleet rookie, would destroy it. He quickly ran to the first base line thinking: “Sit, sit, sit.”

Sit down I did. The sailors raced to the field, rejoicing in their sudden fortune. The crowd of 43,817 exploded with joy chanting Crawford’s initials, just as they had done while he was batting. Crawford ended his on-field interview with Root Sports’ Gene Mueller shouting: “Let’s go!” Before jumping off the field.

No matter what happens Friday night, this weekend, or the rest of his career, he said he’ll remember the crowd saluting him, the shouts of “JB! JB! JB!”

“There’s no better feeling,” Crawford said. “Some of these moments you will never forget. They will be a vivid memory in my heart and in my head. Once you hear that, there is no better feeling in the world.

His single swing changed everything, keeping the sailors alive, making everything possible. Who do you know? Before this season is over, J.B. Crawford may experience that feeling again.

(Top image by J.P. Crawford: Steve Chambers/Getty Images)

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